Musician to rejuvenate students with veena

Jamie Lyons

Any student in the school of music will testify to the challenges of learning an instrument, and how long it takes to master it. But for Vidvan Balakrishna, the process of learning the ancient Indian string instrument called the veena never ends.

Balakrishna said he has been playing the ancient Indian string instrument since 13, and mastering it is a lifelong process. Students can see how far he has come in a free concert at 7 p.m. tonight in Room 205 of Gorgas Library.

At the concert, Balakrishna will play a variety of ragas, which he said typically suit a certain time of the day, like morning or evening, and in a concert, ragas are played in the order they would be in the day, even though most concerts occur in the evening. He said morning ragas are usually upbeat.

“It’s a sign of dawning. Mentally energizing,” Balakrishna said, “You’ll go to your next class rejuvenated.”

He also explained the structure of a typical veena concert.

The concert usually consists of seven to ten kritis, or Carnatic songs. Each song is based on a raga, or a structured scale and other boundaries for the melody. The song also typically includes tanam, or improvisation. During the tanam, when the melody is usually faster, veena players will be using four fingers on their right hand to pluck the strings and four fingers on the left hand to play the frets.

Skilled veena players will add gamaka, meaning “ornamented note,” which varies the pitch of the note by oscillating between adjacent and distant notes. Gamaka sounds similar to a slow, complex trill.

Balakrishna works with Reserve Bank of India as a special assistant and has a master’s degree in statistics. He said he enjoys the experience of sharing Carnatic music.

“I wish there were more programs like this. I look forward to such interaction,” he explained.

He said believes that people learn a lot about a culture through its music.

“You are richer for it, you learn to appreciate it,” he said. “Your tastes get more refined.”

Balakrishna said he also enjoys western music styles as well.

“I am a great fan of western classical music. I thoroughly enjoy Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and Bach,” he said “I listen to jazz for a change.”

In addition to performing veena concerts, Balakrishna also teaches lessons on the instrument. With the advancement of technology, he is able to give lessons via Skype to students in several parts of the world.

One such student is Mangala Krishnamurthy, a reference librarian and assistant professor at the University. She said there are sometimes disruptions related to weather, power outages and time differences, but for the most part, “the connection is pretty good, and it is doable.”

Krishnamurthy reiterated Balakrishna’s opinion that music is an important part of culture to understand.

“Any form of art is part of a culture. Music is one such form which has no boundaries or barriers and it will help a person to understand and appreciate a culture,” Krishnamurthy explained.

She added that the richness of India’s history makes Carnatic music very relevant.

“Indian music conveys rich heritage, culture, and spirituality dating back thousands of years,” she said. “The compositions, which are several centuries old, propel the theme of universal peace and harmony, which is applicable and very true even in the present time.”