Bobbili Veena: Andhra’s artisans overcome challenges to keep 17th-century musical legacy alive

Bobbili Veena: Andhra’s artisans overcome challenges to keep 17th-century musical legacy alive

Bobbili Veena: Andhra’s artisans overcome challenges to keep 17th-century musical legacy alive jackfruit wood strong high quality sound 30stades

Eswara Rao Divili uses chisels and files to carve a log of jackfruit wood into kunda – the round base of the Bobbili Veena, the string instrument integral to Carnatic classical music. This kunda is grooved to make a hollow structure with a uniform thickness of one-fourth inch. Eswara keeps his eyes fixed on the wood while carving as any mistake will adversely impact the quality of sound emanating from the Bobbili veena, a specialised Saraswati Veena carved from a single piece of wood. 

After finishing the kunda, he will carve the 51-inch-long ‘dandi’, the frame that forms the length of the veena, continuing the grooving from kunda on the same log.

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Eswara, 30, belongs to the Viswa Brahmin community of artisans (they use the Sarwasiddi or Sarvasiddi surname) who have been making the Bobbili veena since the 17th century.

The musical instrument received the Geographical Indication (GI) tag in 2012 and is made by 45 families in Bobbili and the nearby village of Gollapalli in Andhra Pradesh. Bobbili (which means the royal tiger) is about 120km from Vishakapatnam. 

Melodious history of Bobbili Veena

“I learned the craft from my maternal uncle and have been making veenas since I was 15. We are Sarvasiddis who were originally from Gollapalli. Many craftsmen later settled in Bobbili. The craft is practised in both the places now,” he says. 

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Award-winning Bobbili veena maker Sarvasiddi Atchyuta Narayana (right) with his grandson S Raj Sekhar, who is the fifth generation to practice the craft. Bobbili veena in various sizes displayed above. Pic: through Raj Sekhar
Award-winning Bobbili veena maker Sarvasiddi Atchyuta Narayana (right) with his grandson S Raj Sekhar, who is the fifth generation to practice the craft. Bobbili veena in various sizes displayed above. Pic: through Raj Sekhar

King Pedda Rayudu, the founder of House of Bobbili, was fond of music and ordered veenas for playing in his court. The ancestors of the present-day craftsmen moved from Vizianagaram to Bobbili, where Sarvasiddii Acchanna began making the veena in 1880. It was, however, used only to entertain the kings.

The manufacturing of the Bobbili Veenas for use by the masses was led by Sarvasiddi Appalaswamy in the 1950s. 

Appalaswamy’s great-grandson Sarvasiddi Raj Sekhar and his brother are now the fifth generation in the family practising the craft. They learned it from their famous grandfather Sarvasiddi Atchyuta Narayana, who has won many state awards for his veena-making skills and is currently the in-charge of the Crafts Development Centre at Gollapalli near Bobbili.

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“Bobbili veenas produce a very melodious sound because, one, they are made only from jackfruit wood of an old tree. And two, they are made from a single log without joints, which enhances the sound quality,” Raj Sekhar says.

Eswara Rao Divili cutting wood for making Bobbili Veena at his workshop in Gollapalli. Pic: through Eswara Rao Divili 30 stades
Eswara Rao Divili cutting wood for making Bobbili Veena at his workshop in Gollapalli. Pic: through Eswara Rao Divili

India is home to a rich variety of veenas, the string instrument loved by gods and humans alike. If the Goddess of learning Saraswati is seen holding the Saraswati Veena, Lord Shiva has inspired the Rudra veena which is one of the largest instruments in Indian classical music. Sitar, Chitra Veena, Vichitra Veena, Mohan Veena and Sarod are among the other types of veenas used in instrumental music in India.

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Bobbili Veena is mostly Ekandi, meaning made out of a single log of wood, and a lion’s head carved from wood is fitted at the alley, which is the extension of the veena’s dandi. The other carvings can be a lotus in place of the lion’s head and these veenas are called Kamalam while Nemali veena has a peacock carving.

The music goes on despite challenges

The artisans have continued to make the Bobbili veenas despite facing challenges. “The biggest problem is the availability of jackfruit wood as the state government has prohibited the cutting of trees,” says Eswara.

“We now buy wood from middlemen who procure it from forests near the Andhra Pradesh-Odisha border,” says Eswara. 

Good quality jackfruit wood is yellow in colour and without any insect infestation. For making the longest veena, which is around 52 to 54 inches, good quality wood log of 6 to 8 feet costs around Rs 10,000.

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Peacock Bobbili veena made by Eswara Rao Divili. Pic: through Eswara Rao 30 stades
Peacock Bobbili veena made by Eswara Rao Divili. Pic: through Eswara Rao

“It takes at least 20 to 25 days to ready a full-size veena excluding the time taken to season the wood. With the high cost of wood, our net incomes have gone down,” Eswara says.

The full-size veena sells for Rs 22,000 and is mostly bought by LePakshi Handicrafts, the Andhra Pradesh government arm promoting the state’s arts and crafts. “Other buyers are Carnatic music teachers and their students from nearby cities. We also sell to music shops in Bangalore and Chennai but haven’t started direct online sales as of now,” he adds.

Before LePakshi stepped in, it was difficult for artisans to make ends meet in the absence of regular buyers.

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“LePakshi is the biggest Bobbili veena buyer now,” Eswara says.

To increase income, artisans began making smaller veenas, which make sound but not music. “There is no tuning in smaller veenas,” says Eswara who make about 20 of them per month.

While a 10-inch veena sells for Rs 1,000, a 13-inch piece is priced at Rs 1,400, 17-inch (Rs 1,800) and 2-feet (Rs 3,000).

Due to the intricate carving, polishing and fitting of strings, which is time-consuming, most craftsmen are able to make only one big veena per month.

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S Raj Sekhar working in his workshop with other family members. Pic: through S Raj Sekhar 30 stades
S Raj Sekhar working in his workshop with other family members. Pic: through S Raj Sekhar

“We have to dry the wood only in shade. It can take a few days in summer and few weeks in winter or monsoon. Seasoning makes the wood light and enhances its quality,” Raj Sekar says.

Process of making Bobbili Veena

After seasoning, the production begins with cutting the logs and grooving the kunda (round base) followed by the dandi. Any holes or uneven surfaces are covered using a paste of local yellow coloured powder mixed with glue. 

A plastic white sheet with inlay art is pasted on the veena, giving it a border. “We procure these sheets from sellers in Mumbai,” says Eswara.

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This is followed by making seven knobs, the bridge and other parts using rosewood. The veena has seven strings – four of which are primary and made using brass while the secondary ones are made of steel. “Strings also come from Mumbai as they are not locally available,” he adds.

Eswara Rao working on the Bobbili Veena whose kunda and dandi are ready. Pic: Eswara Rao 30stades
Eswara Rao working on the Bobbili Veena whose kunda and dandi are ready. Pic: Eswara Rao

Artisans then make the tumba, which acts as the resonator of every veena. Earlier, tumba was made using a ripe bottle gourd (sorakaya) of oval shape. Two holes were made at the top and bottom for scooping out seeds etc. and then it was dried in the sun.

“It is difficult to find gourds of the required size now. So we have shifted to aluminium tumba,” says Eswara. 

The tumba is fitted to the veena at the joint called meruwa with the help of screws at the opposite end of kunda. The seven knobs are fitted using beeswax. The strings are then attached to the knobs, extended over the bridge and tied at kadiyam – the end of the veena made using brass.

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An artisan making small Bobbili veenas, which don't produce music. Pic: Eswara Rao Divili 30 stades
An artisan making small Bobbili veenas, which don’t produce music. Pic: Eswara Rao Divili

“The distance from the meruwa to the bridge is 42 inches and there can be no deviation on this measurement,” Eswara explains.

Twenty four frets, made from bell metal, are embedded in a platform made using hardened beeswax, mixed with charcoal powder. “Placement of the frets decides the tuning of the veena.”

The instrument is polished using shellac, which gives it lustre. “Finally, we set the malem of the veena to ensure the right tuning that produces a flowing sound,” Eswara adds.

Veena makers of Bobbili have replaced local wood with logs bought from middlemen and gourd tumba with aluminium one, but they are determined to continue the craft. “We want to do what our ancestors did. We just hope and pray that people continue to love the music of Bobbili veena,” he says.

(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in financial, business and socio-economic reporting)

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