The Rudra Veena is one of the very first instruments to have been introduced to Indian classical music. ‘Rudra’ is another name of Lord Shiva and therefore, ‘Rudra Veena’ means ‘the Veena that is dear to Lord Shiva’. Mythology has it that Shiva had created the stringed instrument Inspired by his wife Parvati’s beauty. Linguistically, it is also assumed that the name Rudra is a derivative of the Persian word Rud that means strings. Ravana is also known as a master of Rudra Veena and he used to worship Lord Shiva by playing it. The Rudra Veena symbolizes the Indian ethos throughout the subcontinent and connects the listener to the cosmos, as it is the only acoustic string instrument that can produce the sound of Om, the ultimate reality. It is called the mother of all string instruments.
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Earlier the Rudra Veena had a long tubular body that was made of bamboo. But due to its short lifespan and the need to change it every alternate year, it was replaced with teak wood in the 20th century. This gives the instrument a longer life and a better tone that is different from every other stringed instrument. Eminent players such as Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and Ustad Asad Ali Khan developed this instrument to enhance the subtleties of sound production. The major alteration is made by Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar redesigning the Rudra Veena with bigger resonating gourds, a thicker tube, thicker steel strings and the closing of the ‘Javari Thut’. This anatomical change produced a soft and deep sound when plucked without a plectrum. On the other side, the ultra-large resonators and thicker tube made the Veena heavier and hence, it became impossible to play in upright posture. In Dagarvani style, the Veena is usually played in a posture that corresponds to Carnatic posture.
This ancient instrument is rarely played in today’s time. Due to its association with Lord Shiva, the Rudra Veena gained popularity among yogis and ascetics. For them, playing it formed a unity between ritual and meditation. Its sound was considered to possess the power to cleanse and purify the mind of the musician as well as the listeners. It was thought to uplift the consciousness to reach a transcendental spirituality. It was played along with Veda mantra Pathan (Vedic recital) and Yaga Yagna (Vedic ritual) that were performed by rishis. Considering the Rudra Veena to be equivalent to the conch, it was hailed to be sacred and could be played only by a few selected men to accompany the worship rituals. The grammar and principles of the Rudra Veena were based on the Dhrupad style of music that evolved through the chanting of the Sama Veda. When this temple instrument entered the court of the Mughals, its tempo and lyric along with the style of performing changed. This was the golden period for the Rudra Veena as its popularity rose between the 8th to 16th centuries.
Initially, it was used to perform ‘Varnanas’ of deities but now it was being played for performing Shringar Rasa, Prakriti Varnana and praises of emperors. At that time, it used to have one string and one gourd. Around the 16th century, the shape of the instrument was modified to the present day form. Now, the Rudra Veena became one of the most important instruments of the music of the aristocratic court. Later, it became the main solo instrument of the primary vocal style of Dhrupad music.
With the rise of the Khayal, the music style of North India, and the emergence of the Sitar and the Sarod, the Rudra Veena gradually lost its importance. The instrument declined in popularity also in part due to the initiation of the Surbahar in the early 19th century, which allowed sitarists to perform more easily the Alap sections of slow dhrupad-style ragas.
Today, the Rudra Veena is on the verge of extinction that is about to take away with it a great history of Indian classical music. While it is still worshipped as the greatest of all musical instruments, it is rarely found anymore on musical platforms. Despite being integral to the esoteric Dhrupad stream of music of North India, the Rudra Veena now has only a handful of practitioners. As a result of low demand, there is low manufacture and hence, an even lower number of people knowing the art of making it. The instrument that takes six to eight months to be made gets sold only one or two a year. The low demand for it is also because of the price that is a disincentive. Even the rich, who can afford to do so, won’t be able to master the art of playing it because of the extremely subtle techniques of playing the instrument. It takes lifelong devotion and discipline to master the art.
A new curiosity is being noticed nowadays about its deep, resonating and penetrating quality of music in the fast and restless lifestyle of this globalized world. The Rudra Veena is being rediscovered by a growing international audience, who are in search of a spiritual livelihood. Music Therapy and contemporary Yoga practices have also included the sound of the Rudra Veena to relieve stress and anxiety.