Musicians regard the Rudra Veena to be the mother of all Indian stringed instruments. Vedic writings, literary and philosophical works of ancient India abound with references to the veena. Variations of the present-day Rudra Veena can be seen in the sculptures of the temples at Sanchi, Amaravati, Nagarjunakonda, Ellora and Mahabalipuram. There are scholars who hold that the Rudra Veena's prototype was the Kinnara veena. Numerous variations of the Veena existed in different regions in the country at different periods of time, in diverse shapes and with varying numbers of strings. But, in the present times, there exist only a few types of veena all of which produce different tonalities and are also different in shape. The Rudra Veena and Vichitra Veena are the two types known in the north; while the Saraswati Veena and the Vichitra Veena, also called gottuvadyamlchitra veena, are used in the Carnatic tradition.
Several poetic images were coined to describe the beauty of the Rudra Veena. Of these, the loveliest one says that the instrument originated when Rudra Shiva gazed in awe and wonder at the marvellous form of Parvati. When he emerged out of this wondrous contemplation, he supposedly gave the world an instrument that resembled his consort's form. Perhaps it is for this reason instrument is called Rudra Veena. The tone of the Rudra Veena brims with the masculine grandeur of the meditating Shiva. In fact, it is the most masculine sounding of all the Indian instruments. The Rudra Veena maestro Ustad Asad Ali Khan believes that, tonally, the instrument is a confluence of masculine gravity and feminine softness, giving it thus an ardhanareeshwara (androgynous) bhava. Stringed instruments like the sitar and the surbahar originate from it.
Design of Rudra Veena
The instrument consists of a stem approximately three feet long that supports the fret-board made of bamboo on which frets are fixed by means of wax. The bridge of the veena is made of ivory or horn and at the two ends are two large resonators (tumbas), made from gourd, which give the instrument the deep resonant bass effect. These technical features alone make it the only Indian instrument with a vast tonal range, ranging from as high as four to four-and-a-half octaves. The instrument has four melody strings on which the raaga is played. The auxiliary strings suspended on the sides of the instrument provide the drone (chikari) and rhythm (laraj). The melody strings are plucked by the index and middle fingers of the right had using a metallic plectrum or mijrab while the two little fingers play the drone. The index and the middle fingers of the left hand stop the strings over the frets. Rudra vainiks or beenkars sit in the vajrasana posture or the darbari baithak with the upper resonator resting on the left shoulder and the lower one by the right waistline. A few players hold the instrument sitting on the cross-legged posture with the instrument held in a horizontal manner. The latter position is, predominantly adopted only in the South Indian tradition.
The Rudra Veena, like its South Indian equivalent, is an aristocratic instrument. It was only taught to a chosen few who, in the opinion of the master, possessed the expertise, the dedication and the temperament necessary to tune into the formidable genius of this instrument. Since the demands placed on the player were high, in the royal courts the instrument acquired an elevated status and its player a position given only to singers. With the coming of surbahar, which is a sitar with deep bass strings, and the rising popularity of the sitar, the Rudra Veena's fortunes dipped, especially from the 19th century on. From this point on, the playing of this instrument was confined to a few princely courts like Rampur, Indore, Udaipur and Jaipur where great beenkars continued to practice it and teach it to close family members.
Players of Rudra Veena
Great beenkars like Ustad Bade Ali Khan of Indore, called the magician of the strings, and Ustad Wazir Khan, who was attached to the Rampur court, trained a number of students in other instruments. Bande Ali was not only a great player, but also a legendary eccentric. Many stories are still in circulation about the events and occurrences connected with him and his music. He trained Murad Ali Khan, as also the highly accomplished singer, Ustad Rajab Ali Khan. Usatd Wazir Khan of Rampur, supposedly a descendant of Tansen, trained a select few in dhrupad and rudra veena. Of these, Ustad Dabir Khan achieved repute in the 20th century as an exemplar of the Senia style. However, Wazir Khan's most renowned disciples in the 20th century were not beenkars but sarod players - Ustad Allauddin Khan and Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan.
The post-Independence era witnessed the rise of two great beenkars of genius. One was Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, who came from the Dagar Gharana, and the other is Ustad Asad Ali Khan of the Khandarbani style.