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The history

Early chronicles
A single string
A new system
A prime influence
The whisper of the soul
Traveller’s tales



Ragini Kedar,
Hyderabad,
towards 1750,
Kolkata,
the Indian Museum
(detail)
 

A single string
 
 

Among the different kinds of vina that were in use at that time, the one named ekatantri (literally, one string) bore a resemblance to the alapini vina.
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It could be distinguished from the latter though: the ekatantri bore a long wooden tube instead of the stick and had a wide bridge on the tailpiece, a piece of wood fitted to the lower end of the tube. Variations in pitch were obtained by sliding a little wooden rod, held in the left hand of the musician, along the gut string. It was thus possible to produce the most delicate pitch nuances on an instrument of rather simple workmanship.


Sarasvati, Gorakhpur,
probably from the 10th century

This exquisite sculpture depicts the Goddess Sarasvati - deity of wisdom and knowledge, patron of the arts – playing the ekatantri vina.
The latter instrument appears on many temple sculptures built between the 9th and 12th centuries A.D.

Like the alapini, it would retain a certain prestige until the end of the 18th century. Considered the mother of all vina, the virtues of the ekatantri are extolled by Sanskrit authors writing on music (11th to 13th centuries A.D.). Due to its playing technique, it was the ideal instrument for the alap, the unmeasured, improvised prelude in which the melodic features of the raga are demonstrated and systematically unfolded.

Described at length by Sarngadeva in his 13th century treatise Sangita-ratnakara, the alap would evolve through time to become the essential part of the raga.

Detail of a carving from the Pala era,
10th century

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A vina similar to the ekatantri appears in one of the folios of the Ghunyat al-munya, a treatise written in Persian and commissioned by the Governor of Gujarat to raise awareness among the Muslim ruling class on the musical art forms of India.

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A page from the Ghunyat al-munya, Gujarat, 1374-75 A.D.
 

The anonymous author of this text highlights the large number of instruments then in use (quite a few of which were vina) and imparts valuable information on contemporary musical practices. For instance, he mentions that the tube of this vina, called balki (Sanskrit: valakki), was lengthened to bear twenty-one marks, which accurately corresponded to the seven notes on the musical scale over a range of three octaves.

A variant of this instrument, the bipanchi, (Sanskrit: vipanchi) with two strings and two resonators, also features among the twenty illustrations of this tome. Both vina had a curved tailpiece that supported a wide and flat bridge, a feature that would be essential to this family of instruments.
 
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