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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,
towards 1750,
the Indian Museum

The whisper of the soul

While numerous paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries reflect the importance given to music in the worldly life of royalty, others testify to its deep-rooted presence in the sphere of spirituality.
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Often depicted in a rural setting, in the solitude of a hermitage or surrounded by animals spellbound by this music, hermits and ascetics play the vina, their favoured instrument. Deccani artistes enjoyed painting enigmatic lady ascetics (yogini) traversing lonely landscapes, playing to themselves. This sumptuously attired young lady plays a one-string vina of a very early variety, and her playing posture seems identical to that of the celestial being in the Ajanta mural painting.

Yogini playing a vina,
Deccan, Bijapur,
second quarter of the 17th century

This instrument, whose sole function as a drone was to accompany the singing, corroborates the perpetuity of a then millennium-old tradition.
Ascetism and renunciation

The Mughal monarchs were particularly fond of iconographic themes depicting spiritual quests. While power was rewarded with material success, the pursuit for knowledge and wisdom remained, in their eyes, the ultimate aspiration.

Thus, Mughal painters created a large number of miniatures showing princes with ascetics. One of the jewels in the court of Shahjahan (reign: 1628 – 1658), the illustrious painter Govardhan, composed this magnificent painting by paying meticulous attention to the smallest of details. The expressions on the faces of each of the three characters portray a surprising degree of realism. The bin is depicted simply but accurately. Over and above the pegs and frets that are faultlessly reproduced, the tailpiece attached to the base of the tube shows two lateral appendices which are none other than the two tiny lateral bridges that the bin of our times still bears.
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Prince and hermits, credited to Govardhan,
Mughal School, towards 1630

On each of these bridges, we see a string that enjoyed the role of both drone string and rhythmical counterpoint, the melodic string – doubled here – being stretched over the frets. In all likeliness, the three-stringed bin described by Abul Fazl (as well as the one at the Musée de la musique) had the same arrangement, which, with its single melodic string, is reminicent of the ancient ekatantri vina.
This theme, recurrent in the Mughal school of painting, would often be conjured up with a musical backdrop. The rabab and especially the bin are almost omnipresent, thus offering a documentary source of great importance through the brush strokes of the painters.
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In this last painting, Prince Akbar, son of the Emperor Aurangazeb, is portrayed in the company of holy men, both Hindu and Muslim. The artist has shown a bin with highly ornamented resonators. Did he thus perhaps wish to convey – through a striking contrast between the austerity of the surroundings and the poverty of the ascetics – the intense delight that is brought by the music of the bin ?

Prince Akbar visits hermits,
Mughal School, towards 1685
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