In conversation with Dr Radhika Umdekar Budhkar-first woman player of the Vichitra Veena

Uttara Shahani spoke to Radhika Budhkar for (@uttaras and @TheMusicofIndia).

Some of the questions posed to Dr Budhkar were from twitterati. Thanks to @zenmotherhood, @tablamontreal, @goodbells, @mattamayura, @taimur_org and @TheMusicofIndia.

Picture Credits: Dr Radhika Umdekar Budhkar

Clips of Dr Budhkar playing the Veena can be heard by clicking the play button on the video above and on the playlist on the right.

The Vichitra veena is a rarely played instrument, considered to be a modern form of the ancient Ektantri veena. The Vichitra veena has been saved from oblivion by the efforts of a few such as Dr Lalmani Misra, Pandit Gopal Shankar Misra, Shri Brahm Sarup Singh and, in the current generation, musicians like Dr Radhika Umdekar Budhkar.

North Indian (Hindustani) Classical music is played on the Vichitra veena. Traditionally, the Dhrupad form was played, but other aspects of Hindustani music are now played on it as well. The Vichitra veena is a fretless veena, played with a slide/stone and a plectrum, and is similar to the South Indian Gottuvadyam or Chitraveena.

The veena, in its various forms, is not an instrument played by many in the North; it is even more unusual to find women vainikas. A tiny handful, however, have made the veena their life’s mission. These include Jyoti Hegde who plays the Rudra veena, and Drs Ragini Trivedi and Radhika Umdekar Budhkar who play the Vichitra veena. Dr Budhkar is the first woman performer of the Vichitra veena. She also plays the Sitar.

Dr Budhkar blogs at (in Hindi) and lives in Mumbai.

Dr. Radhika Umdekar Budhkar:

The Vichitra veena is one of the oldest instruments of Indian classical music. The reason I have come to this conclusion is that it has no frets. In India various stringed instruments acquired frets over time; they were a later development. Some say that the Vichitra veena is an instrument of the medieval period, but I don’t agree with this.

We play the Vichitra veena with a stone and mizrab-s (plectrums). The mizrab-s are used to pluck the strings, while the stone is moved across them.

The Ektantri veena, an ancient fretless veena, had only one string. The Vichitra veena probably developed from it. The Ektantri veena and subsequent veena-s to which more strings were added were also probably played with stones. I don’t know why the Vichitra veena remained hidden for so long and why people didn’t play it.

Since the Vichitra veena is a fretless veena, it is difficult to place the swaras [notes] accurately. It is called Vichitra (strange, odd) because of its lack of frets. One’s ear needs to be trained very well to be able to play this veena. One needs a lot of practice. I use stones that are from the Narmada and other rivers. These stones are worshipped as Shiv Ling in various temples. I have to search for the proper stone, since I need it for playing the instrument and not for puja. I have to choose the stone that will give me the right sort of sound. I collect and buy various stones from the shops near the temples and test them. I have a large collection of stones now.

I use the stones rather than the glass paperweight that is also used to play the Vichitra veena, because I think the Narmada stone makes a difference to the tonal quality. The late Vichitra veena maestro Pandit Gopal Shankar Misra’s students had special glass stones made in Germany for him. He gave one to me and I have kept it as his aashirvaad [blessing]. However, I play the Vichitra veena with the Narmada stone. I feel that bass and depth of sound is lacking with a glass paperweight. The sound is too sharp with the paperweight.

The traditional Vichitra veena is approximately 4-5 feet long, and has two tumbas (gourds) at either end. It has nine main strings and 13 sympathetic strings.

Vichitra veena is played in kaali chaar or paanch (G# or A#), that are pitches used by female vocalists. When the Vichitra veena first came into my hands I thought its pitch was too low. I changed it to D (High). I changed the strings to bigger and wider strings. I also changed the placement of the strings slightly to make it easier to play. I made these changes to make the instrument more attractive to today’s listeners.

One of the advantages of the Vichitra veena is that one can play many saptak-s (octaves) on it, up to five or six, so one can play the ati-ati mandra saptak (very low) and the ati-ati taar saptak(very high). Of course, one must use this ability sparingly and not linger too long in only the very high or the very low octaves.

A tanpura is a must to accompany the Vichitra veena to stay in sur. My father, who used to make electronic tanpura-s, devised a way by which I could put an electronic tanpura in the body of the Vichitra veena. But I stopped doing this after a while.

The traditional veena was proving very difficult to carry around with me as it was so big. I also wanted to improve the tonal quality. After a lot of thought, I spent some time convincing my father, Pandit Shriram Umdekar, my first Guru, that the instrument should be made smaller, but with a better sound quality. I thought these changes would attract more people to playing the instrument. Eventually, my father made me a smaller veena and we also worked on the sound.

Modified Small Vichitra Veena

I played this modified veena and was heard by great artistes like the Dagar Bandhu, my Guru Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Shubha Mudgalji and others who greatly appreciated the smaller Vichitra veena and said I had done a good thing by having it made smaller. The height, width and length had all reduced so it made it much easier to carry around. We also put a lot of thought into improving its tonal quality, by using different strings. The sound is now very sweet, but also has a lot of depth. My current Vichitra veena is made by Shri Rikhiram in Delhi. It looks very beautiful and I think it will attract more students to learn it. Earlier only foreign students were interested in it, now Indian students are interested in it as well.

On playing the Sitar:

I also play the Sitar which is a wonderful instrument, and easy to play compared to the Vichitra veena, since it has frets. It has a great tonal quality. It is easy to hold. For the Vichitra veena one has to hold one’s hands above it, with the arms suspended in the air, which is more difficult. If we slide the stone even slightly wrongly on the Vichitra veena there is a danger of producing a besur note. Producing taan-s on the Vichitra veena is far more difficult than on the sitar. It has become slightly easier to play taan-s and other faster melodic passages with the modifications I have made to the Vichitra veena.

On her childhood and musical education:

I was brought up in Gwalior in a musical family that used to be musicians for the Gwalior court. My grandfather was the late Pt. Balabhau Umdekar popularly known as “Kundal Guru”, a great exponent of Gwalior Gharana of Hindustani classical music. My father is Pandit Shriram Umdekar, he is an “A grade” artiste of the Sitar, Surbahar and Rudra veena.

Daughters are very attached to their fathers and vice-versa. I was my father’s favourite. When I woke up in the morning I would go to my father in the music room and lay my head on his lap and listen to him playing the sitar. My father’s sisters were also all musicians. My father and elder aunt started teaching me vocal music when I was three. I started learning the Sitar when I was three and a half on a child-sized instrument.

When I was around eight years old I told my father that I wanted to play an instrument that no one else played. I wanted to play a veena, but one that no one else was playing. He laughed and gave me my grandfather’s Rudra veena. I said no, I didn’t want to play that. We had a music room with a large collection of instruments. There was an old Vichitra veena in it that my father told me to play. I said very confidently that I would play it. I tried playing it and realised it was very difficult to play, but I persisted. I developed an attachment to it and kept playing it. When I was fifteen years old I had a new Vichitra veena made from Kolkatta’s Mangalaprasadji.

My father taught me the technique of playing the Vichitra veena. He has a deep knowledge of a lot of instruments. He didn’t have anyone to teach him how to play the Vichitra veena, but his felicity with instruments was such that he could play it. My other Guru has been Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhattji.

When it came to practice or riyaz, there was no such thing as doing riyaz for one or two hours and stopping. Music was in our lives all the time and we were expected to devote every spare moment to it. If it was my father or his students playing, I had to listen to them. I had very little opportunity to play or roam around or go for birthday parties. I would wake up at 4am, do my puja and get ready and do my riyaz. Then I went to school, would come back home finish my homework and do riyaz until midnight on either the Sitar or the Vichitra veena. I never watched television. I had a great love of books; I would read after riyaz until 1 or 1:30 am. I would only sleep for a few hours. If possible I would help my mother in the house; otherwise all my free time was spent immersed in music. As a Guru my father was very strict. Even today I am very scared to play in front of him. If he says, “Radhika you played well today,” I feel very happy because it’s very rare for him to say things like that. I learned vocal music for many years, but my real interest was in playing the instruments, though I sing now sometimes for my own pleasure.

My other Guru is Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. He would come to Gwalior to play. I had met him a few times and I had interviewed him for my PhD. One day I asked if he would teach me. It turned out that he knew I played the Vichitra veena. He agreed to be my Guru. He is a very patient Guru and never makes me feel he is too busy to teach me, and sits with me for hours answering my questions. If I made mistakes he would never chastise me, just encourage me to play again. He has taught me many new techniques in layakari, jod etc He is very compassionate with everybody. I feel very blessed to have him as my Guru.

On her research on Indian music:

I have written a PhD [in Hindi] entitled Bisven shatak me bhartiya sangeet ki vikas yatra (gayan evam vadan ke vishesh sandarbh me) i.e The Development of Hindustani Classical Music in the 20th Century with Reference to Changes in Vocal and Instrumental Music).

There have been a lot changes and developments in Hindustani music in the 20th century. I wanted to record these changes in the different genres and styles of singing. I also wanted to record what changes had taken place in the shape and form of the various instruments and the methods of playing them. I went into minute detail on how different methods of playing developed, how things like layakari, bandish-s for Sitar etc have changed over time etc. Among other things, I discussed how the development of electronic media and instruments has influenced our music. It was a very wide topic and I felt like I was writing the Ramayan! I have not published it yet, but I want to do this after adding further material.

On living in Mumbai:

I have been living in Mumbai for the past few years. Mumbai is a city very dear to me; it teaches one how to live. There are also a lot of musical opportunities. It is great to be here as there is a concert almost every weekend and there are many people interested in classical music. I have given quite a few performances on the Vichitra veena here.

On raising awareness about Indian classical music and the veena amongst the younger generation:

Firstly, those of you behind the website on the veena are doing a very good job in trying to raise awareness about the veena.

In those households where parents have an interest in music, it is possible for the children to develop an ear for classical music.Small children are interested in playing, that’s the first thing my four and a half year old daughter wants to do when she wakes up and the last thing she wants to do it at night! I teach her music while playing with her and counting beads!

People are now caught in an endless cycle of working for a living, going to office, coming home, eating…getting their children to achieve over 90% in exams so they are employed as doctors, engineers or in IT. There is no time for our music; they have no idea of the value of it. But I don’t blame them; they will only understand the richness of our music if they are exposed to it. There is a great variety in our music, folk music, lighter forms, many different kinds of instruments, it is not necessary to start only with classical music. But unfortunately the first thing many parents do is give their child a synthesiser. The situation is different in the South, there are so many people with a Saraswati veena in their homes and who know how to sing. There is a general awareness of classical music there. I feel very happy when I see this.

In the South there are still people interested in the Saraswati veena. In the North, there are basically two types of traditional veena being played the Rudra veena and the Vichitra veena. There are very few players of the Rudra and Vichitra veena-s. There are newer innovations like the Mohan veena played by Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. In the North, mainly Dhrupad has been played on the veena. It is a deep form of music. Some people find that it needs a lot of patience to develop an appreciation and understanding of Dhrupad. Sometimes audiences find Dhrupad difficult to connect to and prefer the Sitar.

One of the ways to rekindle an interest in the Vichitra veena is to make a few changes with the times to make it sound fresh and appealing. That is why I made some changes on the Vichitra veena. All aspects of Hindustani music can be learned on the Vichitra veena-if a student finds Dhrupad difficult or heavy they can come to it later. The veena is wrongly thought of as producing deep and heavy music as opposed to the Sitar which is associated with sweetness. The veena can also produce sweet music.

We need to find a middle path to interest youngsters. The interest in the more difficult aspects of our music will come as their involvement with the music grows. I play Dhrupad on the Vichitra veena, I also play gatkari, which is usually done on the Sitar and guitar, layakari, jhala, taan-s. Sometimes I do fusion. My guru Pandit Vishwa mohan ji has done great work in fusion. I have also done some work in fusion in other countries. I took one of the lori’s composed by my guru Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt ji and I made a fusion of that and taught it abroad. When Guruji appreciated this I felt so good. But I am careful when I do fusion, and try not to lose the classical element.

More fellowships and scholarships should be made available to study rare instruments. I have received a few scholarships and fellowships such as the Durlabh Sangeet Shaily scholarship from the Ustad Alauddin Khan Sangeet Academy Bhopal and a scholarship from the Ministry of Tourism & Culture, Government of India.

On her music school:
I have started a music school, The Veenapani Institute of Music in Navi Mumbai where I teach sitar, Vichitra veena, vocal music and Indian slide guitar. One can get degrees in Sitar, but not in Vichitra Veena. Music courses are being shut down in colleges and the number of students wanting to take it up at university has reduced, because people are looking or careers that are financially secure. When music is taught at universities and colleges, it isn’t necessarily taught well. I have come across students who have an MA in classical music but can’t sing Sa, Re Ga, Ma in sur.

When I take on students I check to see their sense of sur. I try and expand on their sense of sur by encouraging them to listen to a lot of recordings and tell them to go for as many concerts as possible.

At my school I teach only those who are dedicated. It’s not necessary that students learn to play fifty raag-s, but that they play well in swar. I have some foreign students learning Vichitra veena and now Indian students are getting interested in it. I am hoping that with the changes I have made to the Vichitra veena more students will be attracted to it.

I don’t have a student who is concert ready on the Vichitra veena yet, but I live in the hope that I will.

Dr Radhika Umdekar Budhkar


About uttaras

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11 Responses to In conversation with Dr Radhika Umdekar Budhkar-first woman player of the Vichitra Veena

  1. Arvind Budhkar says:

    Dear Radhika
    I heard. It is excellent. All the best for your feature

    Arvind Budhkar

  2. Very lucid and interesting piece! Even a novice like me felt enchanted by the Vichitra Veena. It also gives a glimpse into what goes on in a musical house. I am really amazed by the number of hours serious students of music willingly put into learning. Great work, this website!

  3. j s pande says:

    seem to have overlooked dr ahmed raza and his son from delhi. they too play[ed]the vichitra veena.

    • uttaras says:

      Thank you for your comment. If you or anyone you know would like to do a feature on Ustad Ahmed Raza or his son for this site, please let us know.

      • j s pande says:

        the son, mustafa raza , is associated with the dargah inayat khan near nizamuddin delhi.he too plays the vichitra veena.inayat khan himself was a veena player-saraswati veena- and singer, who died in the some point he gave up music and took to preaching .
        anyway, there are numerous samples of the late ahmed raza’s veena playing on the net. he cut quite a number of discs.
        and i am reminded of the late pandit ramesh prem from bombay too.he was a very popular vichitra veena player until the 1970s as far as i can remember.
        suggest you try and contact a gentleman called irfan zuberi in delhi to do a feature on the delhi based musicians.
        since you live in mumbai you could find someone to do a fgeature on the late pt. ramesh prem.
        irfan zuberi can be found on the net too.shall try and look for his mail address also.

      • j s pande says:

        this should also interest your readers.

      • j s pande says:

        ustad mustafa raza’s site.

        sorry to be giving information in bits and pieces.

  4. j s pande says:

    here is something that might interest you from history. inayat khan’s daughter to be honoured. you can read quite a bit about her on the net. noor inayat khan.

    • uttaras says:

      Dear JS Pande,
      Thank you for all your helpful comments and links. Unfortunately, we are based in the UK and Canada. We are looking for people in India who can volunteer for the site. Contributions can be in English or any Indian language. I am trying to do what I can via skype etc

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