The design of the veena has evolved over the years, probably from the form seen in South Indian Medieval paintings and temple sculpture: a string instrument with two gourd resonators connected by a central shaft, possibly of bamboo, and held diagonally from lap to shoulder. Veena in South India developing from Kinnari Veena in the 1600s was initially known as Tanjori Veena after hereditary makers from Thanjavur but was later called Saraswati veena. Made in several regions in South India, those made by makers from Thanjavur in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu are to date considered the most sophisticated. Sangeet Ratnakar calls it Ektantri Veena and gives the method for its construction. The North Indian rudra veena and vichitra veena, technically zithers, demonstrate this genealogy. Descendents of Tansen reserved Rudra Veena for family and out of reverence began calling it Saraswati Veena.
An example of the Veena's use in modern western popular music is found on the song "Sail Away Ladies," on the John Fahey album "The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party." Alan Wilson, better known for his role with Canned Heat, accompanies Fahey's guitar with a Veena part.
About four feet in length, its design consists of a large resonator (kudam) carved and hollowed out of a log (usually of jackwood), a tapering hollow neck (dandi) topped with 24 brass or bell-metal frets set in scalloped black wax on wooden tracks, and a tuning box culminating in a downward curve and an ornamental dragon's head (yali). A small table-like wooden bridge (kudurai)—about 2 x 2½ x 2 inches—is topped by a convex brass plate glued in place with resin. Two rosettes, formerly of ivory, now of plastic or horn, are on the top board (palakai) of the resonator. Four main playing strings tuned to the tonic and the fifth in two octaves (for example, B flat-E flat below bass clef - B flat- E flat in bass clef) stretch from fine tuning connectors attached to the end of the resonator. across the bridge and above the fretboard to four large-headed pegs in the tuning box. Three subsidiary drone strings tuned to the tonic, fifth, and upper tonic (E flat - B flat- E flat in the tuning given above) cross a curving side bridge leaning against the main bridge, and stretch on the player's side of the neck to three pegs matching those of the main playing strings. All seven strings today are of steel, with the lower strings often wound like those of the lower strings of a guitar.
The veena is played by sitting cross-legged with the instrument held tilted slightly away from the player. The small gourd on the left rests on the player's left thigh, the left arm passing beneath the neck with the hand curving up and around so that the fingers rest upon the frets. The palm of the right hand rests on the edge of the top plank so that the fingers (usually index and middle) can pluck the strings. The drone strings are played with the little finger. The veena's large resonator is placed on the floor, beyond the right thigh. The photo of Veena Dhanammal more accurately illustrates how the veena is held than the more fanciful Ravi Varma painting.
Like the sitar, the left hand technique involves playing on the frets, controlled pushing on the strings to achieve higher tones and glissandi through increased tension, and finger flicks, all reflecting the characteristics of various ragas and their ornamentation (gamaka). Modern innovations include one or two circular sound holes (like that of the lute), substitution of machine heads for wooden pegs for easier tuning, and the widespread use of transducers for amplification in performance.
Religious Associations Within Hinduism
Goddess Saraswati depicted playing the veena
The patron Hindu Goddess of learning and the arts, Saraswati, is often depicted seated upon a swan playing a veena. Lord Shiva is also depicted playing or holding a vina in His form called "Vinadhara," which means "bearer of the vina." Also, the great Hindu sage Narada was known as a veena maestro. Ravana, the antagonist of the Ramayana, who is also a great scholar, a capable ruler and a devoted follower of Shiva, was also a versatile veena player.
Many references to the veena are made in old Sanskrit and Tamil literature, and musical compositions. Examples include "veena venu mridanga vAdhya rasikAm" in Meenakshi Pancharathnam, "mAsil veeNaiyum mAlai madhiyamum" Thevaram by Appar.
Some other variations of the veena are the Rudra veena, Mahanataka veena, Vichitra veena, and Gottuvadhyam veena (also called the Chitra veena). Like Ranjan Veena Mohan veena is the name given to a modified form of guitar, invented and popularised by Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and often confused with ancient Indian musical instruments.
Tone and acoustics
Nobel Prize-winning physicist C.V. Raman has described the veena as having a unique construction. The string terminations at both ends are curved and not sharp. Also, the frets have much more curvature than any other instrument. This design produces more harmonics than any other instruments.
Some believe that the beeswax beneath the frets acts as a noise filter.