The Vina's main structures

          The veena is first made out of three main parts : the hollowed body (kudam), linked with the hollowed neck, and the pegbox which is separated by a partition. These three parts can be carved all in one piece out of a single big log of wood, or separately and then joined together with very strong interlockings and gluing. To make a veena, we then have four possible structures :
• Structure 1 : The three parts are made out of one piece of wood.
• Structure 2A : Body and neck are made out of one piece, the pegbox made separately is then joined by interlocking.
• Structure 2B : Neck and Pegbox are made out of one piece, the body beeing joined afterwards by interlocking
• Structure 3 : Body, neck and pegbox are made separately, and then joined together.


          To these four main structures we can add four alternative ones, when the yali, which is only an ornament and has no influence on the sound, is carved together with the pegbox. I’ll mention by a « + » those special variations and sum up the eight types described with their specifications in the above chart.
          Almost all the structures which are admitted by the theory actually exist, some of them being used only in one manufacturing town, or by only one maker. The 2B+ structure is the only one I have never seen, but it may have been used in a few instances.
          In India, some special adjectives are often used to describe those different types of veena, but their use is not always consistent. The word « ekkanda », the most prestigious, is given indiscriminately to veenas having structures 1, 1+, 2A or 2A+. The word « ekadandi » (neck in one piece) can qualify instruments of type 2A, 2A+ or 2B. « Ottu » is used only for the type 3 or 3+.
          To close this matter, it is important to insist on the symbolic importance given in India to the concept of unity. The prefix « eka » (« one ») that we find in the words « ekkanda » or « ekadandi » lets us foresee an instrument in which this unity is at work and so a veena of superior quality. Yet, many testimonies of Indians as well as western makers, and my own experience make me think there is no direct link between the structure and the musical value of the instrument. As far as the interlockings are correctly done, the quality of the wood and of the work of the maker are certainly of much more importance. Two contradictory consequences can still be noticed from this taste for one piece instruments. The first one, negative, will be the will to make, even forcibly, a veena of type one or 2A in a piece of wood which is not proper for it. The poor quality of the wood will compel the maker to add strengthening pieces and camouflages which will spoil the homogeneity and the strength of the instrument. With the time, some twists and some cracks may appear on such veenas.
        The second consequence, a more positive one, lies in the special attention given by a maker in the manufacturing of a one piece instrument. Its market value being higher, the work is preferably given to a master veena maker, and special care is given to each step of the making. This is certainly the real reason for the actual quality of many ekkanda veenas.   

The making of the body (Kudam)

          The body (Kudam) is certainly the part requiring the most work while making a veena. Whether it is bound to the neck (type 1 or 2A), or carved alone (structure 2B or 3), its making remains the same. The drawing on the right describes its geometry, its curves and proportions
        The upper plane follows exactly the shape of the soundboard and is made up of a big portion of a circle with center c and radius r, followed by two curves, symmetric with respect to the central axis x’x. The lengthway section, along the x’x central axis, shows a curve of similar construction, made up in part by a circle with center C and radius R. We can observe that R is slightly bigger than r, the upper plane not going through C and the shape of the body showing a slight bulge on its edges. The cross section, along the y’y axis is a plain portion of a circle with radius R. The value of all those dimensions can change quite a lot depending on each instrument, each maker and each region.
        The first step while making the body, done by the maker himself or by the wood supplier, is the sawing of the chosen log, roughly marking out the position of the instrument. This sawing done, the inner and outer outlines of the body are roughly carved. This work, in which an important amount of wood is taken out, can be done with big spoon gouges, with hammers and metal wedges, or sometimes even with axes.


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          In this last case some highly specialized workers do the job for many different veena and tampura makers (like in Thanjavur, at the Veena Workers Cottage Industrial Welfare Union). These workers’ skill is amazing : they are able to carve the rough shape of the instrument with this very heavy tool, in spite of the many nodes and defects of the log. At each stroke they show incredible precision, when at the slightest lack of attention they can damage the piece irremediably.
        This first sketching out done, the piece is usually left to dry, often for a few weeks, but sometimes for up to one or two years. After this rest time, the carving of the body starts again, with chisels and spoon gouges of different sizes and shapes, until a perfectly smooth body is obtained, just 6 to 8 mm thick. For instruments in which the neck is fitted later on (structure 2B or 3), the part where the interlocking will take place is kept solid until the moment of the final fitting. Only then will it be quickly hollowed with a few saw and chisel strokes. On some old instruments we can find bodies only 2 or 3 mm thick, but such a thinness makes those instruments very fragile, even if they are light and they sound louder. On those instruments a bigger thickness is kept at the lower end of the body, opposite to the neck, for the screwing of the tailpiece, as well as on the top of it, for the fixing of the soundboard.

The making of the neck

        The neck of the veena is hollow on its whole length, and so looks like a gutter, narrowing progressively in depth and in width while approaching the pegbox. This narrowing varies in scale, depending on the makers and the schools of making. It is a function of the angles already described in the body’s geometry.
      The drawing on the right shows the proportions and the main measurements characterizing the shape of this part. As we noticed before, the neck of the veena can be made separately (type 3), or, depending on the structure of the instrument, together with the pegbox (type 2B), together with the body (type 2A), or together with these two other parts. The parts made separately are fitted together with interlockings where a « male » part carved on one piece fits into a « female » part carved on the other one. The way those fittings are done is always the same in the making of the veena : the pegbox has a tenon which fits inside the neck, and the neck has a seal getting wider that fits inside the body. The making of the neck differs of course very much according to those different structures, a big part of the work being to prepare those seals.


      Whatever the chosen structure, the making of this piece is rather simple, and doesn’t require the different steps of rough carving followed by long drying described above. The making goes directly from the rough sawing to the final making. The thickness of the neck side is about the same as the one of the body, or slightly thicker. Its straight shape favors the intensive use of the saw and of the plane for its making thus allowing a faster and safer carving. Chisels, spoon gouges and files are also used to finish the work. In the case of a type 1 or 2A veena, the neck is worked on only at the time of the final carving of the body.
        Three pair of holes, each facing the other, are drilled afterwards on the sides of the neck, to fit the three slightly conical pegs of the tala strings. A seventh hole is drilled on the bottom of the upper part for the long bolt which is used to fix the upper resonator (tumba). Those holes are made without a reamer but with drills and small round files, after the final assembling of the instrument.

The Pegbox

        The pegbox makes a compartment separated from the neck by a wall. Its main function is to hold the four pegs of the melodic strings, which go through it horizontally from side to side. Its closing by a curved lid is optional, but is getting more and more common nowadays because of the imitation (or dominance) of the Tanjore making. In this case, the pegbox can be used like a box where the musician can keep small accessories, nails, pieces of rag, ghi-box etc…
        Very often the pegbox is made out of jackwood but in some regional traditions the Indian rosewood is preferred for its hardness and its better resistance to the wear  caused by the pegs. In this case, most of the time the yali sculpture is carved  together with the pegbox and the instrument is of type 2A+ or 3+.
        As for the neck, the making of the pegbox doesn’t require a rough carving before drying, but is done straight away with saws, chisels, gouges and files up to its final shape. When it is parted from the neck, the pegbox has a tenon which allows a strong junction with the rest of the instrument. At its other side the yali is only glued and screwed, without any special fitting.

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The Yali

Yali Halebid

        The Yali is a mythical animal, half lion and half dragon. It is a very ancient design found in the Indian statuary, and it can be seen on the walls of many temples in South India from the Pallava (VIIth century), Chanukya (X-XIth) or Hoysala (XII- XIVth) dynasties. Yali was already sculptured on the old ancestor of the veena, the bow-shaped harp called Yazh which it had given its name to. Of course the yali has no direct influence on the sound but it has to be here on the top of the neck, like the scroll on the neck of the violin. On a few instruments some makers tried other designs, such as swan or snake heads, but it has always been exceptional.
        While making a South Indian Veena, the yali is, together with the body, the longest piece to make, and the most difficult too. Forty or fifty years ago, each maker was taking pleasure to carve it himself with all his skill and his originality, a kind of pinnacle for an instrument done with much care. On such instruments, this sculpture is then very useful to identify the region where it comes from, and even sometimes its maker himself. Nowadays the yali is most of the time mass produced, by workers specialized in its sculpture. The yali is standardized, and one can no longer identify the maker. More and more the Tanjore style yali replaces the local designs which were much more varied.


The Soundboard

        The soundboard is a very essential part for the final quality of the sound of the vina. The wood in which it is made must be properly dried out, without any node nor flaw, and must have fibers parallel to the instrument’s length. It is most of the times made out of a single plank of wood, but sometimes a setting of two pieces glued together by the edge is also found. The jackwood, the rosewood and the red cedar can be used for its making.
        Since it perfectly covers the body without any sticking out, the soundboard proportions and dimensions are similar to the body’s upper plane. The soundboard may sometimes have a slightly vaulted profile and its height is very seldom higher than 1.5 or 2 cm. This vault strengthens quite a lot the  soundboard resistance to the downright pressure of the bridge and so theoretically allows it to be thinner. But in reality the arched soundboards are most of the times the thicker ones and the flat ones the thinner. The length « Lt » of the soundboard is usually the same than the « Lc » one of the body. A different length could, in the case of instruments of type 2B or 3, make the juncture between the body and the neck a bit stronger but it is still very rarely noticed.


The Fingerboard (Dandipalakka)


        It is difficult to describe a standard type of fingerboard for the veena, since many different shapes are used according to the regional schools of making. The most common one, used in Thanjavur, is a long plank (dandipalakka) covering the neck and continuing the soundboard in the same plane. Two long wooden rails stick out of this plank on all its length, and go over the soundboard for about ten cm. Those rails are the base for the wax in which the frets are inlayed.
        The dandipalakka is most of the time made in jackwood, but the rosewood is also often used when the soundboard is done in this wood. The separate making of the two sticks supporting the wax, fixed afterwards with glue and small nails, makes its carving much easier, the dandipalakka being then a very simple long trapezoidal plank. Saws and planes are the main tools used for its making.
        When finished, the « fingerboard » is fastened directly on the neck with glue and nails, or sometimes with screws resting on three small shelves nailed onto the neck. A small hole is drilled in its upper part, right in front of the one bored in the neck, to give way to the long bolt used to fix the upper resonator.


         After those main parts of the instrument are assembled together, the small cracks or defects are filled with a paste made out of glue, chalk and colouring. A decoration is often applied on the soundboard, the junctures and on the sides of the instrument where the soundboard and the fingerboard meet the body and the neck. This decoration was traditionally made out of dear horn, but the use of this material being forbidden since the beginning of the seventies, it is now made out of white plastic sheets. The different types of decoration are described more at length in the pages dedicated to the regional makings. When finished, the veena is covered with quite a rudimentary varnish, the « French Polish » used by most of the joiners in South India.

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