Strings attached: Why rudra veena is in a state of decline : The Tribune India

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Strings attached: Why rudra veena is in a state of decline

While superstitions have long orchestrated the doom of rudra veena, the instrument is also unwieldy, limiting the number of its exponents

Strings attached: Why rudra veena is in a state of decline

A disciple of Ustad Asad Ali Khan, Jyoti Hedge teaches rudra veena to several students. Photo courtesy: Bharat Tiwari

Shailaja Khanna

One of India’s oldest extant string instruments, the rudra veena (been, as it is colloquially called) has been in a state of decline for the last 100 years. Today, very few practitioners remain.

When the last great beenkaar from a beenkaar family, the late Ustad Asad Ali Khan (1937-2011), went for an audition to All India Radio in the late 1950s, he introduced his instrument as Saraswati veena, the more well-known version of the instrument played in South India. When questioned as to why he did that, he simply said no one knew the rudra veena and there was no slot for it in the AIR’s documentation. Despite being a seventh generation rudra veena practitioner, this is what he had to resort to for being enrolled with AIR.

Ustad Bahauddin. Photo courtesy: Bharat Tiwari

But why was it so rarely played? One obvious reason was that it was a difficult instrument, unwieldy and acoustically not as audible as more modern string instruments. Also, it was not taught to every musician.

Believed to have been created by Lord Shiva himself, the rudra veena was considered an instrument for prayer. “He who can play the veena and has shruti (knowledge) can reach God,” said Rishi Yagnavalka. Over the centuries, even after it had ceased to be just an accompanying instrument and was being played solo, it retained its aura of exclusivity. Only certain traditional families played it; within these, too, only a few chosen disciples, who were considered capable of maintaining the ritual service associated with it, were allowed to learn it. Purity of the body and mind and strict adherence to daily practice were a must for beenkars. If there was any laxity, the rudra veena could curse you, it was universally believed. Those who dedicated their lives to it could become childless if they were not worthy of playing it. Such superstitions made it an even more demanding instrument to learn.

Mian Himmat Khan, a blind beenkar in the court of Mughal emperor Shah Alam. Photo courtesy: Katherine Butler Schofield

Interestingly, Mir Nasir Ahmed, grandson of Mian Himmat Khan, the last great beenkar of the Mughal court, was childless while in service at the Delhi durbar. He escaped the city in 1858 and began living under the patronage of Kunwar Bikrama Singh in Jalandhar. He was now just playing it for prayer, not in the court. He was blessed with two children in his fifties. This belief of being inauspicious for unworthy practitioners was a huge deterrent and every generation saw very few beenkars. Those who played were accorded a universal seniority, regardless of lineage. In the last 100 years, Ustad Bande Ali Khan, who lived in Indore, has been one of the most respected beenkars. Hailing from his lineage, Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar (1929-1990) was a great beenkar, too. The story of how this link came about is interesting. Bande Ali Khan challenged the musicians of the day to sing while he played his veena. He said that whoever won would get to marry his daughter. Ustad Zakiruddin Dagar took up the challenge and married Umrao. His son, Ustad Ziauddin Dagar, spent nine years in Indore with his Nana, learning the rudra veena from him.

Ziauddin’s son, Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, turned out to be a great veena player too. He also made physical modifications to the instrument, making it more audible. He changed its hold and it was now held on the lap like the Saraswati veena, not upright.

Today, his son Ustad Bahauddin Dagar is the finest exponent of the rudra veena, and teaches six students. Interestingly, Bahauddin’s father encouraged him to play the veena; the family tradition was Dhrupad singing. A generation earlier, Zia Mohiuddin had to take permission from his father to play the been as the superstition attached to playing the instrument was so palpable.

Bahauddin shares that the rules were still rigid — to not touch the instrument without bathing, only lay out the instrument in a pure clean place, never play if you are ill, and never use the knowledge to show down anyone musically. These rules remain in force. “If you do beimaani (dishonesty) with the instrument, there will be repercussions,” he cautions.

In recent times, Swami Parvatikar (1916-1990) has been a well-known exponent. Ustad Wazir Khan of Rampur, the last of the great Senia ustads, did not teach the been to most of his students. His grandson Dabir Khan (1905-1972), who lived and died in Kolkata, was a beenkar, but not really a professional musician; as was Pandit Birendra Kishore Roy Chowdhury (1901-1972). Ustad Wazir Khan taught only sarod and surshingar to his disciples Ustad Allaudin Khan and Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan. Interestingly, the surshingar was created to teach been techniques to non-been playing disciples!

Ustad Asad Ali Khan belonged to a beenkar family; sadly, he was the last of his line. His best-known veena disciple is Jyoti Hedge, who lives on a farm in Karnataka and is teaching rudra veena to 41 students. Ustad Shamsuddin Faridi Desai (1936-2011) was a fine beenkar, too; his father had trained under Ustad Waheed Khan of Indore.

The superstition of inauspiciousness attached to the rudra veena extends to its makers too. Rikhi Ram, the most well-known instrument maker in North India (the family moved from Lahore to Delhi), did not make veenas. The late Bishan Das Sharma apparently sustained an eye injury while he was merely repairing a veena. The instrument makers who are ‘authorised’ to make it are few. It takes about two years to make a really good veena. And the low number of practitioners isn’t helping the cause of the rudra veena.

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