Genealogy and History of the South Indian Veena
(Saraswati Vina)

          An instrument with such a complex making as the South Indian Veena, with its luth shape, its external resonator, all its strings and its twenty-four frets didn't of course appear out of nothing, but is the result of a long evolution which took many centuries. All the transformations of the music during these times and the ceaseless efforts of the instruments makers, of the musicians and of the theoricians to match those evolutions allowed it to grow, step by step, from very simple instruments to its today shape. The successive improvements, hybridizations, and the sometimes radical technical inventions which allowed it to become what it is now will be briefly explained here.

            If percussions seemed to be the most ancient music instruments of mankind, the oldest ancestors of the strings instruments are on one side the musical bow, where the mouth is used as a resonator, and on the other side the Idiochord tube Zither, a plain bamboo tube where the husk is cut on its length to make some kind of strings which are raised up at both ends with small wooden sticks working like bridges.        

            Both those instruments, with dim voices, still in use mostly in Africa, Madagascar and South East Asia, rapidly evolved into more complex ones. The mouth used for the musical bow was replaced by a resonator made out of a gourd or modeled in clay, hung under the bow (e.g. the Villadi Vadyam in Tamil Nadu). The first occurrences of the word "vina" in the Yajur-Veda (Xth Century BC ?) certainly refer to that type of instrument. The adding of more strings turned the musical bow into a simple harp, of which we found iconographic evidences in the Indus Valley's pictogramms (2300 to 1500 BC).
Le yazh

The open air relief of Mahabalipuram

              This arched harp has been in use for long time in India, and we find many exemples of it in the statuary, from Bharut (North of the Madhya Pradesh) to Amaravati (Andhra Pradesh) , or in the sacred scriptures (Mahabharata) and the music treatises (Natya Sastra). It has been specialy wellknown in the South, under the name of Yazh, and then vanished during the VIIth century AD, overshadowed by the stick zithers.
            The straightening of the bow and the use of pegs to raise the strings out from the neck seem to be the transformations which led to the invention of those zithers. The Orissa's Tuila, played mostly on harmonics, is a living exemple of this step of the evolution, which is also carved in the giant open air relief of Arjuna's Penance in Mahabalipuram. (VIIth century AD)

            The players of the musical bow often use a small wooden or metal stick, which they press onto the string, to shorten its length and so raise the frequency of the sound. This technique, still used on instruments like the Hindusthani Vichitra Vina or on the Carnatic Gottuvadyam certainly gave the idea of the first frets, which were fixing those shortenings in a way which could easily be reproduced. The Kullutan Rajan of the Savaras in South India is an exemple of those instruments still primitive but having frets. The first evidence of such an instrument can be traced back to the IXth century, in some sculptures from Abhaneri (Rajasthan). The adding of two resonators, plus the use of a hollow body and of a bridge, both borrowed from the idiochord tube zither, helped increase the volume of the sound. The flat bridge, which is much more efficient because of the harmonic enrichment it gives, has also been present since the IXth century in Abhaneri, then in Belur and in Halebid (Karnataka) during the XIIth.

Sculpture of Halebid

The Jantar from Rajasthan

 The big stick zither of India, which can be seen nowadays in its folk form with the Jantar from Rajasthan, or the Kinnari Vina from Karnataka, or in its classical form with the Hindusthani Bin, also called Rudra Vina, has already got its main features (hollow body, two external resonators, frets, flat bridge) in the XIIIth centuy, when it is precisely discribed by Sarngadeva under the name of Kinnari Vina in his famous treatise the Sangita Ratnakara.

            The Waji, the arched harp from Nuristan (Afganisthan), shows us one of the possible steps in the evolution from the musical bow to the lute. In this instrument, the resonator is a wooden box covered with a skin through which the bow itself is held. The only differences between this instrument and the most simple lutes are once again the straightening of the bow, and sometimes the use of a small stick under the strings, acting like a bridge. The bow then becomes a neck and is held firmly by the skin working like a sound board and into which it is embedded. We could find such lutes in Ancient Egypt, and they are still often in use in Central Africa. Some models of Ek-tar used by the singing beggars in India are also made in this way.
            The evidence of short-necked lutes in India has been testified since the beginning of the christian era by sculptures in Amaravati or paintings in Ajanta. We even find it together with the arched harp in Pawaya next to Gwalior. Those lutes with ovoid shape have of course a much more sophisticated making than the ones we were talking about before. They seem to be always linked with buddhist sanctuaries and they disappeared with the decline of this religion in India. The lute will be back only with the Arabic invasions from the XIIth to the XVIth, having a short neck (Rabab) or a long one (Tanbur). Both those instruments are often depicted by the many schools of miniature painting in the XVIIth century.

Sculpture from Amaravati

The Sarod

            Many music instruments in the world are born out of hybridization. The blend of the native stick Zither with the long-necked lute, brought by the muslim invasions, giving birth to the Hindusthani Sitar or to the Sarasvati Veena is not something exceptional either for the Indian organology. One of the main features of India is certainly, more than to fight them, its ability to assimilate all the foreign contributions, to transmute them and to include them in its own cultural enrichment. An instrument like the Sarod, coming from Afghanistan, got sympathetic strings and an upper resonator when it arrived in India. The tablas borrowed their name, and maybe also partly their shape from some Arabic instruments, still keeping many important features of the native Pakhavaj.

           The Sitar and the Veena appeared more or less at the same time, in the XVIIth century. The invention of the Sarasvati Vina is imputed to the Raja Raghunatha of Tanjore (1600–1634), assisted by his minister the musician Govinda Diksitar. The son of Diksitar, Venkatamakhin, wrote the treatise Caturdandi Prakasika where for the first time is explained the system of the seventy-two fondamental scales, or mela-karta, the basis of the modern Carnatic music. Obviously there is a direct link between this theoretical contribution and the invention of the Vina which, thanks to its twelve fixed frets in each octave, is able to play accurately all these scales without a change of tuning.
         Since those times the Veena hasn''t changed much in its structure, but has slightly increased in size, mostly because of the change in its playing position, from a vertical one (urdhva) to a more horizontal one, in use nowadays.

The South Indian Veena