Author - ITC SRA
A rare instrument almost on the verge of extinction, the veena symbolizes Indian ethos and has sociological and cultural connotations. In ancient India, the term veena was used in a generic sense, referring to a stringed instrument. In the Vedic period, the skill and construction of the veena in India was highly developed. In the Natya Shastra, Bharat has given elaborate descriptions of stringed instruments. He speaks of three types of veenas – mukhya or main, anga or secondary and pratyanga or subsidiary.
Until the 6th century, stringed instruments were not fretted. The first fretted veena, created by Matunga, the writer of Brihaddeshi, was called the kinnari veena. The Rudra Veena which has its roots in ancient times and which probably obtained its finals shape towards the beginning of the Mughal period has evolved from the kinnari veena. The main difference being in the arrangement of frets and the number of gourds used. The ektantri veena which had its roots in Bharat’s pratyanga type of veena also attained prominence around this time and reigned supreme till about the thirteenth century. The popularity of the ektantri veena waned between the 13th and the first half of the nineteenth centuries, giving way to the kinnari veena
The Vichitra Veena emerged towards the beginning of the twentieth century and is descended from the ektantri veena or the ghoshvati veena as it was known, prior to the 6th century. It shared the same sound production techniques as the ektantri. The credit of giving the vichitra veena its present shape and developing its modern style of playing goes to Abdul Aziz Khan, a former sarangi player of Patiala. Today, the vichitra veena remains a rare instrument, with not many artists who play this instrument.
In general appearance and structure, the rudra and vichitra veena look similar – the main difference being the production of sound.
The rudra veena adapted itself to the style of Dhrupad singing, prevalent in those days. The been (rudra veena) has always been the instrument of Indian classical music and was traditionally studied by all dhrupad students until the 19th century. It was often played in accompaniment to vocal music but was never considered lower in stature. In due course of time, it became established as an independent solo instrument and was capable of producing all the finer nuances and intricate embellishments of vocal music. Most of the earlier veena players were from Gwalior and a branch of Tansen’s family, essentially veena players, came to be known as Seni beenkars. The last descendant of the Seni beenkars was Dabir Khan who died sometime ago. Mohammad Wazir Khan of Rampur, grandfather of Dabir Khan and illustrious teacher to Alauddin Khan and Hafiz Ali Khan was one of the greatest Veena maestros.
Apart from Seniyas and their disciples, there were other streams of the been tradition in different courts of northern India. Prominent among them was the Jaipur beenkar gharana. Asad Ali Khan, the representative of this gharana today, is the only beenkar of present times who still plays the been in its traditional style.