The Chembur Fine Arts Society, one of the foremost cultural organisations in Mumbai, is going places with its innovative and pioneering efforts in promoting and propagating Indian music and dance. The recent thematic annual conferences on Carnatic music have certainly caught the imagination of the music-loving public. The last three years have witnessed detailed discussions and demonstrations on the Musical instsruments of Carnatic music. The first conference, on String instruments, was held in February 1999. Spread over two days, it highlighted in detail the various stringed instruments used in Carnatic music. Whereas the first day was dedicated to string instruments of Indian origin, like the Vina, Chitravina etc, the second day covered instruments of western origin that have been successfully adopted in Carnatic music (Violin, Guitar, Mandolin etc). The participants included top-notch instrumentalists. Wherever possible, different schools and styles were also featured. The conferences in 2000 and 2001 covered Wind instruments and Percussion instruments respectively.

In the coming weeks, Carnatica will bring you the papers presented by the participants at these Conferences.




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- By E Gaayathri

Bharata’s book, Natyasastra, is regarded as a sacred book and was called the fifth Veda. The sage was fully aware of the importance of instrumental music, for although he believed that vocal music was prior to instrumental music, he also realized that the scientific investigation of music began only when musical instruments reached a particular stage of development. The Vina, a lute sacred to Saraswati, the Goddess of learning and fine arts, played a crucial part in this investigation. Bharata, therefore gave careful instructions about the playing of this instrument and it emerges that the Vina of Bharata’s time was very different from today’s Vina.

Amir Khusro, born in 1234, transformed the Vina into Sitar. He changed the order of the strings and made the frets movable. Vina is a very ancient instrument dating back in less developed form to Vedic times.

In the book, The Legacy of India, published by the Oxford University Press, it has been said that Bharata has dealt with Vina as an instrument that was capable of stringing as mentioned in the Vedas and as played by Pancha Sigan (page 329). The difference between the Vina and the ancient Tamil instrument Yazh has also been explained. Though there are many similarities between these instruments, there are also perceptible differences. Yazh, kuzhal, muzhavu are all Tamil words whereas Vina is a Sanskrit word.

Dr. V Premalatha in her book, Music Through The Ages has stated, "From the description it is evident in the first place that the Vina that was common in the time of King Harsha was an instrument with open strings like the bow-shaped harp. Therefore in the technique of Vina playing in the early stage the plectral technique was developed. The plectral technique by the fingers of one or two hands continued till the time of Sarangadeva in 13th century AD. It was only after Ramamatya in 16th century AD had constructed the modern Vina that Vina playing involved both plectral technique as well as a manipulation of the strings by the fingers of the left hand".

From the Sangeeta Ratnakara it is obvious that Sarangadeva must have been familiar with the eighteen kinds of Yazh which prevailed for centuries over Tamil region. The Yazh disappeared slowly after the 11th century. The Vina in his time had not emerged from the harp stage. Gamaka embellishments was yet in embryo. Those nurtured in the 19th century traditions of the post-Tyagaraja era may find it hard to imagine a stage when even Tevaram music was shorn of Gamaka, the soul of Carnatic music.

Dr. Premalata again has stated in her book that the biography of Tirugnanasambandar marks an important stage in the development of the concept of gamaka (page 209).

After the freted Vina the strings of the Yazh were tuned to the sruti of the notes of the suddha scales. Since it was a plain instrument there was no provision to manipulate to grace the quarter tones figuring in Megharaga Kurinji. This must have led the people to leave behind the harp and to improve the finger broad instrument, popularly known as Vina.

The history of Tirugnanasambandar is a very important one in the evolution and development of gamakas. Only during that period the Vina with frets also was developed. In the Yazh the sruti was tuned for only the fundamental melam named Chembalai. It was not possible to play the intricate wave-length and gamaka-s and the raga Megharagakurinji. Hence Yazh disappeared and Vina came to persist. It is a fact attested by history that Tirugnanasambandar sang a Padigam (verse) known as ‘Yazh Murioadikam’.

Dr. S Ramanathan has written an article in 1984 in the 40th annual issue of Karur Narada Gana Sabha’s souvenir. He has stated in that article titled ‘Yazh’ that when Tirugnanasambandar sang a padigam started with ‘Maathar Madappidiyum’, Tiruneelakantar who was accompanying Gnanasambandar on the Yazh could not play it on the Yazh and unable to bear the failure he wanted to break the Yazh. Gnanasambandar prevented him. This fact can be read from Periya Puranam and that particular Pann came to be recognized as Yazhmuri Pann.

Yazh had existed in almost all ancient musical traditions. Wherever celebrated civilizations were - the bank of Indus, Nile, Euphrates, Yangtse and Iravati - Yazh had been in existence as a leading musical instrument. The ancient Tamils created 103 Panns based on the four Yazhs. The Janaka ragas and the Janya ragas of Carnatic music were the later day evolution of these basic Panns.

Violin was introduced in our country only 150 to 200 years ago. But it occupies a pre-eminent place today in the concerts. Similarly, Guitar, Saxophone and Mandolin are also in vogue in our country. Experts opine that Piano cannot be used to play Carnatic music, because the swaras in the 12 sthanas in Piano are pre-determined ones. We cannot have ascendant or descendant scales in those swaras. But if we play on one of the strings in the Vina in a more elongated manner, we can play many swaras between one fret and the succeeding fret.

We have held that there are 22 srutis prevalent from time immemorial. If we take Suddha Rishabha in Piano, we will get only one sruti in Piano. But in our classical music, Suddha Rishabha can be found in Todi, Saveri, Gowla and Mayamalavagowla in different scales. When we play two swaras in piano, we cannot omit the intervening swara and go to the next one. But it is possible to do it in Vina and Violin. The reason is the meettus have not been created for sthana-s like in Vina. Though Violin, Vina and Piano are all string instruments, there is a pronounced difference between them. Vina and Violin are analog instruments and the Piano can be called a digital instrument. Similarly, gamaka-s cannot be played on the Piano. These gamaka-s are categorized as 10 in number. Dikshitar in his kriti on Meenakshi extols her as ‘Vina Gana Dasa gamaka kriye’ meaning as one who creates the 10 gamaka-s in Vina.

Evolution of Vina:

Even before the advent of Sarangadeva there were eighteen evolved Yazh-s. Sarangadeva has explained in elaborate terms the Dhruva Vina, Sala Vina and Sruti delienation methodology mentioned by Bharata in his Natyasastra. Dr. S Ramanathan in his commentary to Tirukkural says that the thumb is not used in playing Vina. In Silappadikaram there is a mention of Vina reading ‘Narada Veenai nayantheri padalum’. It is a matter of debate whether Swara Palagai and mettus (Swara palagaiyum, mettugalum) were prevalent in the second century BC. The figure that is found in the coins that were in during the reign of Samudra Gupta was that of Yazh only. Rosslyn Fensch, an American scholar has written an exclusive book titled ‘Harps and harpists’ in 1989. Hundreds of pictures of different kinds of Yazh-s are found in that book. They very picture on the cover page is a painting by the world famous English painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds showing an English Countess Jane, Countess of Elington playing the Yazh. This book deals with Yazh in three parts:

  • Yazh at the beginning of the civilisation.
  • Yazh without pedal in Western Europe and North America.
  • Yazh with pedal in Western Europe and North America.

It will be of topical interest to know that the first Intenational Yazh Summit was held in Holland in the year 1983. Yazh though still in vogue in many countries lost its relevence in Tamilnadu about 1300 years ago. Vina lends us uninterrupted music with gamaka-s. But Yazh was capable of providing interrupted music without gamaka-s. Yazh was a bent instrument during the time of Tiruvalluvar. Silappadikaram speaks about Sengotti Yazh. The bent form becomes straight. The straight pattern facillitates the playing of several swaras in one string. Yazh gave way to Vina.


Related links: Vina: Its exalted status in Carnatic music - Part 1
                     Yazh to Guitar - Prof. V V Subramanyam
                     Musical Expressions