India's Ancient Thanjavur Veena Musical Instrument to Get GI Status Soon

By Dr K. Parameswaran
The author is Assistant Director, PIB, Madurai.

Thanjavur Veena

Madurai, Feb 18, 2013 (Washington Bangla Radio / PIB India): The Thanjavur Veena - one of the most ancient and revered musical instruments of South India - is all set to receive the Geographical Indication tag (GI). Dr Chinnaraja.G.Naidu, Geographical Indications Registry, Chennai revealed that the application for GI Tag for the Thanjavur Veena is in the examination stage and that the formalities in respect of registration of Geographical Indication status is expected to be complete by March 2013 itself.

The Veena, in general, has been described as a complete instrument. The four playing strings and the three drone strings of the veena together provide all the basic components of classical music – sruti and laya – all in a single instrument. There is no other instrument with this quality.

The noble prize winning physicist Sir C.V. Raman has described the veena as having a unique construction. The string terminations at both ends are curved and not sharp. Also, the frets have much more curvature than any other instrument. Unlike in guitar, the string does not have to be pushed down to the very base of the neck and thus the possibility of generating a rattling sound is completely avoided. This design enables a continuous control over the string tension, which produces more harmonics than any other instrument.

What is GI?

A Geographical Indication is used to identify agricultural, natural or manufactured goods originating in a particular area. The Geographical Indications Registry has specified that such goods must have special qualities or characteristics unique to the geographical indication.

The GI differs from a Trade Mark in that a trade mark is a sign which is used in the course of trade and it distinguishes goods or services of one enterprise from those of other enterprises, while a Geographical Indication is used to identify goods having special characteristics originating from a definite geographical territory.

While registration of Geographical indication is not compulsory, it offers better legal protection for action for infringement. The registration of a Geographical Indication is usually for a period of ten years. It can also be renewed for a further period of ten years each. If a registration is not renewed after a period of ten years, the particular item is liable to be removed from the GI register.

The application for GI Tag for the Thanjavur Veena was submitted by The Thanjavur Musical Instruments Workers Co-operative Cottage Industrial Society Limited, facilitated by the Tamil Nadu State Council for Science & Technology. The application was submitted in June 2010.

Uniqueness of Thanjavur Veena

The handiwork of the Thanjavur Veena is unique to the artisans who have domicile in an around the town of Thanjavur. This town lies on the South East coast of Tamil Nadu in the culturally distinct and predominantly agrarian and rural Thanjavur district.

The variety of wood used to make the Thanjavur Veena is from a particular strain of matured Jackwood tree, which is unique to Thanjavur area. The craftsmanship and the skill in making the functional resonator (Kudam) of the veena is also unique to the Thanjavur Veena.

What is a Thanjavur Veena?

The Thanjavur Veena is about four feet in length. It has a large, round body with a thick, wide neck, the end of which is carved into the head of a dragon. A small resonator is attached to the underside of the neck. Thanjavur Veena has 24 fixed frets (mettu), so that all ragas could be played. These 24 metal frets are embedded with hardened bees-wax, mixed with charcoal powder.

There are two types of Thanjavur Veena - Ekantha Veena and Sada Veena. Ekantha Veena is carved from a single block of wood, while Sada Veena has joints. Both the types of veenas are beautifully painted and carved and this makes them unmistakably distinct and elegant from other veenas.

History

Veena is one of the three celestial musical instruments, having references from Vedic times (along with the Flute and the Mridangam). The fact that Saraswati, the goddess of Art, is always identified with Veena, markedly symbolizes that music (synonymous with veena) has primary importance among all forms of fine arts.

Sage Narada, who is believed to have blessed St. Thyagaraja with his treatise on Sangeetha Shastra (St. Thyagaraja has acknowledged the guru status of Narada), was himself an exponent in veena and played one called Mahathi.

Mahakavi Kalidasa is believed to have commenced his poetic career with the famous sloka on Saraswathi, beginning “Manikya veenam upalalayantheem. There are five references to the veena in his Navarathnamala – a composition of 9 verses.

The valuable publication of Publications Division of the Government entitled “Musical Instruments of India” (by S Krishnaswami, 1993) says that Raghunatha Nayak, Ruler of Thanjavur (1614 - 1632), and his prime minister and musicologist Govinda Dikshita modified the then existing veena - the Saraswati Veena - with 24 fixed frets (mettu), so that all ragas could be played. Hence the name “Thanjavur Veena” and to this day Ragunatha Nayak is considered to be the Father of the Thanjavur Veena.

It is also of note that the earlier version the veena had less than twenty movable frets which had to be adjusted. The fixing of the frets (twelve for each octave) paved the way for the development of the famous scheme of seventy-two melakartas of the Carnatic music system. Thus, it can even be said that the style of presenting Carnatic music has developed largely around the Thanjavur Veena technique.

How is Thanjavur Veena Made?

The process of carving the Thanjavur Veena is pain staking, delicate, time consuming and involves superior craftsmanship. It is usually made from the wood of the Jackwood tree. The body is painted and engraved with delicate wood work which usually consists of pictures of gods and goddesses or motifs of flowers and birds. This gives the Thanjavur Veena its unique and elegant beauty of appearance.

Famous Veena Artists

One of the most famous artists of the Carnatic style of the early 20th century is exclusively known for her particularly captivating style of veena playing. She was so synonymous with veena that she was called Veena Dhanammal. The department of Posts had brought out a stamp in honor of her prowess last year.

The Karaikkudi brothers – one of whom used to play the veena placing it in the vertical position – were well known veena players of the yester years.

Emani Sankara Shastri, Doraiswami Iyengar, the mercurial genius Balachander, M K Kalyanakrishna Bhangavather, K Venkataraman and M Unnikrishnan from Kerala were all well known veena players of the 20th century.

The art of veena playing is held aloft in the 21st century too through such gifted artists like Prince Rama Varma (of the Travancore royal family), Gayatri, Ananthapadmananbhan, Dr Jayanthi Kumaresh and a host of others.

(PIB Feature)