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David Russell Watson

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This article goes into other forms of vina besides the rudra, and other musics besides dhrupad, but for lack of a better place to put it I'll post it to this forum, if I may ¦·)


Vīṇā. The principal indigenous term for chordophones in India and other countries of South Asia. The name (and its later derivatives: Tamil vīṇai; New Indo-Aryan bīṇā, bīṇ, etc.) has been used for almost three millennia to denote the main type of the age: the musical bow (§§1 and 5 below); the early harps (§2); the short lute (§3); the medieval stick or tube zithers (§4; for discussion of classification see Tube zither); bowed chordophones (§5); and various descendants of the above in the contexts of both folk (§6) and high art (§§7–9) traditions, including the modern south Indian vīṇā, a lute (§8). In technical literature the instruments described as vīṇā often bear a distinguishing epithet.
        The Hindu stick zithers, depicted since the 6th century but probably older, have been considered the classic vīṇā or bīṇ instruments for a millennium and a half. The term is also found, mainly in folk contexts, denoting various aerophones (for example the bīṇ, nāgbīṇ and bīṇ jogī in north India and the mukhavīṇā in the south); this may reflect an ancient use of bamboo for both string and wind instruments. The name has been brought back into use in modern writings either to rename existing instruments of non-Indian name and origin or, with more propriety, to name new variations or inventions (§10).

1. Early history. 2. Harps. 3. Lutes. 4. Medieval stick zithers. 5. Bowed chordophones. 6. Folk stick zithers. 7. The Hindustani bīṇ. 8. Sarasvatī vīṇā. 9. Fretless vīṇā. 10. 19th-century ephemera.

I. Early history. The name vīṇā is first documented in the Yajurveda (c1000 BC). It is not found in the earlier Ṛgveda, nor in the Atharvaveda, but another term in those texts. Vāṇá, has been interpreted by some scholars and later Indian ritual etymologists, probably wrongly, as a chordophone. A possible chordophone, however, referred to in these earliest written sources is the gárgara or karkarí, which may have been a musical bow resonated on a skin-covered pot or gourd. Some ideograms of the pre-Aryan Indus culture (3rd–2nd millennia bc) may show a curved stick with three or four strings, more safely interpreted as polychord bows (which could have evolved into the later harps or bow harps) than as harps proper. From the Ṛgveda on, there are frequent references to the ‘song’ of the archer’s bow which, though not always to be taken literally, do show the importance of as a probable progenitor of chordophones. The pināka or pinākī vīṇā of post-Vedic Sanskrit text was doubtless this; the medieval Sanskrit pinākī and later northern pināk is a bowed bow, while the southern vil or villu are struck bows.
        The Kāṭhaka recension of the Yajurveda contrasts the vīṇā, said to be associated with animals (paśu), with the kāṇḍavīṇā, associated with plants (oṣadhi). The meaning of the latter (kāṇḍa: ‘internode of cane’) makes it likely to have been a tube or a stick zither, possibly idiochord, it is not known if it had an extra resonator, though the term alābuvīṇā (‘bottle-gourd vīṇā’) occurs in later texts (the Śrautasūtras). The later stick zithers. though not appearing in high-art iconography until about the 6th century ad, probably go back to these early forms. At the same time, it is clear that vīṇā, unqualified, at this period denoted the harps or bow harps, whose animal components are referred to. Sachs suggested (1914) that the name vīṇā, which is possibly non-Aryan in form, derived from an ancient Egyptian harp name bint, but the north Indian vernacular form bīṇ is very much later, and ancient India’s contacts were rather with Mesopotamia, where arched harps were also found. On stronger grounds, the name may derive from a pre-Aryan root meaning ‘bamboo’ (possibly Dravidian, as in the Tamil veṟam: ‘cane), giving also veṇu (‘bamboo’, ‘flute’), and veṇa (‘caneworker’). In this case the name would have originated with early tube or stick zithers.

2. Harps. Arched harps are assumed to have reached South Asia from the ancient Middle East. The transmission is undocumented, but evidence from the Indus civilization (c3000–1750 bc) suggests the harp’s early presence in the subcontinent at a period of trade contact with Mesopotamia. Various types of vīṇā – not all necessarily harps — are mentioned in the Vedic canon (1st millennium bc) as instruments of ritual, and in classical literature (c500 bc onwards) as instruments of court entertainment music. The latter role is confirmed for the harp by the earliest (mainly Buddhist) art from the 2nd century bc until about the 6th century ad, in which kings, nobles, minor deities and courtesans are depicted playing the harp, either solo or to accompany song and dance. The harp continues to appear sporadically in iconography to the end of the 1st millennium, but seems then to have died out in South Asia, with the possible exceptions of the waji of Nuristan and the bīṇ bājā of Madhya Pradesh.
        The South Asian harps varied in size, construction and playing technique. Apart from angular harps known in Gandhāra (north-west India), all were horizontal arched (or bow) harps: the curved wooden neck, terminating bluntly or with an inward-curling scroll, merged at the lower end with a wooden boat-shaped resonator, the roof of which was of skin pierced with soundholes. The gut or vegetable-fibre strings typically numbered seven (citrā vīṇā); instruments of nine (vipañcī vīṇā), ten and, by the 7th century ad, 14 strings (the Tamil yāḻ) are also attested. The strings appear to have been attached to the arch by means of tuning-cords. The internal construction of the instrument is unclear, no specimens having survived. The ‘bow-harp’ type, in which the resonator is attached beneath one end of the arch, and in which the strings are attached to the arch at both ends in the manner of a polychord musical bow, can occasionally be identified in iconography, and is represented today by the waji and the bīṇ bājā. This type is distinct from harps elsewhere in Asia, most of which have a separate string-bar, and perhaps derives from indigenous musical bows (see §1) under the influence of harps from West Asia (for illustrations see Bīṇ bājā (i) and Waji).
        In iconography to about the 4th century ad the harp is shown beneath the players’s left arm (supported, if the player stands, by a sling). The right hand plucks the proximal (inner) surface of the string-plane, either with the fingers or with a large plectrum (koṇā; see fig. 1). The left hand damps and/or plucks from the distal (outer) side. Later, however, the instrument is held beneath

pg. 729


1. Arched harp (vīṇā): sculpture from Gandhāra (Butkara I), 2nd–3rd century ad (Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale, Rome)

the right arm; the right-hand fingers pluck on the distal side while the left hand appears to raise the pitch of individual strings by pressing, with the crooked left thumb, near the point of attachment to the arch. This later method of playing, shown in reverse (as though the player were lefthanded) when the player faces the viewer’s left, resembles the technique of the Burmese harp (see Saùng-gauk). Certain features of Indian musical theory appear to reflect the importance of the harp at the time of its earliest formulation. Thus the theoretical ’consonance’ (saṃvāda) of perfect 4ths and 5ths may reflect the attested simultaneous plucking of two strings. Early texts explicitly describe the tuning and scale system in terms of the seven-string vīṇā, and their use of modes with differing dominants and finals perhaps indicates an instrument on which no one pitch is inherently fundamental to the others (as it is on monochords).

3. Lutes. In South Asia, short-necked lutes first appear in the Graeco-Buddhist art of the 1st to 3rd centuries ad) of Gandhāra, the extreme north-western province of ancient India which borders on Central Asia; it is thought that they spread thence to the Indian subcontinent. They appear in Buddhist art from the 2nd to 6th centuries ad, and thereafter sporadically in Hindu art to the end of the millennium. They generally occur in the same contexts as harps.
        In Gandhāran art a wide variety of types is found. The resonantor may be ovoid or barbed, with or without soundholes. The strings, generally three or four, may be attached to a straight, lute-type bridge, or pass over a flat rectangular bridge, similar to that later characteristic of various Indian instruments. The short, slender, unfretted neck may terminate in a rather bulky pegbox with laterally inserted pegs. The player normally stands, but the instrument is held in various positions and may be plucked with fingers or plectrum. In peninsular Indian art larger, generally five-string, uniformly pear-shaped lutes appear, resembling the Chinese pipa in outline. They have a curved string-bar, no soundholes, a long, slender, perhaps backwards-curving pegbox, and in some cases frets; the plectrum appears not to have been used. The player may sit or stand, and usually holds the lute horizontally, at waist height (fig. 2).
        Of various unidentified instrument names in Sanskrit literature, kacchapī (‘tortoise’) vīṇā is thought to denote a lute type.

4. Medieval stick zithers. In the second half of the 1st millennium ad various types of single-string stick zither with gourd resonators supplanted the harp- and lute-vīṇā as instruments of court music and assumed an important role in religious iconography. Though not iconographically attested before c500, they may have been indigenous folk instruments before their adoption into art music (see §1 above). The type survives in the modern north Indian bīṇ, and in various folk instruments including the ṭuila, kullutan rājan, jantar and kinnarī vīṇā. In addition to innumerable representations in late Buddhist and (especially) medieval Hindu art, there are very detailed descriptions by the 13th-century musicologist Śārṅgadeva (Saṅgītaratnākara, chap. 6), who distinguishes three principal types: ālāpnī, ekatantrī (‘one-string’) and kinnarī vīṇā. These types can be identified in iconography of the 6th century to the 13th, where they are associated particularly with the deities Shiva (as patron of the arts) and Sarasvatī (goddess of learning). Thus this class of vīṇā, ‘from a folk instrument, became par excellence the symbol of the arts’ (Marcel-Dubois, 1941).
        All the stick zithers comprised a hollow bamboo or


2. Short-necked lute (vīṇā) and transverse flute: detail of a marble relief from Amarāvati, 2nd–3rd century ad (Indian Museum Calcutta)

pg. 730

wooden tube, along which a single string (of gut, sinew, silk, cotton or metal) was stretched. At the lower end the string passed over a rectangular bridge with a convex upper surface, which caused a buzzing effect when the string vibrated; at the other end the string was attached to the body either directly or (on the metal-stringed kinnarī vīṇā) with the aid of a tuning-peg. Additional resonators could be attached. On the ālāpinī, a hemispherical cup made from half a hollowed dried gourd was fastened behind the upper end of the tube; the opening of this cup was pressed against the player’s chest to form a closed resonance-chamber (fig. 3). A similar gourd on the ekatantrī and kinnarī vīṇā was held higher, resting on the player’s shoulder; on the latter a second and even third gourd could be attached lower down the instrument. Śarṅgadeva’s description of playing technique on the ālāpinī (Saṅgītaratnākara, chap. 6, 241) is the earliest evidence for a technique still adopted for certain single-string stick zithers of South and South-east Asia. These include the ṭuila of eastern India, the phīn nam tao of Thailand, and the sāṭīev of Kampuchea, all of which are characteristically played partly or wholly in harmonics (compare also the single-string box zither đàn bầu of Vietnam). The instrument is held by the left hand in such a way that the gourd is pressed against the player’s chest by the left thumb; the left-hand fingers are able to stop the string in ‘first position’ only. The middle finger of the right hand plucks the string, while the extended forefinger of the same hand lightly touches it at selected harmonic nodes; a complete scale in harmonics can be obtained over one or more octaves. By varying the stopping positions of the left-hand fingers, a variety of scales and temperaments is possible, only the harmonics of the open string being of fixed pitch. Ornamental pitch inflection is achieved by moving the stopping finger after the string has been plucked.
        It may be noted, first, that in order to produce an ascending scale of harmonics, the right hand touches the string at points successively nearer the distal end (see Table 1). The true nature of harmonics, as depending on equal division of the string, is thus disguised, and was not apparent to early Indian theorists: Śārṅgadeva is unable to explain how the first and fifth degrees are both produced from the open string. Secondly, and most remarkable for a monochord, the texture may be polyphonic, for both the fundamental and a harmonic may be simultaneously audible. This effect is attested both for the ṭuila and for the sāṭīev.

Table 1: Fundamental and harmonic notes on stick zithers of the ālāpinī type


A, B, C         =         points at which string is stopped bs left-hand fingers 1, 2, 3 respectively (positions variable)
I, II, III         =         harmonic nodes of open string (positions fixed)
Ia–c, IIa–c         =         harmonic nodes of stopped string when stopped at A, B, C respectively (positions variable)


3. Shiva playing the ālāpinī vīṇā (stick zither): sculpture (mid-7th century ad) at the Bala-Brahma temple at Alampur, Andhra Pradesh

        The holding position of the ekatantrī permitted greater freedom of movement for the left hand, which is shown stopping the string, either with the fingers or with a wooden sliding-rod (kamrikā) along its full length. Thus a wide range was available without recourse to harmonics; the right hand plucked with both first and second fingers, as on the modern bīṇ. A similar technique was used on the kinnarī vīṇā, where, however, a variable number of high, fixed frets (from 12 to 14 in Śārṅgadeva’s account) assisted left-hand fingering; the sliding-rod was not used on this instrument.

pg. 731

Śārṅgadeva also mentions, but does not describe, a nakula of two strings, a tritantrikā of three strings and a mattakokilā of 21 strings (this last possibly a board zither).

5. Bowed chordophones. These are mentioned in or described by medieval Sanskrit texts. The Saṅgīta-ratnākara (early 13th century) gives a detailed description of the bow and of two instruments played with it. The pinākī (‘bow’) vīṇā was a musical bow, with a staff 41 Hindu ‘inches’ (about 80 cm) long, 2·25 Hindu inches (4 cm) thick in the centre, and tapering to 1·25 Hindu inches (2.25 cm) at the upper end and 1 (2 cm) at the lower. Two small terracotta kheṭaka (probably the ‘inverted cups’, perhaps resonators, of the later Ā’īn-i-akbarī) are fixed to each end at the back, and the string is threaded and tied through holes near each end. The lower end of the bow was placed on a gourd resonator held on the ground by the feet, and the upper end leant against the shoulder. The string was stopped by the stem of a small gourd held in the player’s left hand.
        The playing bow (cāpa, dhanu, both, like pināka, meaning ‘bow’) is described in a precise account perhaps unequalled in medieval times. It was 21 Hindu inches (about 40 cm) long, but reduced (by curvature) to a hair length of ‘two fists’ (not a standard measurement, but perhaps about 30 cm), and 3 Hindu inches (about 5·75 cm) thick, except for the last third of an inch (about 7 mm) at each end, which wets 0·75 Hindu inches (about 1·5 cm) thick. To these whittled-down ends would be attached the hair (‘of horse’s tail’), with resin (rālā) from the sāl tree (Shorea robusta, Vatica robusta) applied before playing. The bowing action is not described by Śārṅgadeva. The account of the pināk, also called surbatāna, given by Abu’l Faẓl three-and-a-half centuries later adds that the main string was of gut, and that it was played like the ghichak, or Central Asian spike fiddle. The bowed pinākī was recorded in the 18th century and reported for the Ho of Bihar in the 19th, but may now be obsolete, Pre-medieval references to the pinākī cannot be taken as proof of bowing, as the term refers to the main bow; though a plucked musical bow seems rare in the subcontinent, beaten forms are still found (see Villu and Villādivādyam).
        Another bowed instrument is described by Śārṅgadeva under his own pen-name, the niḥśaṅkā vīṇā), though he does not claim to have invented it. The description of the instrument, though not clear, indicates a string four hands long tied at its upper end to a piece of wood and at its lower end to another piece (measuring one-and-a-half hands), whose last two ‘inches’ are whittled to a spike one ‘inch’ thick. A gourd is attached near the bottom. The top of the instrument is held to the base of the left chest, and the bottom held flat on the ground in the crook of the left knee by the right leg. It is played with a bow like the pinākī, but a thimble of dried-out leather (peśi), stiffened with an inside rod (koṇa?), or the rod alone, may be used to stop the string. The niḥśaṅkā vīṇā can produce ragas in three registers. The instrument might be interpreted as a spike fiddle (see Sāz-ī?-kāshmīr), but the use of the terms kāṣṭha and dāru (‘wood’, ‘log’) for the neck suggests something heavier. The sarān of Kashmir (Śārṅgadeva’s family homeland) is held in similar fashion by the legs (but reversed). The manner of stopping the strings of these two vīṇā is probably the origin of the analogous method on the modern sāraṅgī type, and possibly the author took a documented medieval name, sāraṅga, and made a play on his own.

6. Folk stick zithers. Many of the aspects of the medieval stick zithers described above (§4) survive in folk instruments throughout the subcontinent, though the name vīṇā/bīṇ is rare. The ālāpinī type appears to survive in India only in the Orissan ṭuila. Whether the sliding rod technique of the ekatantrikā has descended to the modern concert instruments (see §9 below) through maintained folk traditions is not clear. However, the instrument which has contributed most to the concert vīṇā (see §§7–8 below), and which is most widespread in various shapes and sizes, is the kinnarī vīṇā. This was the most developed medieval type, which had raised fixed frets and a high (pinnate) nut and tuning-peg; it was finger-plucked and played primarily by division of a single string, though often had one or more drone or punctuating strings. Of this type are the small stick zithers of the eastern tribal peoples, such as the kullutan rājan of the Saora; others include the large kinnarī vīṇā of Karnataka and the jantar of Rajasthan, the smaller jantar of Madhya Pradesh (now bowed) and the king of Panjab and Jammu (for illustration of a folk stick zither see Jantar). The several types of vīṇā listed by Abu’l Faẓl in the 16th century (see §7 below) may also have been folk instruments to some extent.

7. The Hindustani bīṇ. The vīṇā, often found in the north Indian vernacular form bīṇ, is mentioned in Muslim court records in the early period: the Afghan Sultan Sikandar Lodi (reigned 1489–1517) had ‘four boy slaves skilled in chang, qānūn, vīṇā and tunbur’ . It is also recorded in the early Mughal period as three-stringed, together with the two-string kinnarī vīṇā, ādhaṭi and kin?gṙā and the fretless sirbīṇ and amṛtī. However, the most developed vīṇā of this time is named Jantar (Sanskrit yantra), with five (in Jarrett’s translation) or six (in Gladwin’s) metal strings, and played, alongside the bīṇ,in the akhāṙā chamber orchestra. Mughal paintings from the 16th century show that these had evolved from the medieval kinnarī vīṇā type into what is substantially their modern form, though rather smaller. In the three centuries of Mughal rule the bīṇ and the rabāb were the chief instruments of court music (for illustration see Akhāṙā). The descendants of Akbar’s (reigned 1556–1605) chief musician Tansen, the Seniyā, formed a dynasty whose musical authority matched that of the Mughal emperors in polity; they were organized in two main branches as the rabābiyā and the bīṇkār (players of the rabāb and bīṇ), descended from Tansen’s son Vilas Khan and from his daughter Sarasvati respectively, the terms applying even to singers.
        The body of the bīṇ is a long, hollow, wooden ‘stick’ (daṇḍi etc.), or tube, sometimes carved outside with nodes to resemble bamboo and capped at both ends with brass tubing, to which two large bottle-gourds (tumbā; alābu, lāū are attached some way below the ends near each end of the fret area. It is described in the 16th century as a ‘yard’ long with 16 frets, in the 18th century as about 109·5 cm with 19 frets and seven strings, and in the 19th century as around 122 cm long with 24 frets and seven strings (this being now standard). In the description of the instrument’s structure measurements for a 19th-century court bīṇ in the National Museum of Ireland are indicated in parentheses. The strings were of metal (brass and steel). The gourds were almost whole

pg. 732

(about 26.5 cm high, 37 cm wide and 7 mm thick), and were attached by plaited leather thongs passing up from an interior supporting wooden disc through an intermediate wooden bobbin and holes in the stick; a round hole (about 12 cm wide) was excised in their base. Modern bīṇ may have their gourds attached by a heavy brass screw-tube. Both frets (about 2 cm high) and nut (about 2·5 cm) are thin (4 mm) upright brass-capped wooden plates; they are straight on top but carved below in an arch which fits on the neck and is held by a cement of wax and soot. Early Mughal painting shows a high nut to which the strings rise sharply from a string-guider binding, but this was later dispensed with, and the nut lowered. The peg area has a typical bilateral arrangement of five main pegs (two on one side and three on the other), and a clockwise disposition of strings 1 to 5 from above the nut on the right side (player’s view) to the same position on the left; strings 1 to 4 pass over the nut from right to left (i.e. with the main string nearest to the player’s right hand, an arrangement similar to that of the southern vīṇā, but differing from the Rajasthani jantar and the West-Asia-derived lutes rabāb, sitar and sarod). String 5 runs down the left side of the neck, and strings 6 and 7 pass from pegs below the nut down the right. A complex bridge-piece is fitted into the lower opening of the tube, often carved as the front of a peacock, with deep, curving bone or ivory surfaces on its back and wings for the three sets of strings tied around projecting pin string holders below each section (for the curvature, see Sitar, §2 and Tambūrā).
        Fowke (1788) gives the 18th-century Seniyā bīṇ tuning as (from player’s right to left) a´–a–d–A–e–c♯–A: the first two strings, of steel, are the tonic drones (cikārī), to the right of the stick; of the others (of brass), the third and fourth are the melody strings (tuned a 4th apart and giving on 19 frets two octaves and a tone, chromatic almost throughout), while the fifth to seventh (the last to the left of the stick) form a drone triad similar to that given for the 19th-century rabāb (see Rabāb, §4(ii)).
        By the early 19th century, steel was used for the first melody string (Willard, 1834), and in that century a tuning with four melody strings, d–A–E–A´, became standard (Tagore, Yantra-koś, 1875), giving a range of three and a half octaves on the 23 or 24 frets. This, with the two cikārī on the right and the drone string on the left (usually tuned to the middle tonic), provided a model for the developing Hindustani lutes (sitar, sūrbahār) in the 19th century, and remains the modern tuning.
        The main strings of the bīṇ are played (as in §8, below) with downward strokes of the right index and middle fingers (Willard mentions the use of tied-on fish-scale plectra), and the side-strings with upward strokes of the little fingers (on the left side the thumb is also used). The instrument is held across the body, with the left gourd on the shoulder and the right on the hip, the player formerly kneeling or standing (a position appropriate to a court servant). Sideways pulling of the strings for large-scale portamento (mīṇḍ, mī~ṙ originated on the vīṇā class, and hence also, perhaps, the important element of raga repertory, ālāp (a free-tempo improvised development of the mode making considerable use of portamento, and much elaborated since the last century also by the sitar and sūrbahār). Some of the elements of instrumental joṙ and jhālā also owe their existence to the bīṇ, which was the first instrument to have the punctuating side-strings now known as cikārī (probably descended from the doubled-back open string of the


4. Mid-19th-century bīṇ player: watercolour (c1840) attributed to Ghulām ‘Ali Khān (GB-Lbm Add .27255, f. 134v)

medieval and folk kinnarī vīṇā). The bīṇ is also played in metric compositions with the drum pakhāvaj but here the typically Hindu subordination of instrumental to vocal style has resulted in an absence of distinctively instrumental compositional styles.
        The bīṇ is sometimes known as the rudra vīṇā (the vīṇā of the ascetic god Shiva, the great yogi), and it has strong Tantric-Yogic associated symbolisms. Since it has no soundtable, the forward projection of the sound is weak, but it vibrates powerfully into the body of the player. The stick with its nodes is regarded as the merudaṇḍa (both the human spine and the cosmic axis) and the gourds as the breasts either of Shiva’s wife Parvati or of Sarasvatī, goddess of arts and learning. The length of the fret area is traditionally given as nine fists – i.e. the distance from the navel to the top of the skull (seat of the three octaves: navel, throat and head).

8. Sarasvatī vīṇā. This is a large, long-necked, plucked lute, the principal chordophone of south Indian classical music (fig. 5). It is played mainly by members of the brāhman caste in the four southern states of India (Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Karnataka), and is usually employed only in saṅgīta, a cultivated art-music tradition within which technique, repertory and an individual improvisational performing style are aurally transmitted from master to disciple during long apprenticeships. Famous schools of technique/style evolved in the courts of the rajahs and continued to flourish under British rule. In modern times, technique, style and repertory are increasingly influenced by Hindustani music from the northern states. Resistance to these influences has been strongest in the Mysore school of vīṇā playing.
        The name refers to the icon of the Hindu goddess Sarasvatī playing this vīṇā, which is displayed in most brāhman houses and places of education in south India. Sarasvatī is the goddess of vidyā – that supreme understanding of the nature of life which, in Hindu thought,

pg. 733

permits the release of the individual from the cycle of reincarnation. The meaning given to the icon is that the pursuit of music leads to this understanding.

(i) Structure. The sarasvatī vīṇā is a long-necked lute, a later development than the stick zithers described above, which are found equally in southern medieval sculpture. Tamil tradition ascribes changes in the vīṇā to the reign of Raghunatha Nayaka of Tanjore (1614–32). In terms of historical organology, the instrument’s origins are hybrid. The main body derives from the long-necked barbed rabāb (see Rabāb, §4(ii)), much cultivated at the pre-Mughal Deccan Muslim courts. As on the latter, the neck and shell are sometimes in one piece; hence also the flange where they meet, a vestige of the barb, and the open, bent-back animal-motif pegbox. The wooden soundtable, the bridge (combining vīṇā and lute principles as on the sitar) and the stylised shoulder-and-ribs pattern on the shell, similar to the southern tambūrā, derive from the long-necked lutes (see Sitar), originally carvel-built. A final layer of features – the embedded chromatic frets, the mock-gourd upper resonator, the stringing and tuning and the playing technique – originate in the stick zither tradition. This vīṇā is thus a unique blend of South Asian types, perhaps around three centuries old.
        Of the modern instrument, two types are recognized: the Tanjore and the Mysore. The latter is made of black-?wood and the former of lighter jackwood. Other differences lie mainly in the decoration of the instruments (the Tanjore vīṇā is much more elaborately carved and brightly painted) and in the position of the soundholes on the table.
        The body has three main parts. The shell (kayi, kuḍam) is hemispherical and hollowed from a single piece of wood, often with mock ‘shoulder-and-ribs’ carving on the back. The heavy hollow neck (daṇḍi) has straight sides rounded at the back and tapering lightly towards the top; a second resonator (burra), of gourd, metal or papier-maché, is screwed into a small metal cup fixed to the back of the neck below the nut. The pegbox is bent back, and open at the front, with a bilateral peg

5. South Indian sarasvatī vīṇā (long-necked lute), Tanjore model

arrangement (two on the right, two on the left); it terminates in a dragon (yāli) head design (sometimes there is also an opening compartment for accessories). These three parts are often separate, but for tone quality the ekadaṇḍi vīṇā, with shell and neck of one piece, and above all the ekāṇḍa or ekavada vīṇā, with all three parts solid, are specially prized. A projecting ivory ledge (gvantu) round the sides and back of the neck and shell joint is found on some types. The shell is covered by a round, thin, flat wooden soundtable (yeddapalaka), which has two decorated soundholes about 5 cm in diameter in the upper quadrants. The bridge (gurram or kudirai: ‘horse’) is in the centre of the soundtable; it is similar to that of the sitar, with a wooden, bench-shaped trestle about 6·5 cm wide and 3 cm deep, but covered with a metal plate. The four main strings pass over the top, and the three tāla, or side strings, over a buttress-like metal arc which extends from the right side of the bridge down to the soundtable.
        The neck is covered by a thin board (daṇḍipalaka). Along each side is a raised ledge (maruvapalaka) to which is applied a cement of wax and lamp-black which holds the frets (metlu) in place. (Day, 1891, also describes small metal pins for this purpose.) The frets are straight brass bars, rounded on top and out 5 mm thick; there are 24, giving two full chromatic octaves on the first of the four main strings. The strings (two of steel, two of brass) are fitted in right-to-left descending order (see §7 above). The three side strings pass from their pegs in the side of the neck, below the nut and over three small ivory knobs.
        All seven strings are secured below the bridge to thick wires (langar) with fine-tuning devices in the form of sliding metal rings attached to an inferior string holder, a unique development on Indian lutes.

(ii) Technique. The player sits cross-legged on a mat, with the left foot tucked behind the right knee and the left leg resting on the right foot. The secondary resonator, attached below the neck of the instrument, rests on the left knee and the main resonator rests on a mat, touching the right knee. The instrument is played tilted

pg. 734

forwards. The left arm encircles the neck to fret the melody strings, the fret positions giving a 12-note scale roughly equivalent to Western equal temperament. The left forearm, moving up and down the smooth surface of the neck, also supports and balances the vīṇā (it is considered sacrilegious to play the vīṇā left-handed).
        The melody strings are struck (downwards only) with the nails of the middle and forefingers of the right hand and muted with the fingertips. The melody string nearest the tāla strings is called sāraṇī and is tuned to the system-tonic (sh?aḍja). The next string (pañcama) is tuned a 4th below, and the next (mandra) an octave below the sāraṇī; the fourth string (anumandra) is tuned an octave below the pañcama. The sāraṇī is played for most of the time, with occasional descents to the pañcama and very occasional descents to the mandra.
        The melody strings are fretted with the forefinger and middle finger of the left hand. The player develops a groove from the corner of the nail across the tip of each finger within which the string slides, the method of playing being up and down single stings. The low string tension permits pitch movements of up to four semi-tones by deflection of the string downwards and along the fret. The player deflects, or ‘pulls’, the sāraṇī under the pañcama (and the pañcama under the mandra), while simultaneously muting the pañcama etc. with the under-side of the tips of both fingers.
        The large frets and absence of a fingerboard permit the player to sound notes without using the right hand by gliding up to a fret from a pitch below and/or by deflecting the string behind a fret. Both types of melodic movement are called gamaka. Gamaka executed by deflecting the string are conceived as continuous movements between the 12 pitches of the scale plus seven other ‘gamaka’ pitches (located roughly midway between tonic and minor 2nd; major 2nd and minor 3rd; major 3rd and perfect 4th; augmented 4th and perfect 5th; perfect 5th and minor 6th; major 6th and minor 7th; and major 7th and supertonic). Different, and complex, configurations of such melismatic movements characterize different ragas.
        In the Mysore tradition, facility in executing gamaka is highly regarded; in deflected gamaka the timing is often deliberately complex and asymmetrical. The Mysore vīṇā masters teach the skill of alternating struck notes, which mark rhythmic accents, and gamaka, which through their relative dynamics and complex timing mask – or conceal – rhythmic accents.
        The three tāla (metre) strings are tuned to the system-tonic, the octave above and, the perfect 5th between. They are struck (upwards only) with the nail of the little finger of the right hand.

(iii) Repertory. The vīṇā performance consists of several discrete musical items varying in duration from five minutes to an hour or more, each of which explores and develops a single raga. Each raga comprises a collection of melodic ideas mainly derived from kṛti (see below), which, when skilfully combined, are regarded as producing an integral and unique musical experience.
        Each musical item starts with ālāpana, during which no tāla (metre) operates and there is no percussion accompaniment; the tāla strings are struck for occasional timbral contrast with the melody strings. In longer musical items, ālāpana is followed by tānam, in which rhythmic patterns are built up by alternating strokes on the tāla and melody strings. In the compositions and subsequent improvisations which follow tānam, a tāla operates and the mṛdaṅgam (drum) provides a percussion accompaniment. In this context, the tāla strings are struck to mark the main beats of the tāla only (for example in ādi tāla – comprising 8 beats – they are struck on 1, 5 and 7). In the Mysore vina tradition this is strictly adhered to, though elsewhere, because of the influence of Hindustani sitar technique, innovators may tend to mark every beat of the tāla.
        The bulk of the saṅgīta repertory comprises kṛti (elaborations of songs on religious–philosophical themes originating from the mid-18th century to the mid-19th). The most popular composer is Tyāgarāja, followed by Mūthusvāmi Dīkṣitar and Śyāma Śāstri. The right-hand strokes (on the melody strings) of the vīṇā represent the consonants of the song text. When a kṛti is performed, lines of the song text are repeated (from four to 16 or more times) with progressive melodic development. Two consistent features of such development are the gradual increase in rhythmic density and the extension of the range of pitch movement, which build up excitement and tension in the listener. On the vīṇā, this involves the left arm moving faster and farther up and down the neck. Towards the end of such developments the tension is released by alternating this material with a contrasting line of melody/song text, followed by a return to the first rendering of the original line. Spontaneous improvisation may occur within this, and wholly improvised items of repertory (pallavi) follow the same cyclical form.

9. Fretless vīṇā. The vicitrā vīṇā and goṭṭuvādyam are unfretted lutes of north and south Indian classical musics respectively. They are played, Hawaiian-guitar style, by a smooth sliding-block in the left hand and plucking by the right. Both appear to be modern instruments dating from the 19th century; there may be a historical relationship with the medieval ekatantrikā, which is played similarly (see §4 above), or with the 16th-century sirbīṇ. The goṭṭuvādyam (‘block instrument’) is structurally a sarasvatī vīṇā without frets, but, uniquely for a southern classical instrument, it has from 7 to 13 sympathetic strings, which run from their pegs (set in the distal side of the neck) through and along the finger-board under the main strings. The instrument rests on the floor before the player, with the resonator to his right. The sliding-block is of hardwood. The first melody string, nearest to the player, is a double course tuned to an octave. The instrument is plucked with the fingers, and its repertory is principally the classical vocal raga compositions of Karnataka music. The goṭṭuvādyam is also called the mahānāṭaka vīṇā, suggesting an origin in dramatic music.
        The northern vicitrā (‘colourful’) vīṇā is structurally a hybrid of the bīṇ sitār type: it has a wide neck (about 10 cm) which is flat on top and rounded in section beneath (about 3 cm deep), and pegs for the sympathetic strings set in the proximal side (the playing position is as for the goṭṭuvādyam; fig. 6). The neck terminates on the right in an integrated, wood-covered resonator, which in some cases is smaller and pear-shaped, in others larger and similar to that of the sitar. The instrument rests on two large bottle-gourds which are screwed into the back of the neck. The main strings are tuned in descending 4ths and 5ths (see §7); the slider (baṭṭā) is a glass egg.

10. 19th-century ephemera. Among the early modern

pg. 735

6. North Indian vicitrā vīṇā (fretless vīṇā)


Indian writers on music and collectors of instruments the name of Raja Sir Saurindro Mohun Tagore of Calcutta (1840–4914) is pre-eminent. In addition to much writing in Bengali and English, he collected many Indian instruments for presentation to European museums in London, Paris and Brussels. His otherwise excellent work is, however, somewhat marred by an attempt to give Sanskritized vīṇā names to instruments that did not in practice bear them: thus ‘rudra vīṇā’ (see §7) for the long-necked rabāb; ‘śāradīyā vīṇā (‘autumnal lute’) for the sarod (even though he admits in the same sentence that the name means ‘to sing’ in Persian); and ‘kacchapi vīṇā’ and ‘tritantri vīṇā’ for the flat-backed kachvā sitār and small amateur sitar respectively (admitting that both in practice are termed sitar). While the term vīṇā, in the long sweep of Hindu culture, has at times been used tor denote any string instrument, this usage often implied an indigenous origin for the group which was neither useful nor justified, and which misled some Western museum curators and writers on organology.
        Fufther, some objects of Tagore’s collecting were ephemeral: examples were the ‘vīṇā’ with a sitar neck terminating in a violin body, the kā~cā vīṇā (a glass sitar), the bharata vīṇā (a kachvā sitār with skin soundtable), the vipañcī vīṇā (see §2) with a waisted gourd resonator, the prasāriṇī vīṇā (a sitar with two necks) or the śruti vīṇā (a sitar with frets which could be arranged to give the ancient Indian 22-microtone scale). The rañjanī vīṇā, however, was of the hybrid bīṇ sitār type, which had some vogue in the 19th century.

        Bharata: Nāṭyaśāstra (4th–5th centuries), ed. M. Ghosh, ii (Calcutta, 1956; Eng. trans., 1961); ed. M. Ramakrishna Kavi and J. S. Pade, iv (Baroda, 1964)
        Śārṅgadeva: Saṅgītaratnākara (13th century), ed. S. Subrahmanya Sastri, iii (Madras, 1951)
        Rāmāmātya: Swaramelakalānidhi (c1550), ed. M. S. Ramaswami Aiyar (Annamalai, 1932)
        Abu’l Faẓl: Ā’īn-ī?-akbarī (c1590), trans. F. Gladwin (1783); trans. H. S. Jarrett, rev. J. Sarkar in Saṅgīt, Bibliotheca Indica, cclxx (Calcutta, 1948), 260ff
        Parameśvara: Vīṇā lakṣana, ed. J. S. Pade, Gaekwad’s Oriental Series, cxxxi (Baroda. 1959)
        F. Fowke: ‘On the Vina or Indian Lyre’, Asiatick Researches, i (1788), 295; repr. in Tagore: Hindu Music (1875)
        N. A. Willard: A Treatise on the Music of Hindustan [1834j; repr. in S. M. Tagore (1875)
        S. M. Tagore: Hindu Music from Various Authors (Calcutta, 1875, 2/1882/R1965)
        —: Yantra-koś (Calcutta, 1875/R1977) [in Bengali]
        C. R. Day: The Music and Musical Instruments of Southern India and the Deccan (Delhi, 1891/R1974)
        L. Schroeder, ed.: Yajurveda (Leipzig, 1900)
        C. Sachs: Die Musikinstrumente Indiens und Indonesiens (Berlin and Leipiig, 1914, 2/1923)
        A. K. Coomaraswamy: ‘The Parts of a Vīṇā’, Journal of the American Oriental Society, l (1930), li (1931), lvii (1937)
        —: ‘The Old Indian Vina’, Journal of the American Oriental Society, li (1931), 47
        C. Marcel-Dubois: Les instruments de musique de l’lnde ancienne (Paris, 1941)
        C. Sachs: The History of Musical Instruments (New York, 1941)
        L. E. R. Picken: ‘The Origins of the Short Lute’, GSJ, viii (1955), 32
        V. Sankar: ‘The Process of Vīṇā Fretting’, Journal of the Music Academy Madras, xxx (1959)
        J. Becker: ‘The Migration of the Arched Harp from India to Burma’, GSJ, xx (1967), 17
        J. Kunst: Hindu-Javanese Musical Instruments (The Hague, 2/1968)
        E. W. te Nijenhuis: Dattilam: a Compendium of Ancient Indian Music (Leiden, 1970)
        G. H. and N. Tarlekar: Musical Instruments in Indian Sculpture (Pune, 1972)
        F. J. de Hen: ‘A Case of Gesunkenes Kulturgut: the Toila’, GSJ, xxix (1976), 84
        E. W. te Nijenhuis: The Ragas of Somanātha (Leiden, 1976)
        B. C. Deva: Musical Instruments of India: their History and Development (Calcutta, 1978)
        R. V. Ayyangar: Gamaka and Vādanabheda: a Study of Somanātha’s Rāga Vibodha in a Historical and Practical Context (diss., U. of Pennsylvania, 1980)
        W. Kaufmann: Altindien, Musikgeschichte in Bildem, ii/8 (Leipzig, 1982)
ALASTAIR DICK (1, 5–8(i), 9–10),
David Russell Watson

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Sorry, I should have mentioned that this entry's from the New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments.


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Reply with quote  #3 
Thanks for posting that article, David!
Dasani - the official bottled water of ICM
Panini - the official bread of ICM
David Russell Watson

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Posts: 362
Reply with quote  #4 
Originally Posted by "povster"
Thanks for posting that article, David!
You're very welcome! I thought it was pretty interesting.


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Reply with quote  #5 
Thanks! I liked these parts...
the forward projection of the sound is weak, but it vibrates powerfully into the body of the player
The length of the fret area is traditionally given as nine fists – i.e. the distance from the navel to the top of the skull (seat of the three octaves: navel, throat and head)
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