Friday, September 15, 2006

vinas of antiquity     [music research]

I've stumbled on a curious website with an article about the vina, written by a Dr. Rajiv Trivedi. He tosses out wisps and hints of info about the evolution of various forms of vina. From the reference to Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar (who passed away in 1990), cleraly this text was written some time ago. Ah but it refers to the "late" Gopal Shankar Misra (who passed away in 1979), suggesting it was written between 1979 and 1980. Meanwhile, the arcane topic partly concerns bygone musical instruments perhaps not seen in this world since some millenia -- a vina shaped like a tortoise? And one formed like a monkey's head? And then, this Maharshi Bharat -- surely from an antiquity far before the 13th century. So, is this implying an anachronism? The text seems a bit too terse to grasp every implication. The very first sentence seems almost a poetic conceit -- that the voice itself is the "first vina"! (but the sentence seems somewhat marred by an apparent confusion of the English words "cords" and "chords"; one assumes "vocal cords" to be intended. As such, it's a notable obervation or thought: that the "vocal cord" is the first "stringed" instrument!)
Of all instruments that produce music, foremost is the Gatra Veena, where the vocal chords resonate musically. All other types of Veena were naturally later development inspired by it. Ancient forms that find mention in Shladhyaya Shabda Sutra of Veda are Kaand, Alabu and Sheel Veena. Among the ancient most are Kapisheersh, Karkari and Varanya Veena, also called Baan Veena. These find mention in RigaVeda.

Almost all plays of Kalidas, Bhasa and Shoodrak mention Veena. Legend associates Maharshi Bharat with MattaKokila, a variant popular during thirteenth century. The seven stringed Veena known as Sapta-tantri was named Chitra by Bharat. The nine-stringed veena was called Vipanchi.

Despite varying views, experts have concluded that Chitra and Vipanchi could be played with either finger or plectrum or with both. Kaand and Alabu of Vedic period evolved as Ghoshika and Mahati during Bharat’s period and later as Kinnari, Nakuli and Sapta-tantri. Some variants drew their name due to their shapes. Kachhapi resembled a tortoise and Kapisheersh was shaped like a monkey’s head. While today Saraswati Veena and Gottu-vadyam are in vogue in the southern part of India, Rudra Veena and Vichitra Veena are the major forms in North.

Apart from well-documented forms of Veena like Ektantri, Nakuli, Chitra, Vipanchi etcetera, there are 49 other forms of this stringed instrument that find mention in ancient texts. In pace with changing times and varying needs addition, alteration and modification in structure and playing techniques resulted in the numerous avatars of Veena. Due to its resemblance to tenth century Arabic folk instrument Rabab both of whose variants were played with bow, Chitra Veena was dubbed Rabab during the Mogul period. Tansen and his descendents developed it into an instrument for solo performance on level with already established Been. There were several prominent Beenkar-s patronized by Malawa royalty.

Well known contemporary Rudra Veena players are late Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and Ustad Asad Ali Khan. Since the very beginning, the preferred percussion for accompaniment is Pakhawaj or Mridangam. Performers of Rampur Gharana and Banares contributed to bring the Veena playing techniques to its zenith. Modeled on Dhrupad, Dr. Lalmani Misra of Varanasi developed a special style for Vichitra Veena called Misrabani. The southern styles of Veena playing popularized by composers like saintly Thyagraj, Muttu Swami Deekshitar and Shyamu Shastri were an attempt to conserve tradition and history. Karnatic musicians follow these compositions even today.

Vichitra Veena is a complete instrument incorporating full vocal range with more than four octaves. The four main playing strings and five secondary strings (chikaris), played openly with the little finger for a drone effect along with 13 sympathetic strings underneath endow it with unparalleled richness of sound. Any given Raga finds expression in entirety. To begin, all strings are first tuned to the notes of the raga to be played. Two plectrums (mizrab) identical to those used for sitar are worn on the middle and index fingers of the right hand to pluck the strings, and a glass ball (batta) is moved with the left across the main strings to create melody (there can be a distance of up to two inches between notes). Olive oil or butter is put on the strings to ease the playing action. Vichitra Veena had almost disappeared from the music scene in twentieth century. It was revived by Dr. Lalmani Misra who developed a special style Misrabani for playing it. Noted performers in the modern times are Pt. Gopal Krishna Sharma and Late Dr. Gopal Shankar Misra.

Vichitra Veena finds its southern counter-part in Gottu Vadyam. Vichitra Veena has evolved into two popular forms: Sitar and Sarod. However, it remains the only Veena to express three Gram-s, 21 Moorchhana-s and 22 Shruti-s, an ability it inherited from Ektantri, the sole Veena authenticated by ancient texts. Though the notes are eternally the same, the desirability of their combination changes with each discerning generation.


Speaking of things stumbled on, here's a curious musicological text. It's a section from, evidently, a hefty tome entitled "Musical Mathematics: A Practice in the Mathematics of Tuning Instruments and Analyzing Scales." The underlying website is that of The Chrysalis Foundation, evidently a San Francisco-based non-profit organization dedicated to development of new musical instruments based on principles of just intonation (or the like) -- for instance the diamond marimba, and the 124-stringed Chrysalis (which sounds, in an audio sample, like a hammered dulcimer). (The sample I'm enjoying, the spoken-word-with-music thing, "A Child Said," nicely draws from a passage from Whitman's Leaves of Grass.)


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