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The makers of melody

Veena makers, Simpadipura

As I walk along the sleepy roads of Simpadipura, a nondescript village in Doddaballapura taluk, I try to comprehend the place’s musical legacy. A number of small, unmaintained houses are on either side of this village, which is known for making veenas. T Umeshappa, a veena maker, is seated in front of a shop. 

Umesh takes me on his motorbike to his house which is nearby. In the sheltered porch of the house, there are four veenas hung up by their necks for repair. Umesh shows me two kinds of sound boxes — one made of wood and the other of car fibre. The car fibre sound box is cheap and popular these days. But the wooden ones are more authentic.
The people of Simpadipura take pride in the fact that the veena in the Sringeri Math, said to be the world’s largest veena, was made in Simpadipura.

According to Umesh, there are four types of veena designs. The first type is of plain wood and has a minimal design. Plastic is not used while making this type of veenas. The second one has plastic borders used upon the wood. The third has thin, small sticks cut out of a plastic sheet and designed to be placed as cross-
cutting. The fourth type of veena, which is made entirely of wood, has elaborate designs and is the most expensive.

Umesh takes me to a small, old workshop across the empty fields. The sound of sawing meets the ear from a distance, amidst the noise of cawing crows. This small workshop serves as a warehouse as well. It belongs to veena maker Manjunath Paapanna. His family has been making veenas for generations.

Manjunath’s uncle is sawing out a veena’s neck while Manjunath is preparing a design upon a sound box. They use simple tools such as chisels and knives to carve the wood. Manjunath uses a compass to measure and mark on a sound box. He calls out the measurements to a young man standing outside the shelter and making notes. 

The wooden sound boxes are usually made of jackwood. The wood is hollowed out to form the sound box. One of the boxes at the warehouse has a rosewood cover on the playing side. Sometimes Burma teak is used to make this flat cover.

The head of the veena is designed in different manners. The head is often carved out to resemble the face of a yaali, a mythical Indian creature which is half-lion and half-elephant. 

Youngsters in the village are well
educated. Some of them have moved to factories in the towns to earn a livelihood. A few of them have returned to the village to carry on the legacy of their ancestors. Interestingly, even those who do not have a background in instrument making are showing interest in learning the craft and are waiting for opportunities. 

Stringed instruments

Veena making is a 70-year-old tradition in Simpadipura. The Karnataka State Gazetteer 1989 mentions that the craft of making stringed musical instruments died out in Tirumala near Magadi town in the early 20th century. In the 1950s, Simpadipura, which is situated in the same region, revived the craft.

Simpadipura was known for making not only veenas but tamburas as well. Umesh says that nobody makes the tambura in the village these days as electronic tamburas have now replaced the handcrafted ones. Not many people know of Simpadipura and that this is the only place outside Thanjavur where veenas are made in a substantial number in South India.

Nonagenarian Penna Hoblayya, also known as Pennoblayya, a resident of the village, is credited with bringing the art of veena making to Simpadipura. He worked as an apprentice at a veena making unit and learnt the craft under a veena maker. After returning to Simpadipura, he trained fellow villagers in the craft. Thereafter, for generations, the people of Simpadipura engaged in this craft and passed it on to their children. Veena making is an intricate craft and it takes nearly five years to learn it. A veena has four parts: the taley (head), the koda (sound box), the dandi (neck) and the taley dhoni (peg box). The veena makers procure the wood and cut it up according to the required size. The veenas are rated differently, based on the type, craftsperson’s expertise and the quality of wood. Finally, the wood is polished with sandpaper. Veenas are completely handcrafted.

While about 40 families were engaged in the craft when the trade was at its peak, now around 10 families are continuing the craft. About 10 craftspeople in the village possess the skill to make the entire body of a veena. If one is quick, a veena can be made in six days.

Now the artisans prefer regular carpentry rather than veena making since carpentry is easier and more lucrative. “This shift is inevitable as there is a decline in the demand for veenas,” says a craftsperson.

Pennoblayya presently doesn’t meet people because of old age. Journalist Cha Ha Raghunath, in his Kannada article on the veena makers of Simpadipura titled ‘Veenebrahmaru’, traces the life of Pennoblayya, from an agricultural labourer to a master craftsman. Pennoblayya has stopped making veenas now and his children are into other professions. 

Veena making was initially well-
financed in Simpadipura but there were no agencies to manage marketing. Maruthi Veene mathu Tambura Kaigarike Sahakara Sangha, an association formed to support the craftspeople, trained people to string the instruments. The makers were self-sufficient and didn’t need loans at that time. Villagers say that some of the office bearers of the sangha were corrupt and there was no government support, so the sangha became defunct.

Changing tides

“There is a slight increase in the demand for veenas in recent times as more people are learning music while few are into making instruments,” says Manjunath. He feels that while the government backs modern-day carpenters, it doesn’t pay heed to the problems of traditional carpenters. 

Procuring wood is difficult since wood is quite expensive and not easily accessible. Marketing is a challenge as well, as there is no proper infrastructure in the village. 

The makers sell these veenas directly to the music stores in Bengaluru and not to individual customers or middlemen. The veena makers prepare the instruments in bulk and sell them to retailers. A shop places an order for 5 or 10 pieces once, every time the veenas are sold out. Today, a veena generally costs around Rs 8,000, although the price of a customised piece ranges
between Rs 12,000 and Rs 13,000.

According to Vinod of Shiva Musicals, an outlet that sells Simpadipura veenas, “Veenas are often passed down to generations. Hence, many musicians keep antique veenas with them and don’t buy new ones. It is often the teachers who buy new veenas for their students. The sales follow no pattern and are hence unpredictable.”

Aruna Musicals, Magadi Musicals and Veena Works are other known instrument stores in Bengaluru. Usually, the wooden structure of the veenas bought in these places is prepared and carved in Simpadipura. The strings, brass frets and the bridge are obtained from Thanjavur. Then the setting of the mela, a certain cover over parts of the veena’s neck, is done in the city. 

As the income from the craft is not sufficient to sustain them, veena makers engage in agricultural work, tilling the fields and managing the livestock. In the face of all odds, the craftspeople are striving hard to continue the legacy.

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