The Last Notes Of The Thanjavur Veena

The music industry may be booming but this ancient instrument is the victim of changing times

Published: Apr 9, 2012 06:09:46 AM IST
Updated: Apr 3, 2012 04:19:11 PM IST

Every day, N Thamilmani walks from his home, passing a tree, a coconut vendor, one or two ambling cows and his cousin’s house, to take a narrow passageway to his workshop. His workshop, in the heart of Thanjavur, is made up of two small rooms; these are separated by a veranda that lets in a flood of light during the day. Here, he spends his time chipping away at jackfruit wood—that could easily pass for a mace in the hands of a Neanderthal—and fashioning it into a veena, as graceful as the one that sits on the lap of Saraswati in Ravi Varma’s paintings.

His room is so cramped with things—pieces of wood and tools of his trade—that whenever he gets up to fetch a pencil sharpener or a box of Fevicol glue from the shelf on the other side, his assistant has to stop his work and alter the position of the veena he is working on, to make way. The tiles in the roof look as if they won’t stand another monsoon.

The tools look old and weary. Everything seems to be in contrast to the beauty and promise of the fresh and intricately-carved veena that will come out of that room.

Sometimes, Thamilmani says, he thinks of yet another contrast: Between the days of his father and his own. He comes from a family of aacharis (‘wood craftsman’ in Tamil). He learnt his craft from his father, as the members of his family have done for generations. (His cousin next door is an aachari too.) He is as dedicated to the task of making veenas as his father was, but, adjusted for the cost of living, makes less money, feels less appreciated and is less healthy. What pains him most is a nagging fear—that the art and craft of veena-making might disappear from Thanjavur with his generation.

Each veena, while adhering to the standards set by Govinda Dikshithar, is unique; each has the stamp of its maker, says S Palanivel, 74, who apprenticed for over 40 years with Narayana Achari, one of the most respected masters of the earlier generation. Many older veenas are still around, getting better with age. Says Mahadeva Achari, another veena-maker. “The wood is yellow now,” he says, pointing to a veena under construction, “But as it ages, it turns dark red or brown. The quality of the sound becomes better. Its value goes up.”

For the aacharis, though, the opposite seems to be true. A generation ago, they were reasonably well off, their work somehow seemed to keep them in good health, and they had a social standing that was emotionally satisfying.

Many of them lived and worked in the central part of Thanjavur, once the capital of the Chola empire, and about a kilometre away from Periya Kovil, (the ‘Big Temple), a thousand-year-old symbol of the kingdom’s wealth and power. They lived in large houses, with the backyards stretching out to the street behind. Now, their houses—divided and sub-divided, sold or rented out—are dark, small and old.

“My forefathers had discipline.” says Thamilmani. “They started their work at sunrise and wound up as the sun went down. If they worked on the wood one week, they worked on stag horn the next. Wood generates ushnam [heat], and stag horn is inherently cool. These properties balanced each other out and kept them in good health. Now, we don’t use stag horn, we use plastic. I work on wood all the time. Sometimes, the work stretches late into night. That has given me all sorts of ailments—blood pressure, sugar, what not.”

There was always more to the art than making money or keeping good health. Even a generation ago, these craftsmen felt they were a part of an ancient tradition that kept art and music alive.

During his father’s time, when students bought their instruments, they made the trip to Thanjavur, accompanied by their teachers and parents, from far afield: Chennai, Bangalore, Kochi. The student would prostrate himself, or herself at the feet of the veena-maker, take his blessings and then make payment with the cash on a plate, along with fruit, coconuts and betel leaves.

Image: Raju Patil for Forbes India

Today’s customers don’t bother with the ritual trip to Thanjavur. They buy their instruments from retailers. These retailers send their representatives to Thanjavur to place orders and pick them up. The aacharis have to negotiate prices with these retailers and distributors, and they are not sure if they are getting a good deal.

A mere generation ago, a veena fetched twice the amount it took to make one. While prices have risen, and the process has remained unchanged, costs have gone up significantly and margins have shrunk.

Thanjavur has grown, swallowing up neighbouring villages. Jackfruit groves have given way to construction. For wood that was once available from nearby villages, the aacharis now have to go to Panrutti, half-way to Chennai, which adds to costs. Why doesn’t the community plant more trees to ensure that they have a sustainable source of raw material? Well, they consider that to be a different business, one they don’t feel inclined to get into.

Then, it takes about a month to make a veena and, typically, the aachari worked on it from start to finish, with the help of one or two apprentices.

These labourers are hard to find: Ordinary carpentry is more lucrative for them, earning them as much as Rs 500 a day.

What about family members, the heirs to the tradition? It’s hard work with low returns, a prospect that doesn’t entice the next generation. “They are not keen,” Mahadeva says, “and we also don’t want them to get into this. They will be better off doing something else.” One of his sons has a job in Chennai and the other in Singapore, working in a manufacturing unit.

The irony—the tragedy, even—is that interest in music is picking up now. Music programmes on TV have a huge fan following, and the celebrity status a reality show can confer on a performer, even if it’s fleeting, is immediate and sometimes lucrative. AR Rahman’s two Oscars in 2009 generated a new wave of interest in music among youngsters. There are more retailers of musical instruments than ever before.

The aacharis of Thanjavur, though, aren’t exactly celebrating. Business is still dismal.

Thamilmani’s father sold every veena he made direct to the customer. Thamilmani sells one in 20 that way; the rest go to retailers and distributors. The retailers take a 30-40 percent cut, but he lives with that because they also give him a much-needed advance—loans from banks aren’t easily got, he says.

For the retailer, the Thanjavur veena is not the only source of revenue; it isn’t even the only veena variant on offer.

Devi Nandabalan, who started playing the veena about a year ago, says she bought hers in a music shop in Chennai. “They said it’s a Thanjavur veena, but who knows? I was in a hurry. Perhaps, I should have waited. I should have gone down to Thanjavur to pick one up.”

Harini Prabhu, who has been playing the instrument since she was seven, says that typically a music retailer is likely to first show a miniature veena (in which the kudam is about half the size) or an electronic veena which mimics the sound without using strings, or a portable veena that can be disassembled for easy transport. Often, she says, the Thanjavur veena is the last one to be shown.

The problem is that the traditional veena has disadvantages. Its size makes it difficult to carry around. It’s also a tougher instrument to maintain; heat and dampness affect the wood, the frets tend to dislocate on the wax; the sorakkai is prone to damage.

OFF KEY N Thamilmani worries thaat his skills will die with his generation
Image: Raju Patil for Forbes India
OFF KEY N Thamilmani worries thaat his skills will die with his generation

Above all, it’s not an easy instrument to master. Musicologist Ludwig Pesch writes, “On the one hand, playing the veena can be said to require rational analytic thinking and well planned movements on account of its sheer size; on the other hand, the veena calls for being played with a gentle, feminine touch in order to make its music come alive. The challenge is to play the veena in such a manner as to convey a raga in a mellifluous [tone].”

That comes only with a lot of practice and patience, says Harini. Frustrated by initial results, some people give up the veena to go for easier instruments. Harini, even with years of practice, sometimes feels it’s just too difficult. But, once you have spent a few years with the veena—experienced the joys of small discoveries, the spiritual moments of feeling one with the instrument and the music that emanates from it—you are bound to it forever, she says.  

Such bonding takes time. Everything takes time, when it comes to the veena, Palanivel says. It takes time to make a good veena, it takes time to play it well, and of course, it takes time to learn to appreciate it.

The golden age of the Thanjavur veena is gone, he says. It belongs to an age when people took time to pause, and to appreciate. Palanivel himself spent 40 years as an apprentice under his master. After his master passed away, he continued in his tradition, paying attention to each and every part that went into a veena. He would go to the grove to select the right tree, he would check the wood for any blemishes and only when it passed that test, would he start his work on it.

He stopped making veenas some years ago, because the customers who came to him didn’t seem to care. “I feel it is far better to not make a veena, than to make a veena that’s not good enough, even if there are people to buy it.”

Even a generation ago, these craftsmen felt they were a part of an ancient tradition that kept art and music alive

Making the Music
The standard was set by Govinda Dikshithar, a music scholar in the court of the Nayaks who ruled Thanjavur in the 17th century.

Traditionally, Vainikas (veena players) who were particular about the quality of the sound would even accompany the aacharis to select the trees from which their instrument would be made. A tree in the vicinity of a temple was the Holy Grail: They believed vibrations from the temple bell and the chanting gave the wood a superior quality.  

At the first cut, a veena looks like a crude mace made for a Flintstone movie. But as the craftsmen work on it, chipping away the cave of the resonator and the fingerboard, axes and hatchets give way to scalpels and chisels, as they make intricate carvings, adorned with stag horn inlays. Once it’s polished, the sorakkai, an additional resonator made of papier-mâché, and tuning pegs are attached. Next, a carved Yale (a mythical creature, lion-headed, with tusks, a recurring motif in South Indian religious art) is affixed to the end of the fingerboard. Then comes the setting of the wax, the placing of the brass frets, and the bridge, followed by stringing and tuning the instrument. For a vainika, this is the most important part as far as music goes.

When a veena leaves the workshop, it is not necessarily perfect; that comes from usage. Veena Gayathri, the foremost exponent of the instrument today, says the tone is usually a little muffled initially. But it would “eventually open up through hours of intense practice.”

Ekantha Veenas, regarded as the best kind, are fashioned out of a single piece of wood.  

There have been attempts to use different types of material, modify the design but for the hardcore vainika and the music connoisseur, the results were not as satisfying.

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(This story appears in the 13 April, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Anuja Hariharan

    Lovely article! Especially these lines - \"But, once you have spent a few years with the veena—experienced the joys of small discoveries, the spiritual moments of feeling one with the instrument and the music that emanates from it—you are bound to it forever\" - quoted by Harini We got one shipped one to Germany last month, and the music filling the house is just immeasurable. Honestly, it is not impossible if people still insist on authentic Veenas. And the acharas should be more confident of their art and business, and not sell it to retailers at a bad deal for themselves, and retain the exquisity of their art :)

    on Jun 2, 2012
  • Bvs Prathap

    Nicely Researched Story....

    on Apr 11, 2012
  • Prasad Hv

    Wonderful article. Nostalgic. Pressures of modernization let's such great arts and talents fade away. The article states that the word "Achary" is a Tamil word, it is not correct. The word Achary is a Sanskrit word.

    on Apr 10, 2012