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  • N. Tamilmani, Veena Maker: Oral history
    Thanjavur, TamilNadu, India

    Translation of audio:

    We view this as a small scale industry (“kudusai thozil”). Three generations have been involved: My grandfather did it, my father did it and now I am doing this. It's been about one hundred years now. I am 48 years old; it has been about 35 years since I came into this profession (“line”). My grandfather used to make veenas for the Thanjavur palace; he lived in the palace. Then he came out to work in the big city. My grandfather's ancestors had lived in the palace during Raja Raja Cholan's reign. When work in the furniture industry finished, my grandfather came into the veena manufacturing profession. That's the path we have been following.

    I was sixteen when I came here. As soon as I finished my SSLC (Secondary School Leaving Certificate), I started this line. Even before that time though, they would point out names of tools and ask me to fetch them. The workshop was close to our house and kids watch when work is being done. So one way or the other, the knowledge reaches you (“vazhi vazhiya vanduruchu”). That's how we learned.

    There must be 300-350 of us today. Of these, 100 do work. Of the 100, maybe 50 know all aspects. Of these, about 25 are 'master craftsmen.' I am a master craftsman. The oldest today must be 75 to 80 years old. He is from my father's generation. He keeps a low profile. After my father.. my father passed in 2000 or thereabouts. He was 62 at the time. There are only one or two people of that profile today. That's all.


    You can see the craftsmanship when you see a Thanjavur veena. Veenas are primarily made in three places in India: in Thanjavur, Mysore, and Bangalore. Of these, the ones the Thanjavur veenas are the best. Most musicians would say that the Thanjavur ones are the best. They last long as well. They are made from jackfruit trees. We used to buy from nearby villages. But it became difficult to get trees and it was also proving expensive for us. So, we purchase it in bulk now. Workers deliver tree wood in bulk to the nearby garden; we work on the rest by hand. We also used to have trees from the Thanjavur temple compound earlier. We would buy from there, or get it off trees growing on the roadsides. It is said that as traffic passed by these trees, they would have absorbed the sounds from the environment (“grahicchu irukkum”). Jackfruit trees have this distinct quality. Similarly, in a temple, they would have absorbed the sounds of temple bells. When people work on them, the tree gives these sounds back (“veli paduthum”). That is the belief (“vaidheegam”). That is how it works. If you make it out of other trees, we don't get that sound (“naadam”). On top of that, jackfruit trees also stay healthy for a long time, insects don't attack them. We make two kinds of veena: in three pieces joined together, or the ekantha veena with a single piece of wood carved out to make the instrument.


    Various individuals including famous teachers and musicians buy from us. Musicians like Yesudas buy directly from the company. We also send our veenas to other states. People living abroad also ask for them but we are not able to provide these directly. Sales tax and export laws exist for these transactions and we are not able to do that. So, companies (distributors) do that, and those living abroad contact company people. We don't know all the details for doing this and are unable to make the investment.

    It takes about 15 days to complete a veena. One veena goes for only Rs. 10,000 or Rs. 20,000, depending on the kind of veena. Raw materials are also expensive for us. If you think about the overall cost-benefit/ farmers, we, too, calculate in our work...I have been in this profession for 35 years and I have realized that there's no big profit to be made here. We just eat, work and carry on, nothing much else to be gained. It will be beneficial if the government helps. They give music artistes a pension once they turn 60. They give it to music artistes. But we are the artiste's very life breath (“uyir mooche naanga daan”). They can't perform if we don't make these instruments. I am not saying these words out of a sense of vanity or pride (“garvathukku solalle”). Just that they give these artistes pension. If they gave instrument makers like me a pension, that will be beneficial.


    Musicians play after we set it up.
    (Plays the veena.)
    This is “pa” (the fifth). We are the ones who have to first find it and set it on the veena.


    Earlier there were many people working. We can't find people now even if we are willing to teach, labor refuses. We can't make it pay (“kattupadi aaga maatengaradu”). To get the wood, make it. Not everybody can do this kind of work. You need to be a carpenter, know a little. We learned this as a family business (“kula thozil”) from our fathers, grandfathers. And now, it is on the verge of extinction (“nasivu adayara nilamaila”). If the government can help or provides training, that will help and that's what we have been asking. We talk to people in the textiles ministry, handicrafts board...these are the people we have been approaching. There's a private office/NGO (“thondu niruvanam”) here, they approached us. They made the arrangements for giving us these cooperative business cards and they set up an exhibition, sponsored us and helped us participate. That's how we got some orders. They've helped a lot, so we can't fault the handicrafts department either. They are trying out some things, just that lots more needs to be done. We have asked again, they have promised to help.

    I only have two daughters, no sons. They are both studying. They don't intend to get into this “line.” As for others coming to this “line”'s dwindling. If we ask boys among our relatives to learn, they refuse. It's very difficult to learn as well. Like a gurukulam more or less, it takes 10 years to learn the basics. After that you make..In a company, you work for two years and you can get Rs.10,000. Therefore, no one wishes to be in this profession (“virumbi vara maatangaraanga”). Because, if you go to a carpenter, they pay you Rs. 200,250,400 a day. We can't afford to pay the labor. We can't get labor at Rs. 450 a day. If you take the most expensive veena, it sells for Rs. 20,000 – that's a special veena. The ordinary ones go for Rs.10,000. For that, just the wood is about Rs. 5,000. Other expenses are Rs. 2,000. So, that's Rs. 7,000 already. It takes 15 days to make. Even if we pay an ordinary coolie just Rs. 300 a day for the labor, it will come to Rs. 11,500-12,000. We are already selling at a loss there.


    There's a lot of demand, but there's no one to work on it. We are not able to manufacture. Because it;'s all hand made. There's little done by machines. Only this is made by machine. All done by hand, all traditional. My father like me started when he was 12, and worked till he was 65..62.. he was doing this till the day before he died. He died when he was 62, in 2000. For more than 50 years, he worked on this. My grandfather bought this house. My father built it up more /renovated it. I have left it as it is, have not touched it. Just made sure it didn't go out of my hands, and that's been difficult. It's not of my earnings, it has come from my father's earnings.
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