N. Rajendran presents his veenas with the flourish of a jeweller, carefully lining up the handcrafted string instruments against the wall of his drawing room in Thanjavur with the ‘kudam’ (resonator) resting on doughnut-shaped cushions on the floor.
It’s been raining heavily, and there’s no electricity in Rajendran’s locality. A small candle is holding on bravely. The flickering flame picks up Rajendran’s workmanship as he removes the red canvas covering of the instruments. The strings seem to respond automatically to his touch as he takes off the wooden slat protecting the fingerboard.
“This one took me more than a week to complete,” he says, pointing to a reddish-brown veena inlaid with etched silver along its edges. “And this one, with the Ashta-Lakshmi (eight manifestations of Goddess Lakshmi) on the kudam, also needed more effort than usual,” he adds.
At 62 years, Rajendran is a fourth generation maker of the veena in Thanjavur, the inheritor of a heritage craft that is practised by around 150 people here. He makes bespoke string instruments like the Saraswathi Veena, Ekantha Veena, Rudra Veena and Tanpura in his home-based workshop in the temple town’s Srinivasapuram neighbourhood.
Rajendran was recently in the news for making a replica of the ‘Mayuri Yaazh’, an ancient open-stringed harp of Tamil music with the resonator base shaped like a peacock. “I’m hoping to make one with the face of a lion next,” he says.
Even though he grew up watching veenas being made, and got trained in the family business himself, Rajendran didn’t really take it up professionally until his father Natarajan passed away. “I was working in a bus company in Pollachi when my father died. I didn’t want this craft to disappear, so I quit my job and returned home at the age of 20 to Thanjavur,” he says.
A lot has changed in the 40-odd years that Rajendran has devoted to the craft. “We used to stick the different parts of the veena with vajram, a gum made from heated plant resin, and nail them into place with hand-shaven bamboo slivers. These have been replaced by industrial epoxy adhesive and iron nails now,” he says.
The GI tag
To keep the weight (within five kilos) bearable for long hours of playing, the smaller secondary ‘kudam’ of the veena is now made of reinforced plastic (fibre) rather than wood.
The Thanjavur veena was awarded a Geographical Indications (GI) tag in 2014, but this has not really changed things much on the ground, says Rajendran. “Though the minimum price of a veena is Rs. 30,000, artisans can earn only around Rs. 5,000 per piece after deducting labour and material costs,” he says.
A more ornately engraved instrument can fetch up to Rs. 60,000. The perfectionist in him makes him stay away from supplying music stores with the lower priced models.
“Usually, cheaper veenas are made of low-grade wood and are vulnerable to damage. I prefer to work on personal orders, and give a three-year guarantee. My son or I deliver the instrument personally, and I also take care of repairs,” he says.
The right wood
The wood is sourced from the jackfruit trees grown in Panruti (176 km from Thanjavur, in Cuddalore district). “The ‘pazha’ (jackfruit) is the best wood for musical instruments because it gives a good vibration. We need seasoned wood, which should be at least 50 years old, to make instruments like the veena, thavil and mridangam,” says Rajendran.
A small truckload (enough for 10 veenas), costs him approximately Rs. 75,000. “The wood is cut into two-inch thick pieces. We then bring it home and further plane it down to 12 mm thickness. All of it is manual work,” he says, showing me the hollowed out casing of a Rudra Veena.
The toughest to make is the ‘Ekantha Veena,’ which uses the entire trunk of a single tree. “You can make three Saraswathi Veenas with the wood of one Ekantha Veena,” says Rajendran. “But more people want to play the Ekantha Veena these days because it gives a better musical resonance.”
Rajendran was awarded the District Craft Award for best craftsman three years ago by Poompuhar, the Tamil Nadu Handicrafts Development Corporation Ltd. “A traditional instrument maker like me has to be skilled in more than just carpentry and woodwork,” he says. “I formally learned Carnatic music for two years just to understand how to tune the veena. It took me a year simply to learn how to identify sruti (pitch).”
He sounds wistful when he admits that his son, though trained in veena making, will not be following in his footsteps. “Young people have far more profitable career options these days. But I have taught four others to make these instruments instead. They’ve apprenticed under me for over 10 years, and I’m confident that they will take the craft forward,” says Rajendran.
As the rain lets up, and the electrician turns on a tester bulb on a naked wire to help us take photographs, we catch a clearer glimpse of Rajendran’s workshop. The chisels and hammers look like they haven’t changed from his ancestors’ days. “I love working with wood,” says Rajendran, as he carefully taps out grooves on the ‘kudam’. “And to me, there’s nothing better than making veenas.”