The veena-making industry in Simpadipura

A tradition that has been handed down from one generation to the next, this seemingly non-descript village in Doddaballapura taluk is home to this dying craft



Photo by Rashmi Gopal Rao
Photo by Rashmi Gopal Rao

By Rashmi Gopal Rao

Published: Thu 10 Mar 2022, 10:25 PM

Last updated: Thu 10 Mar 2022, 10:26 PM

The faint sounds of chisels and hammers reverberated in the air as I made my way through a narrow, muddy clearing in the interiors of Simpadipura, a sleepy village about 60 km from Bangalore. Walking in a single file with Manju S P, 40, a native of the village leading the way, I noticed a thick clump of trees neatly cultivated on one side. Manju told me that it was a plantation of mahogany interspersed with silver oak and other trees. As the sounds grew distinct, I knew we were close to the ‘veena makers’, a profession which is practised by about 10 families here. A tradition that has been handed down from one generation to the next, this seemingly non-descript village in Doddaballapura taluk is home to this dying craft.

National instrument

A traditional South Indian stringed musical instrument, the veena is an ancient Indian instrument and the national instrument of India. Also called Saraswati Veena after the Goddess of learning, it is one of the major types of veena today and is mostly used in Carnatic music. The Rudra and Vichitra veena are other types of the veena and are used in Hindustani music. The instrument, which is about four feet long, finds mention in the Vedas and Upanishads and belongs to the lute family.

Made from the wood of the jackfruit tree, a typical veena from South India has a pear-shaped head or resonator called Kudam, which is hollowed out of solid wood, a long hollow neck or the Dandi and the tuning box that curves downwards in the shape of a yali. The latter is a mythical creature that resembles a dragon and is portrayed as part lion, part elephant and part snake. The dandi has 24 brass frets that are set using beeswax and charcoal powder and seven strings whose tightness is adjusted with wooden pegs fixed on the outer sides of the dandi.

A 70-year-old tradition

As we reached the place where the veena makers were in ‘action’, Manju introduced me to his father Papanna, 72, who spoke about how he has been making veenas since his childhood. “I have been doing this since the last 60 years and it is a skill I learnt from my uncle Pennoblayya. It was he who learnt the art of making the veena from one Srinivasachar, a Brahmin living in Bangalore,” says Papanna. He went on to add that Pennoblayya lived in the same vicinity as Srinivasachar and would accompany him while he built veenas. He subsequently brought the craft to this village and passed it on to Papanna and others in his generation. During the heydays, there were about 40 families engaged in the craft and this number has been since fast dwindling.

While Papanna does not actively make veenas any more, he has trained his son Manju and his cousins, who are hunched on the floor, busy carving out resonators from a large log of jackfruit wood. “We have learnt the craft from our father and have chosen to do it as we are not really proficient in any other field. Moreover, we will earn the same amount of money, if not lesser if we choose to migrate outside for work,” says Manju as he gingerly chips away and chisels the log while giving shape to the Kudam. Incidentally, he is the only person in the family to learn the craft as his brother is with the police force in Bangalore and his sister is a teacher in a government school in the city.

But Arun, 28, is happy to learn the craft, which he has done from his father Naganna, 60, who has been making veenas from the past 30 years. “I have done my BA but have taken up veena making as a profession and we make at least eight veenas a month,” says Arun whose younger brother is also into the craft.

Laborious task and challenges galore

Manju tells me it takes about 10-15 days to make a veena, depending on how ornate the work is. They work about 6-7 hours a day to make the basic body which is supplied to stores mainly in Bangalore. The final finishing in terms of setting the frets and strings is done by trained musicians. The cost too depends on the level of detailing on the veena. “We have different categories, such as the plain veena, one with a simple border, one with moderate detailing using plastic cuttings and one with elaborate carvings,” says Umesh, 45, another craftsman who has been building veenas since the last 20 years. He added that the price of their veenas range from Rs10, 000-20,000 per piece. On an average each person can make 2-3 veenas a month.

Lakshman Rao, 65, a veena expert and teacher since the last 50 years says that finesse and precision in terms of measurement, including ratio of kudam to dandi etc, is very important while building the veena. “While the attention to utmost detail is missing in most of the veenas manufactured these days, the veenas of Simpadipura are reasonably good considering there are hardly any places manufacturing the traditional veena today. I have used their veenas for most of my students,” says Rao.

Covid has seen their orders drop by as much as 50 per cent. “It has been challenging but we try to keep ourselves busy,” says Manju, who added that they all do farming as well, to support their livelihoods with ragi (finger millet) and corn being some of the main crops they cultivate. “The rising cost and scarcity of matured jackfruit wood is another challenge as we need logs from trees that are close to hundred years old or more,” says Umesh. Further, these craftsmen have received no support or recognition from the government too.

Buoyant demand for the dying craft

Given the challenges and the fact that veena making is a skill that is also physically demanding, most of the existing craftsmen have not passed on the craft to the next generation. “My children were never interested in learning veena making and hence, I never forced them,” says Umesh, whose son is in the nursing profession while his daughter has completed her Masters in Agriculture. Further, Manju added that the craft will definitely end with him as it was not suitable for his young daughter and he wanted her to study further. “By the time she grows up, these plantations will surely yield much more and help her earn a living,” says Manju, pointing to the bunch of silver oak and mahogany.

This depleting number of skilled craftsmen is indeed a reality and a big worry for people selling the veena to end customers. “Earlier, there were many talented veena makers from Simpadipura during my father’s time, but today we have only a handful. While there is a demand for these veenas, we are not able to meet them due to shortage of skilled craftsmen,” says Raju, 50, proprietor of 70-year-old Veena Works, a famous veena shop in Basavanagudi, Bangalore, that was started by his father.

These words did ring a bell with me and I realised that veena making in Simpadipura has, indeed, hit the low tones and it is a matter of time that the music just falls silent.

wknd@khaleejtimes.com


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