My grandfather was a skilled craftsman and artist, and aside from teaching me how to play mandolin, he taught me how to use many woodworking and metalworking tools. We also had trade classes in the middle school, where we learned to use a lathe, a milling machine, a drill press and practiced working with materials. So by the time I decided to undertake this project, that was basically the extent of my experience in making anything out of wood, other than putting together some simple shelving. The electronic part of it was the easiest - electronics has been my hobby since almost the kindergarten, and I went to study it in college.
I was introduced to the Veena when I met Vijaya in 2005. Over the years that followed I became aware of the limitations of this beautiful instrument - limited portability, sensitivity to humidity and temperature changes, and tuning issues. I started thinking how the Veena could be improved, and how I could design these improvements to be able to make them within the limitations of my knowledge, skills and available tools.
The immediate challenges were the fretboard, the neck, and how to make a functional equivalent of the resonator and the neck support gourd. I also had to figure out how to make the bridge - I wanted to terminate the strings at the bridge and not at the end of the body, plus I wanted to provide the height and scale adjustment for each string and do away with the brass plate which I felt did not add much to the sound but completely eliminated any hope for tuning precision.
Watching Vijaya play made me realize that the neck can be flat but with the front side widened so it feels like the thick neck of the Saraswati veena. I thought that both the support gourd and the resonator could be replaced with a post and a disk which would be removable for portability, since only the bottom part touches the player’s knee and the floor, and that I could make the bridge on my 3D printer as the first pass.
Fretboard was more difficult to design. Eventually I settled on just having regular guitar frets - they come in various heights, so I hoped that picking the highest would be sufficient. In 2011 Vijaya brought from India the Tarangini veena designed by Dr. Suma Sudhindra, which proved that my hunch about using guitar frets was correct, but I was not convinced at the time that deep scalloping between the frets was necessary for playability.
It took a few more years of thinking about it on and off, drawing various designs and figuring out how to manufacture all the parts. I watched a number of YouTube videos about electric guitar making, discovered Stewart McDonald, an online store specialized in luthiery, and solidified my plan on where and how to go about making it happen.
So in the Spring of 2016, when Vijaya went to India, I bought a roll of banner paper, created a detailed full-size drawing, ordered all the necessary parts from StewMac, and took a bus to Maryland, where Vijaya’s foster father keeps a fully-equipped workshop. After three 14-hour days I had all the wooden pieces ready. I also designed and 3D-printed the bridge, which took a couple of passes overnight.
I still had no specific plan how to finish - spraying lacquer looked like a daunting task, and I was still learning the tools and materials of luthiery. But I presented what I had to Vijaya, who was completely blown away and thrilled that I actually got around to make it.
I put it together for Vijaya, and it sounded wonderful when she first played, but there were a few issues. First, the scalloping between frets turned out to be crucial, and the pole and disk support under the body did not allow the instrument to be played normally, like one would the Saraswati veena, tilting it away and balancing on the side of the resonator.
I did not like the prospect of scalloping the frets by hand with a file, but found an article by a luthier from New Zealand who scalloped guitar fretboards with a rounded router bit, producing quality and consistency that I wanted. Since only a small area of the resonator ever touched the floor while playing, I thought that I could just make a piece of wood following the curve of the resonator, and attach it instead of the disk, to allow for balancing.
We went back to Maryland, where I made a jig to scallop the fretboard, and laminated a few pieces of poplar together for the curved piece, which I then cut on the bandsaw. Back in New York, I built a spray booth in our apartment, and sprayed eight cans of lacquer - 12 layers in all. It came out ok, considering that I had never done this before and it was my very first experience dealing with lacquer. After curing for two weeks, I sanded and polished the pieces by hand, put them back together, and the very first Shiva Veena was born.
More to come …