‘You have to be a little mad to play the rudra veena’

Malini Nair | Updated on June 28, 2019 Published on June 28, 2019

Change-maker Hegde was learning to play the sitar at a pre-university college in Sirsi, Karnataka, when she decided to take up the rudra veena   -  SHARATH HEGDE

Jyoti Hegde defied sexism and superstition to shoulder and master the stringed instrument

Mythology has it that the rudra veena was crafted by Shiva as a tribute to the beauty of Parvati as she lay in repose, an arm thrown across her breasts. But over time, the icon of female divinity became a tool of exclusion — women were not allowed to play the instrument because it was considered sacred.

Jyoti Hegde ran into this gender wall when she was 16. In 1981, when she declared her intention to master the stringed instrument, she was discouraged with two arguments: One that it would be too heavy for her frail shoulders, and two, its mystic powers could render her infertile.

“Well, here I am — I have been playing the rudra veena for nearly four decades, shouldering it, hauling it single-handedly all over the world. And I have a son, too,” says Hegde, 53, with a genial laugh. She has just wrapped up a concert in Ahmedabad and is on a two-day break in Mumbai when we meet her.

It took her a decade of backbreaking work, a lot of heartache, small and big battles against superstition, cynicism and sexism to become the first woman in modern times to master the instrument. She is now one of the most sought after rudra veena artistes in India, and a regular at most Dhrupad festivals.

But Hegde wears her pioneering role lightly. “I took no great pride in knowing that I was the only woman in the field. It is a matter of regret for me,” says Hegde, who has three female students learning under her now.

Driven by an infectious optimism, Hegde lives, far from the established culture hubs of India, in a small village near Sirsi, a hilly taluk in Northern Karnataka. She and her husband grow spices, areca nut and coconut on a plantation. Getting to a concert venue and back, armed with the eight-kilogram rudra veena, can often be a fraught effort.

“I have struggled all my life, so hardships don’t bother me anymore,” she says.

Hegde was learning to play the sitar under Bindu Madhav Pathak at a pre-university college in Sirsi when she first heard him play the rudra veena. “I was mesmerised, possessed by that deep, mystical dhaaun,” she recalls.

She asked Pathak if she could play the instrument. “Ladies ke bas ki baat nahin hai (this is beyond women),” he had replied. But he handed her a rusty, outsized rudra veena belonging to his guru, Ustad Murad Khan.

“I actually managed to wrest music from that veena,” she says. Moved by her drive, Pathak took her on as a student.

But Pathak soon moved to Hubli, 104 km from Sirsi, to take charge of the music department at Dharwad’s Karnatak University. Despite opposition from the family, Hegde, who was then already playing for All India Radio, moved to Hubli, too, to a hostel across the Pathak mansion. Her guru would take a 7.30 am bus to Dharwad, so she would park herself at his gate at 6 am and wait for him to finish his routine and start his half-hour yoga session.

“He would instruct me on the rudra veena through the asanas,” Hegde says. “After he left, I would practise till 4 pm, when he returned home. His family couldn’t quite get over this lone girl, so far from home, practising, oblivious to all else.”

In the meanwhile, trouble was brewing at home: Hegde’s mother had heard that the instrument impaired a woman’s reproductive system. She was summoned home and, at the age of 22, married off to a banker who, luckily, was supportive of her musical ambitions. The couple soon left for Khandwa, where her husband was posted. Hegde managed to keep her engagement with the rudra veena going in the Madhya Pradesh town.

When they returned to Karnataka in the early ’90s, Hegde decided to further push the boundaries. “I argued with guruji that the rudra veena couldn’t do justice to the nakhras (playfulness) of the sitar,” Hegde says. “Why not play on its grandeur, in the Dhrupad style?”

In her quest to master the style, she set out on the toughest journey — to become a disciple of the formidable veena maestro Asad Ali Khan, known as much for his artistry as his taciturn ways. “You are a woman and you live far — how will you manage to travel?” he asked her.

The Hegde family had by then moved to Sirsi and Delhi seemed like another planet. “I took my 15-year-old son, who was in high school, along with me to Delhi for courage but we had no place to stay,” Hegde recalls. “We would go to small hotels, stay with relatives, sometimes at Khansaheb’s home, waiting for classes,” she says.

“He finally took pity on me. He would summon me for lessons or ask me to sit on stage as he performed in Mumbai. I would book a room in some small hotel, [only to] find he wasn’t in a mood to teach,” Hegde recounts.

In this manner she refined her technique under Khan. She learnt the place of yoga in this music, attuning the instrument to the variations of the heartbeat.

“When you pull the strings of the rudra veena, you don’t expend the energy by letting it go like in other stringed instruments but pull the music into you. It is incredibly hard. You actually have to be a little mad to play the rudra veena,” she says with a self-deprecating guffaw.

(This new fortnightly column profiles women musicians who have broken gender barriers)

Malini Nair   -  BUSINESS LINE


Malini Nair is a journalist based in Delhi; write to her at

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Published on June 28, 2019
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