Save the veena

Save the veena

This musical instrument is so ancient that it can be called India’s wealth. Yet, except the BBC, nobody is documenting its sound or legendary practitioners,  Jayanthi Kumaresh tells Shailaja Khanna

Dr Jayanthi Kumaresh, arguably the finest veena player today, has an impressive musical lineage. She is a sixth generation representative of a line of musicians descended musically from the great Tyagaraja; disciple of the illustrious Vidushi Padmavathy Ananthagopalan (incidentally, her aunt) and later, also a disciple of Vidwan S Balachander, who was one of the finest and best known exponents of the instrument in his time. An authority on the Saraswati Veena, on which she has done her doctorate, Jayanthi is unassuming, extremely articulate, with an innate charm. What impresses most is not only the musical matter she has received and extensively internalised but her extensive riyaaz (practice). She is a virtuoso indeed.

About to embark on a tour in the Varanasi region for Spic Macay next week, she talked about her saaz (instrument) and her music.

  • Please tell us about the Saraswati Veena.

All veenas have 24 frets, of 24 notes in two octaves, with all the 12 notes in each octave. It has seven strings, three of which are the chikaaris. It is played with two mizrabs (plectrum) and the main playing wire is the fourth string,  not the first. Regarding playing styles, I would say there are four classifications — Thanjavur, Mysore, Andhra and Kerala.

  • Tell us about your training on this extremely difficult instrument.

Becoming a musician is an intensive process — just like when you become a doctor. You spend that many years studying and interning. Similarly as a musician, you need to have that many years behind you, at least 15 years of intensive practice, study  and listening. You attend the gurus’ concerts, learn and then practise. We also have to learn Sanskrit, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam to understand the compositions.

Our taalim is not performance-oriented. The pursuit of knowledge is as important as practising, both the right and left brain is used, our music is very cerebral. Virtuosity also is pursued simultaneously.

My guru, Smt Padmavathy Anantagopalan, was very strict with me. She is one of the greatest gurus ever. She was inspired by Balachanderji and later sent me to learn from him too. She saw to my main training personally. Everyday I was to wake at 4 am, practise scales, compositions, manodharma (improvisations), then listen to a concert, then analyse every aspect of it. It was a favour that in between she allowed me to go to school — she did not bother with my homework and so on. These days I teach my students like they are my friends. Perhaps my students would not even have lasted two days with my aunt. I was not allowed to write notations, had to learn by heart and every day I had new things to learn.

  • Was it necessary to make you the artist you are?

We will know the answer in another 10 years or so as currently there are several very promising young artists who have not learnt as much as I have; nowadays there is much more exposure, technology helps you learn but it’s a double-edged sword. Let’s see, we will know in a few years if the new system of learning is working.

  • With so much physical training, why did you feel the need to study the instrument?

My guru wanted me to study the veena and understand it academically. To understand the craft, the history, the different schools of playing. She insisted I do research in it. She has left me a wonderful collection of veenas and some truly rare recordings.

  • They say Carnatic music is totally devotional. Would you agree?

I would not say that; no, the compositions are not all devotional, they are on various subjects like child birth, feminism, patriotism, nature, the navarasas or emotions), Jaidev’s ashtapadis, planets, astronomy and mythology — there is so much!

  • Percussion is a key element, isn’t it?

In Carnatic music, there are 175 talas, 35 used often, only about 10 used very regularly. But there are many which may not be commonly used; to master these, you need to practise doing double, half-cross rhythms. There is a lot of science and mathematics behind each composition. As a veena player, because we have the rhythm strings, we are aware of the rhythm all the time and don’t need the mridangam accompanists to show us tala. In fact, in the Carnatic tradition, the percussionist’s job is not to provide beat for you — he, too, is doing improvisations alongside. We are used to cross rhythms, playing in cycles of 11 or 13; it’s quite easy for us to pick up a rhythm of different genres. There is a saying, Shruti (micro note) Mata, Laya (rhythm) Pita. (Melody is the Mother, Rhythm the Father)

  • The Carnatic raga system has the 72 Melakarta ragas or main ragas. Tell us more.

Melakarta ragas are those which have the same seven notes in the ascending and descending scales. There are 36 ragas with the shuddha madhyam and 36 with prati madhyam. Each Melakarta has several janya or subsidiary ragas. So there are literally hundreds of ragas; among the more important ones, we consider Todi, Shankarabharanam, Kamboji, Bhairavi Karaharapriya and Kalyani to be the main ragas. In the north also, there are six parent ragas. One is taught to elaborate these ragas more.

The nine rasas (emotions) are represented in our ragas too. For example, Sahana, Rewati and Sama are bhakti (devotion) rasa ragas.

  • What do you think really needs to be done in the field of classical music?

We should have a national classical orchestra, which is called upon to perform at all great international events like Asian Games, summits and state visits. Our classical music is one of the greatest traditions of our country; it needs to be exposed at the national level. In my private capacity as an artist, I have started one as it’s important that the creative aspect of an orchestra is handled by an artiste, not an institution.  We used several instruments from the north and the south and we composed several pieces — Kashmir to Kanyakumari, Himalayan Heights and Gangeshwari — there were nine compositions, relating to only Indian themes. Each instrumentalist was allowed to improvise during the composition as improvisation is so much a part of our music.

We have so many institutions in our country that are devoted to promoting the arts but I feel more needs to be done. The veena is an ancient instrument, India’s national instrument. There should be a centre for the veena and training. This will  create job opportunities not only for the craftsmen but also for players. Another aspect is the preservation of our living legendary exponents of music — we need to document their music. Speaking of the veena, it’s sad that only BBC makes films on the instrument and its main practitioners. No film has been made on my guru, who is really a living legend; she is 83 today and still plays at concerts.



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