The Vina maker of Gandhi Bazaar

Sometime through the late 2000s, I worked on a consulting engagement for a friend’s company in Basavanagudi. Amongst the multitude of places I’ve hated making work visits to, this was a grand exception for an unlikely reason. Firstly - the generous choice of junk and non junk food (there I digress), and then - just across street on HB Samaja road - Veena works, a cottage workshop filled with beautiful musical instruments.

And that’s how I got to know the owner - Raju. His shop(s) are fairly familiar landmarks to the people of Basavanagudi and Gandhi Bazar (or anybody in Bangalore interested in Veenas). To set things straight, Raju is no ‘owner’ of a shop, because he is as much his own employee as he is his boss and the chief craftsman, all put into one.

Ever since, Raju has shut shop at HB Samaja road and moved operations to the ‘other’ workshop on Mallikarjuna temple street (just a stone’s throw away from Bugle rock park and DVG road). The last rent he paid for the HB Samaja premises was a paltry Rs 100, something his father rented out from the owner decades back. “It became too difficult managing two workshops. Besides the owner of the HB Samaja street one really wanted me to leave”, he says.

The first and obvious thing you will notice when you enter Raju’s shop are the Veenas - and lots of them, of all varieties. Ofcourse, you’ll also notice Raju himself - a bespectacled, middle aged man with a moustache working away on the instruments. The art of Veena craftsmanship has been handed over to Raju from generation onward generation like all ancestral-profession heritages. Raju himself took to it along with his father Krishnan through his late teens, while still in college. “I also took formal training in Veena from RK Suryanarayana for an year or so, up till I was sure I had enough shruti-j~nAna to lay the frets”, he says.

If you know him well enough, Raju will be graciously put up with you for a long haraTe and perhaps a beverage (coffee/tea only), but generally, he hates to be disturbed at work. He may or may not have a couple of helping hands around him, but the recruits usually never stick long enough, so Raju is a one man army and he is almost always overloaded with work. “I get more than 35 orders for Veenas in a month”, he says. And he can only humanly do 15 or 20. This is besides the generous count of Veenas, violins, guitars and whatnots that come to him for minor repairs and major overhauls.

“Why don’t you hire people, open a showroom and ‘industrialize’ your approach a bit?”, I ask him. His reply details obvious problems of entrepreneurship - employee retention, administration oversight and operational problems. More than everything, Raju is a craftsman at heart. Given a choice, he’d rather sit and craft beautiful Veenas than be the guy at the counter who sells them. And ofcourse, he has made that choice already.

His clientele in Bangalore includes Jayanthi Kumaresh, Rohini Gundurao, Shanthi Rao, Prashanth Iyengar amongst others. Some of them have suggested that he accompany them during concert trips abroad and potentially explore business opportunities for his craftsmanship there, but Raju remains skeptical. He wants to stick to the safe haven on Mallikarjana temple street.

“Isn’t it possible to take Veena building to an assembly line?” I ask him. He replies that many have tried and failed. “But things have changed significantly. My father used to craft a Veena from scratch, the whole nine yards. That is, the wood work included. I used to do it too, but lately - I just craft the beeswax and fix the frets - which is the most critical part, while the wood/fiber structural parts are outsourced to a carpenter”. I take it further “For a given length of the dandi, can’t you compute fret positions without having to need somebody to place them? It should be quite simple” and he replies half-heartedly “I think they’ve tried and it doesn’t come out right”.

Raju’s doesn’t like talking about himself more than necessary. He says his ancestors had been in Bangalore for long, while his mother hails form Kerala. He speaks fluent Kannada and a smattering of Tamil and English.

I ask him if Veena-making was traditionally associated with a particular community/caste to which he replies in the affirmative -

“Yes, it was predominantly the AchAris/Vishwakarmas who took it up”.

I ask him if the numbers of traditional craftsmen is on the decline to which too he again agrees.

“What about the traditional pockets, Mysore - Tanjavur and the likes”, I ask. Raju replies that the numbers in Mysore are sparse and as few in Tanjavur as well. In terms of playing style as well, it must be added that there are hardly any takers for the Mysore style in the present day apart from a famed handful.

“So, who were the famed Veena makers that you can recall from your generation or your father’s?”

“In Bangalore, there were a couple in pETe area - one Arunachalappa, another one - Pillappa”, he names. “There were others in Mysore, some of them are still there.”.

I ask him to recount experiences of his tutelage under RK Suryanarayana.

“He was a fantastic artiste, only short lived unfortunately. Nobody could equal him, but ..” he stops himself.

“I’ve heard that RK Padmanabha of Mysore is a good artiste”, he changes topics.

“What type of Veenas do you make and what do you like personally?”

“I make both Tanjavur and Mysore varieties. By playing style, I like the Tanjavur flavor. Kerala Veenas have the best build-quality and craftamanship”, he gives an authoritative rejoinder.

“What are the structural differences between either?”

“The Mysore ones were usually smaller and made of Rosewood, while the Tanjavur ones being bigger in general and made of Jackfruit-wood. The carving/art on the instrument also varies”.

“What about the electric Veenas and the 3 piece Veenas that come these days?”

“They don’t feel like a Veena at all. I can rip apart a guitar fretboard and make one of those. You can’t imagine Saraswati playing such an instrument. It is lacking in ‘divinity’. Have you felt the difference between a Sruti-box and a strummed Tamburi?” he asks me back.

With an almost journalistic aptitude, I ask him rhetorically if he is concerned about the future of craftsmanship and whether he would press his son to take up his profession. Raju replies with tempered pragmatism “no, I would rather prefer it that he pay attention towards his studies. Maybe if that doesn’t work out - I will draft him in”.

“Why don’t you hire me as an apprentice?”

He laughs it off, “You won’t survive at this. Stick to your computers”, he jokes without any condescension.

I enquire whether he listens to classical music or attend concerts - “I would love to. Some of my customers who perform invite me regularly, but it’s hard given my work schedule”, he quips.

I grope around some of his Veenas and enquire prices. As I get ready to leave, it flashes to me that I had come with the motive of buying strings. Passingly, I also mention that my Veena has an amputated fret which has been shabbily glued back in place - while also good for a thorough ‘waxing’. “Not the next 1.5 months atleast”, Raju warns before hand.

(Raju can be contacted on - .Veenas crafted by him start at about Rs 5,000)