Bani Beyond Borders:
A Glimpse into a Living Veena Bani.

சந்த தாஸன் கீதத் துளியினிலே
In the drop of Chanda Dasa’s anthem.
காலமாம் சுழலில் எண்ணக்
கோலமாம் இளம் மொட்டுகளிசைக்க
ஜாலமாய்த் துலங்கும் கதம்ப
மாமலர்க் கண்ணிகள் தொடுத்து

In the spiral of time The imprints of budding thoughts play Stringing the emerging Magical and varied blooms

The uniqueness of our tradition, the Karaikudi Veena Bani, is that it has thrived over three centuries, eleven generations, and carried itself beyond the borders of India. Amongst the passage of time through moments of sweeping change in the surrounding politics and culture, our core has always been based in music. As with the bani’s earlier migrations from Tirugokarnam to Karaikudi, then Madurai to Chennai, the leap to the United States of America has carried its own contribution to the various aspects of sound. Each generation has carried this essential core of nadam and has contributed its own blooming ideas to the tradition.

The bani has traveled a long way, through the tensions of tradition and modernity, continuity and change, hostility and support, and many more aspects beyond these tangible constructs. As a tenth generation Veena player, daughter and disciple of Smt. Rajeswari Padmanabhan, with an academic background in Indian Music, I moved to the United States in my early twenties and pursued ethnomusicology. The unique juncture that I stand at today is solely due to the tradition’s belief in nadam and the way it was imparted by my mother and my grandmother Smt. Veenai Lakshmi Ammal, daughter of Karaikudi Subbarama Iyer. This new land has provided both novel spaces and opportunities to explore the strength and possibilities of our bani.

வெண்பா சுரச்சீர்கள் கொய்து
பண்பாடச் சுரம்சேர வீணையுடனே
தேம்பாவணிகள் பல ஏற்றி
நாதக் கலைகள் பயில்வோமே

Picking the poetic iambus,
With Veena in unison
Shall we compose
Many a sweet
Crown-jewel composition
And practice subtler
Arts from ‘nAdA’

Over the past three decades, as I learned to navigate the community that has developed here, I have simultaneously established my vocal and veena instruction. The interplay of my own experience and that of the community has brought my focus to teaching music to a plethora of learning abilities. I have found myself celebrating the Montessorian ideals of integrative learning through camps that explore the interplay of music, mathematics, poetry, painting, theater, South Indian languages in the music, yoga and analytical discussions. In conjunction with these experiences, the opportunity for students to work under Natarajan Achari in Chennai and now with my sons Kapila and Sushruta Chandramouli on veena melam and the art of luthiering (building stringed instruments) have made us reach beyond the bounds of our bani.

Much has been documented about the Karaikudi Veena Tradition in academia, and much less recognized by the Indian diaspora by way of support in India. With this backdrop, it is hard to imagine what would remain of a tradition beyond the borders. It takes an entire community to support and sustain a living tradition by way of learning. The disciplined practice and arduous training by the male members of seven generations is now complemented by the next three generations of women who relentlessly taught, performed and composed.

Besides the ongoing efforts to sustain and teach, my husband, Chandramouli Narayanan (a ninth generation descendent and son of Smt. Veenai Lakshmi Ammal), and I have begun composing songs with contemporary themes in tandem with visual depictions in my watercolor paintings. As a disciple of watercolor painting from the musician-musicologist-painter Sri. S. Rajam, I explore the idea of personifying abstract concepts to suit the compositions on environment, equality, and mythology composed by my husband. An example of the collaboration between Chandramouli’s compositions and my paintings is interspersed in this article. There are more compositions and paintings to come in the following years as both the bani and its members grow on its evolving journey. The idea of a tradition may invoke the thought of rigidity and prescription, but we reflect on our work as yet another chapter in the continual construction of nadam.

A sample of our new works can be found here along with more content on our YouTube and website.
Credits: Article & Paintings: Sreevidhya Chandramouli, Poem: Chandramouli Narayanan.


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