Jyoti Hegde, the world’s only female rudra veena player, speaks to Jameela Siddiqi about her love affair with this Indian string instrument
Jyoti Hegde, a virtuoso of one of India’s most ancient string instruments – the rudra veena (also called been or bin) – is not only India’s first woman player of this instrument but also the only woman in the world to do so. But Hegde is far less concerned about being a pioneer and far more eager to tell the story of her ongoing love affair with the instrument and the monumental obstacles that lay in the way of learning to play it.
“It was nothing to do with the fact that women were not allowed to play it. I didn’t take that as a challenge to prove anybody wrong. I already played sitar but always felt that I would express myself better through the sound of the veena,” she explains.
Hegde has been playing the instrument for over 35 years but getting to this point has been a long and arduous journey requiring immense courage and persistence. Tradition places the rudra veena in top position among instruments and, as such, it has always been surrounded by myth and superstition. There was a time when women weren’t even allowed to touch it or allow their shadow to fall over it – the rudra veena was unquestionably male territory within a music tradition that was already patriarchal. Justifications for this ranged from the fact that it is said to be the lute of the Hindu god Shiva, (rudra is another name for Shiva) to the simple, logistical truth that it is uncommonly heavy, requiring tremendous strength and stamina. Far worse, it was thought to damage the uterus and the prospect of remaining childless was sufficient to declare it a no-go area for women.
It’s worth adding that the North Indian rudra veena is a different instrument from the South Indian saraswati veena – named after the goddess of knowledge, music and arts. The latter has a strong feminine aura because of the goddess, and it’s a regular feature of classical as well as contemporary music in South India. While the saraswati veena is a type of lute with a small gourd soundbox resting on the musician’s thigh, its North Indian cousin is closer to the zither family.
Based in Karnataka, in south-western India, Hegde grew up surrounded by both of India’s distinct classical music traditions, Hindustani (North Indian) as well as Karnatic (South Indian). But teachers of the rudra veena were hard to come by. Initially, she studied sitar – and still plays it – but, she says, it never really engaged her fully and that she was always vaguely aware of her search for a different kind of sound.
Hegde first heard the rudra veena at the age of 16, at a music workshop and instantly fell under its spell. She begged her sitar teacher (who also played veena) to let her learn to play it, but he refused outright, telling her that it was not right for girls to play this great and sacred instrument.
A chance encounter with The Way-Music, a book about the rudra veena by the German musicologist Thomas Marcotty, which came with a cassette reignited her passion. She admits that it was while listening to this cassette that she became aware of the veena’s close associations with dhrupad, an ancient vocal style. Armed with these new realisations, she urged her music teacher, yet again, to let her have a go. Cautioning her that dhrupad itself was in serious decline and only a handful of musicians now played the veena, he nevertheless agreed and, hoping she would be put off, he presented her with an old one in terrible condition.
The rudra veena has a long tubular body made of wood with two large gourds serving as resonators. It’s played by being laid across the body so that one of the large gourds is balanced over the shoulder. In extended performances of two hours or more, even the sturdiest of male players complain of heaviness in the chest and pain over the shoulder area.
Undeterred by the rickety specimen she’d been given, Hegde recalls being thrilled at being able to get her hands on one. She played it with great gusto, quite oblivious to its weight or the demands it made on her strength. She thinks it was this positive attitude that finally clinched it for her – and her teacher felt that maybe this was her true medium after all. He agreed to guide her on the condition that she did not give up her sitar.
Ironically, it was the growing popularity of the sitar (with its repertoire of more romantic, embellished compositions from the more modern khayal vocal genre) that had sounded the death knell for dhrupad and veena in the early 19th century. Once Hegde started properly learning the veena, with the late Asad Ali Khan (whose recordings for the Marcotty book had so enchanted her), she says there was no looking back.
“I’m hardly aware of playing an instrument. It’s more like a personal meditation. It brings peace and calm to my soul and that is what listeners are also looking for.” But, what is it that makes playing the rudra veena so very satisfying, above any other string instruments? “The alap [slow introductory stage of a recital] is my favourite part of Indian classical music,” she says, “and being able to play it on rudra veena is the most satisfying experience a musician can have.”
As the rudra veena is the instrumental equivalent of dhrupad and places greater emphasis on the lower octaves, Hegde says it offers a musician the best way to unfold the heavier, more sombre ragas.
She recalls her greatest moment – an opportunity to play in the presence of the dhrupad legend Zia Fariduddin Dagar, shortly before his death in 2013. So does she feel that other male maestros approve of her being an exponent of the rudra veena? She is quick to point out that she is less focused on what they might think of her venturing into male territory, and far more concerned about what she might learn from them: “It is always good to be praised by great musicians, but I am much more interested in what they might teach me.”