Instrumental music has been an integral part of Indian culture for centuries. The “Saraswati Veena” has become synonymous with the tradition and culture of India. Goddess Saraswati, the Goddess of learning and the arts, is never seen without a Veena. Although string instruments of almost all types are commonly referred to as “Veena”, there are multiple types of Veenas. Some of the main types of Veena are the Rudra Veena, the Saraswati Veena, the Vichitra Veena and the Chitra Veena. Veenas are also known by the town where they are made, for example, Tanjore Veena, Mysore Veena, etc. Veena players are often referred to as Beenkars or Vainikas.
The Saraswati Veenas made in Bobbili, in Vizianagaram district of Andhra Pradesh, are referred to as Bobbili Veena. The town has a unique style of playing the Veena, the “Bobbili veena sampradayam”, developed over three centuries. The history of making these veenas dates back to the founder of Bobbili Kingdom, established in the 17th Century by Pedda Rayudu, when playing Veena was an important activity in social events. Veenas are made of jackfruit wood which is lightweight and possesses qualities like excellent reverberation, clear grain lines, great durability and minimum swelling in moisture. The uniqueness of the Bobbili Veenas is that they are carved out of a single log of wood. Such Veenas are also called ekandi Veena.
The Bobbilli Veena have been traditionally supplied by Sarwasiddi community craftsmen. They obtained GI status for the instrument in 2012 and thus, protected it from extinction. The Bobbili veena is the second veena instrument in the country to be awarded the GI after The Thanjavur Veena. But Bobbili Veena has remained a rural, small-scale industry. There are around 30 families in a small village called Gollapalli near Bobbili, that are dependent on making this musical instrument for their livelihood. Bobbili and Vadada have now become more famous for producing ornamental miniature Veenas rather than the actual Veenas.
Sarvasidhi Achutanarayana is the grandson of Sarvasidhi Acchanna, who invented the famed Bobbili Veena during the tenure of Raja Ravu Venkata Kumar Krishna Ranga Rao, the 12th king of the kingdom of Bobbili. Carrying on with the family tradition, Sarvasidhi Achyutha Narayana still keeps busy crafting these unique musical instruments at the age of 76 and guides the next generation in the art. But he says that notwithstanding its fame for its unique treble, the instrument no more enjoys its former status. “The professional Veena is vanishing, with not many people willing to learn it. Hence, we are now manufacturing the miniature versions which are gifted as mementos and memorabilia, to save the dying art.”
A Bobbili Veena will take an average of 20 days to be made. Veena making is not a skill that can be mastered quickly; it’s not an instrument that anybody can make. First the craftsmen will select the jackfruit wood from the outskirts of the city. He will then create the bridge or ‘gori’ (the round part of Veena); a wooden sheet is later used to cover the bridge. Then a variety of designs, such as Goddess Saraswathi and peacock, are carved on it. A wide fretted neck is later attached to this round body. Pumpkin is used as a resonator to increase the duration of the note played, and also for balancing the Veena to stand still when musician is not holding the instrument. All the fibrous matter in the pumpkin is removed and dried in sun for around 3 days before attaching it on the underside of the neck..
A pipe is screwed to the top of the pumpkin and connected to dandi to transfer the sound to pumpkin. A major change in the material has occured in the decorative inlay work, which used to be done on elephant tusks, now replaced by plastic. The most difficult & time-consuming task in manufacturing a Veena is embedding the 24 metal frets on a hardened wax. The artisan uses brass plates and strings are tied to them. He has to make sure that the tune of one string is perfectly in-sync with the other. The smallest mistake on the part of the artisan will spoil the instrument. But when perfection is maintained, the music that resonates from this instrument of Saraswati is divine and magical.