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The history

Early chronicles
A single string
A new system
A prime influence
The whisper of the soul
Travellerís tales



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

A new system
 
 

The appearance of frets towards the end of the first millennium marked a significant stage in the history of Indian music. By this period, the harps and lutes of ancient India had actually disappeared and stick-zithers had evolved into a rich typology of instruments.
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Abaneri, temple of Harsat-Mata,
8th - 9th centuries
 

The musical theory of the Natya-shastra had been supplanted by a modal system based on a fixed note of reference (keynote)†; and it is not unlikely that frets, then used to measure intervals and demonstrate the validity of the new system, had played a cardinal role in these developments. Among the earliest known evidence on fretted vina number the carved walls of the Harsat-Mata temple at Abaneri (in Rajasthan).

One of them depicts a woman playing a vina without a resonator. High frets are clearly seen positioned on the base of a tube fitted with a tailpiece similar to the one on the ekatantri vina.
In central India, a major school of architecture developed under the patronage of the Hoysala kings between 1050 and 1300 A.D. The proponents of this faction set great store on the representation of music on the richly adorned inner walls of sanctuaries.

Among the numerous instruments finely chiselled on stone, which are an invaluable source of information on the techniques of instrument-making prevalent in that era, the fretted vina appears frequently. The temples of Belur (1117) and Halebid (1121), renowned for their sculptures and their musical depictions, provide typical examples of these vina. In Halebid, the instrument held vertically by the figure on the right has a small spherical resonator and increasingly wide frets.



Halebid, 12th century

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Baptised kinnari or kingra, this vina occupies a select place in the musical literature of medieval India. The Sangita-ratnakara describes several kinnari vina of different dimensions.
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The high frets of this instrument, made of vulture bone, iron or bronze, were attached to a reed tube with a mixture of ashes from cloth and vegetable resins. Depending on the type of kinnari, two or three gourd resonators were fixed under the tube. A vertical nut, placed on the tube near the upper resonator, was a common feature to all the kinnari. This notched nut supported two strings (of metal or gut), one used as a melody string and the other as a drone string.


Woman playing the kinnari vina (close up),
by Rahim Deccani,
Golconda, last quarter of the 17th century

All these characteristics are clearly visible in an exquisite deccani painting portraying a young woman playing a kinnari-vina. The remarkable paintings of this region, made during the Mughal era, show many variations of the kinnari-vina and lead us to conclude that considerable attention was lavished on the instrument during this period.
 
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