Lec Dem – Styles of Veena Playing

Smt. Jayanthi Kumaresh gave a very informative lec dem on “Styles of Veena Playing” at The Music Academy on 27th Dec 2009.  Good communication skills,  good use of technology (powerpoint, audio clips, video clips etc), demonstration of almost all techniques/characteristics spoken about, a well structured presentation, use of humor only at the appropriate places, and adherence to the time allotted made her presentation stand out as the best among all the lec dems I attended during the music season.

Here are some excerpts from the lec dem based on the notes I took. I have taken the liberty to organize these under my own headings.

1. INTRODUCTION – STYLE/ BANI

24 frets, 7 strings, one main resonator and one secondary resonator (given to vainikas in the form of a veena) have been interpreted by vainikas in different ways in the last 300 years according to their musical concepts, emotions and individuality.

A style (of veena playing, today) is defined by

  • Tonal quality
  • Raga bhavam
  • Sahitya bhavam
  • Virtuosity
  • Usage of talam strings
  • Usage of sympathetic strings
  • Adaptation to technology
  • Total presentation

Bani (bANi) is a style that a particular musician or successive generations of musicians

  • has/have felt comfortable with
  • has/have felt suitable to express their individual musical concepts in a way convenient to them
  • is/are convinced of

Styles are either

  • Gayaki – like vocal music
  • Tantrakari – very instrumental
  • Combination of the two above

2. DEMARCATION OF STYLES OF VEENA PLAYING

Styles in violin and mrudangam playing are not demarcated state-wise. However, for veena, there is a state wise demarcation of styles. The reason for this is that patronage for music several years ago was from the royal courts. Great vainikas used to adorn the courts and were patronized by the respective kings. These vainikas stuck very much to their kingdoms and got veenas made with wood that was available predominantly in their state. They also didn’t have much opportunity to interact with vainikas from other states/kingdoms and ended up having more opportunity to develop their own styles of veena playing.

3. STYLES OF VEENA PLAYING

Four styles of veena playing developed this way:

  • Mysore (Karnataka – Patronized by the Wodeyars)
  • Tanjavur (Tamilnadu – Patronized by the Nayaks)
  • Andhra (Patronized in Vijayanagaram)
  • Kerala (Patronized by the Travancore empire)

4. MYSORE STYLE

Representative list of artists:

  • Veena Seshanna
  • Vainika Subbanna
  • Mysore Venkatagiriappa
  • Doraiswamy Iyengar
  • R.S. Keshavamurthy
  • R.K. Suryanarayana
  • Prof Visveshwaran

Characteristics of Mysore style:

  • Clear tone – more treble, less base
  • Preference for straight notes
  • Right hand technique is developed with liberal usage of meettus (stroke inbetween sahitya syllables for added effect)
  • Usage of finger nails instead of plectrums
  • Preference for sharp veena tone
  • Less deflection of strings – maximum pull of two or three notes in one fret
  • Increased instrumental effect to bring out the beauty of veena as an instrument (do not generally believe in playing the vocal way)
  • Split fingering technique
  • Veena structure: Thin top board with neck made of rosewood. Pulling along the strings can cause the weight of the strings to come on the bridge which can cause the bridge to sink in. The structure thus doesn’t allow a lot of pulling of the strings.

Demonstration:

  • Video clips of Vidwan D. Balakrishna and Vidwan R.K. Suryanarayana (use of sympathetic strings) were played to demonstrate the Mysore style. Both these artists didn’t use pickup in the clips played.

5. TANJAVUR STYLE

The Tanjavur style is like a huge banyan tree with the following branches:

5.1 GAYAKI STYLE

Gayaki style is akin to singing on the veena – just play on the veena whatever a voice can sing. No extra instrumental like meettus are used. If a normal voice has a range of 1.5 to 2 octaves, the veena player would stick to playing in that range only.

Representative list of artists:

  • Veena Dhanammal
  • K.P. Sivanandam & Sharada Sivanandam
  • Pichumani Iyer
  • Vidya Shankar
  • Kalpakam Swaminathan
  • Padmavathy Ananthagopalan

Characteristics of Gayaki style:

  • Gracefulness of the nadam (pitch of veenas in Tanjavur style is slightly lower than that of the Mysore style)
  • Less prominence to rhythm based exposition (rhythm based exposition comes from elaborate right hand technique – use of meettus)
  • Replicating vocal music and the dynamics of a voice – the pronunciation and accent on each syllable of the sahitya
  • Elaborate raga alapana replete with gamakas (grace)
  • Leisurely pace

Demonstration:

  • Video clips of Vidwans/Vidushis T. Brinda (no pickup), K.P. Sivanandam & Sarada Sivanandam (presence of pickup, lower pitch, leisurely pace), Pichumani Iyer (higher pitch) and an audio clip of Vidushi Padmavathi Ananthagopalan were played

5.2 KARAIKUDI STYLE

This style has a little bit of right hand elaborate technique.

Representative list of artists:

  • Subbarama Iyer and Sambasiva Iyer (originators)
  • Ranganayaki Rajagopalan
  • Rajeshwari Padmanabhan
  • Prof Subramaniam

Characteristics of Karaikudi style:

  • Balance between right and left hand – have an elaborate right hand technique too
  • Balance between sliding (horizontal) and pulling the string
  • Use of staccato meettu
  • Use of talam strings to denote the beat – to keep talam during the rendition of a composition and to provide instrumental effect (to keep the note active to provide some kind of a sustenance to a note and to fill up spaces between two notes)  – Strumming of the main bass strings for effect and pulse
  • Use of right hand to curb sustain
  • Use of janTa notes in tanam
  • Rare use of playing three notes together (tribhinnam)
  • Split fingering technique

Demonstration:

  • Video clips of Vidwans/Vidushis Sambasiva Iyer and Rajeshwari Padmanabhan (use of right hand movement in tanam to denote the nadais) were played to demonstrate the Karaikudi style

5.3 INDIVIDUAL STYLE

This is the style of Vidwan S. Balachander.

Characteristics of this style:

  • Use of left hand fingers for lateral pull of the strings over the fret (He believed that veena should always sound different from the guitar. He could pull up to one full octave on one fret)
  • Use of the length of sound produced from even a single stroke by packing as many notes as possible before that note dies (He could pull a minimum of 4 notes in a single fret by the deflection of strings)
  • Lot of importance to raga alapana (He believed that raga alapana was the pinnacle of a musician’s creativity)
  • No meettu in the right hand wasted – Every meettu would have a purpose
  • Talam strings would not be used without a meaning. No occasional clang clang of talam strings
  • Veena structure redesigned: Open tuning box, use of machine heads/guitar keys to give more precision to tuning and to take less time for tuning, strings pass on a rod and then come to the keys so that the pulling pressure is not on the key but on the rods, metal sheet inside dhandi, bridge made of acrylic material, top place of bridge made of stainless steel (so that it does not crack under pressure when he pulled the string) and grandeur added by usage of decorations

Demonstration:

  • Video clips of Vidwan S. Balachander were played to demonstrate his style

6. ANDHRA STYLE

Representative list of artists:

  • Veena Venkatramanadas
  • Shanmukeshwara Sastri (?)
  • Emani Sankara Sastri
  • Ayyagari Syamasundaram
  • Chitti Babu

Characteristics of Andhra style:

  • Very elaborate right hand technique
  • Sweet tone
  • Use of high speed passages in rendering the ragam and tanam
  • Variety of meettus and tonal variations (influence of western music, especially on Sri Emani Sankara Sastri’s playing – playing harmony/ seconds, playing on two frets/ strings at the same time)
  • Tanam is replete with very lively, resonant and captivating instrumental effects
  • Structure of veena: Lot of mango wood used

Demonstration:

  • Audio clips of Vidwans Emani Sankara Sastri and Chitti Babu (sweetness of tone, no meettu noise) were played

7.  KERALA STYLE

Representative list of artists:

  • M.K. Kalyanakrishna Bhagavathar
  • Desamangalam Subramanya Iyer
  • K.S. Narayanaswamy
  • Trivandrum Venkataraman
  • Ananthapadmanabhan (more of an individual style that is an amalgamation of different styles)

Characteristics of Kerala style:

  • Gayaki (vocal) style pretty much like Tanjavur bani – Meettu used exactly where sahityam comes
  • Playing of ciTTa tAnam (similar to Mysore style, may be due to the Mysore influence)

Demonstration:

  • Video clips of Vidwans Trivandrum Venkataraman and Ananthapadmanabhan were played to demonstrate this style

8. RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE STRUCTURE OF A VEENA AND THE PLAYING STYLE

The structure of veena has a lot of bearing on the playing style. The Mysore veena has such a thin top board that it doesn’t have any workmanship. The thinner the board, the more the resonance. The Tanjavur bani has a thicker top board with workmanship (and a central hole) that allows a lot of pull. The bridge will take the weight during the pull.

9. ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY

Technology has helped changed styles. The way plucking is done after the advent of the microphone is different from the way it was done in the pre-microphone days. There is more sustain of the notes today. Artists didn’t have to fear harmonics getting pronounced while playing without microphones. Today they have to be more sensitive and for example mute the pancama string while playing hindolam so that pancamam is not heard. Electronic/ digital veenas are also available today.

10. CONCLUSION

Today, each artist has the opportunity to hear other styles of veena playing and incorporate good things from these other styles. The current generation of players is not very particular in sticking to a particular state/style.

Bani is thus a continuous phenomenon of growth and refinement, incessantly reshaping, renewing and revitalizing itself. It is nourished by the insights and wisdom gained by the practitioners of successive generations. “Tradition is addition”.

29 thoughts on “Lec Dem – Styles of Veena Playing

  1. Srinivas says:

    Nice article. I referred to it in a recent post. One additional small correction: The name “Ayyagiri” you refer to in Andhra tradition should be “Ayyagari”.

  2. Manjula S says:

    very informative..thank u so much for the post. one question though..would a student benefit from learning from teachers playing different styles
    , or would it be advisable to continue learning in one style..

  3. Rama says:

    “Jackfruit wood” is typically used in making of Veenas. I am hearing about mango wood for the first time, although I belong to Vijayanagaram Bani learning tradition.
    It’s wonderful to learn about various banis and incorporate the nuances of each in an individual’s style.

  4. Visakhan says:

    Jayanthi has hardly dwelt on the Mysore bani preferring to classify it as “them all”. Veene Sheshanna is regarded as the bani which probably is having the highest practitioners in Karnataka. Veene Subbanna, his main disciple RS Keshavamurthy & his children such RK Suryanarayana play /played a completely different brand of Veene. In the realm of skill and style it is unmatched. Unfortunately like old rival Chinese martial arts, these styles fought with one another. Doreswamy Iyengar’s Sheshanna bani didn’t leave much room for RS Keshavamurthy and thereof at the AIR and that is why this style is not prominent.

    There is also one more thing. I am Tamil. But I don’t like how we try and dominate the music scene. Shame on us.

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