The Last Notes Of The Thanjavur Veena
Every day, N Thamilmani walks from his home, passing a tree, a coconut vendor, one or two ambling cows and his cousin’s house, to take a narrow passageway to his workshop. His workshop, in the heart of Thanjavur, is made up of two small rooms; these are separated by a veranda that lets in a flood of light during the day. Here, he spends his time chipping away at jackfruit wood—that could easily pass for a mace in the hands of a Neanderthal—and fashioning it into a veena, as graceful as the one that sits on the lap of Saraswati in Ravi Varma’s paintings.
His room is so cramped with things—pieces of wood and tools of his trade—that whenever he gets up to fetch a pencil sharpener or a box of Fevicol glue from the shelf on the other side, his assistant has to stop his work and alter the position of the veena he is working on, to make way. The tiles in the roof look as if they won’t stand another monsoon.
The tools look old and weary. Everything seems to be in contrast to the beauty and promise of the fresh and intricately-carved veena that will come out of that room.
Sometimes, Thamilmani says, he thinks of yet another contrast: Between the days of his father and his own. He comes from a family of aacharis (‘wood craftsman’ in Tamil). He learnt his craft from his father, as the members of his family have done for generations. (His cousin next door is an aachari too.) He is as dedicated to the task of making veenas as his father was, but, adjusted for the cost of living, makes less money, feels less appreciated and is less healthy. What pains him most is a nagging fear—that the art and craft of veena-making might disappear from Thanjavur with his generation.
Each veena, while adhering to the standards set by Govinda Dikshithar, is unique; each has the stamp of its maker, says S Palanivel, 74, who apprenticed for over 40 years with Narayana Achari, one of the most respected masters of the earlier generation. Many older veenas are still around, getting better with age. Says Mahadeva Achari, another veena-maker. “The wood is yellow now,” he says, pointing to a veena under construction, “But as it ages, it turns dark red or brown. The quality of the sound becomes better. Its value goes up.”
For the aacharis, though, the opposite seems to be true. A generation ago, they were reasonably well off, their work somehow seemed to keep them in good health, and they had a social standing that was emotionally satisfying.
Many of them lived and worked in the central part of Thanjavur, once the capital of the Chola empire, and about a kilometre away from Periya Kovil, (the ‘Big Temple), a thousand-year-old symbol of the kingdom’s wealth and power. They lived in large houses, with the backyards stretching out to the street behind. Now, their houses—divided and sub-divided, sold or rented out—are dark, small and old.
“My forefathers had discipline.” says Thamilmani. “They started their work at sunrise and wound up as the sun went down. If they worked on the wood one week, they worked on stag horn the next. Wood generates ushnam [heat], and stag horn is inherently cool. These properties balanced each other out and kept them in good health. Now, we don’t use stag horn, we use plastic. I work on wood all the time. Sometimes, the work stretches late into night. That has given me all sorts of ailments—blood pressure, sugar, what not.”
There was always more to the art than making money or keeping good health. Even a generation ago, these craftsmen felt they were a part of an ancient tradition that kept art and music alive.
During his father’s time, when students bought their instruments, they made the trip to Thanjavur, accompanied by their teachers and parents, from far afield: Chennai, Bangalore, Kochi. The student would prostrate himself, or herself at the feet of the veena-maker, take his blessings and then make payment with the cash on a plate, along with fruit, coconuts and betel leaves.