In his Natya-shashtra, a fourth-third century BC treatise on poetics and stagecraft, Sage Bharata alludes to two kinds of vinas and as to how a vina can be used for elaborating a piece of text. Since the earliest times ‘vina’ was considered as comprising all three essential components of an accomplished musical instrument : ‘shruti’ – power of oral transmission, ‘laya’ – ability to keep pace and maintain time, and ‘sahitya’ – literature, contents, or the power to reveal what human tongue is capable of revealing. Apart, by its mellow tonal quality a ‘vina’ was capable of evoking meditative atmosphere as a result it was associated with celestial beings and gods at its earliest. ‘Vina’ was an essential part of the iconography of Saraswati, the goddess of art, music and creativity, and sage Narada. In the course of time vina underwent innumerable modifications. However, its prevalent form is more like one that in circa seventeenth century Raghunath Nayak, a musician from Tanjavur in Tamilnadu, had innovated.
A ‘vina’ comprises a large rounded body hollowed out of a block of wood, usually the jack wood, a long stem or neck terminating into a downwards turned weird looking end-part, something like the head of a dragon, a resonating gourd, smaller in size in relation to the main body of the instrument, appended on the back of the stem, a bridge mounted over the main body, frets, varying in number under different systems, fixed on the stem using the bee wax compacted with charcoal powder, pegs and strings : seven in number … Though cast in brass, not carved out of a wood-piece, and strings, frets and pegs being just symbolic, this model of the instrument replicates, except in its physical dimensions : length, breadth and height, a ‘vina’ in great exactness. On a smaller scale it has an identically conceived rounded body with a bridge placed on it, a large stem terminating with a downwards turned and grotesquely designed end-part, a chain of frets fixed on its face, pegs on its side and additional gourd under it. The number of pegs – just two, strings – just three, the usual number of both being seven, and frets – just seventeen, as against the usual twenty-four, or twenty-one, are just denotative of its essential components.
Metal being the medium of the model, it afforded to the artist greater scope for embellishing its each part with various design-patterns and motifs. A pair of mythical cocks, a form resembling the large mythical eagle and a talismanic floral pattern carried over a pair of large wings like looking formation adorns the face of the rounded main body; besides, the artist has used a peacock feathers-like floral pattern and a set of geometric formations for embellishing its wall. The end-part of the stem has a grotesque look, and the resonating gourd, delightfully rounded, has its neck adorned with leaf-design and geometric patterns. The frets, fixed on the face of the stem, not only artistically distribute an otherwise flat space but also create unique rhythm. While the two cocks add to it ethnic flavour, the forms of great mythical eagle and talismanic flower-form impart to it some kind of mysticism.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.