Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

July 5, 2012

Veena plucks teen's ties to her heritage

Sarita Ballakur plays ancient Indian instrument

By Judy Wakefield
Staff Writer

The plucked string instrument is very heavy, but delicate. Players have to sit on the floor cross-legged to play using both hands. It's history is ancient, and Indian families typically pass the instrument down from one generation to the next.

That's how Sarita Ballakur, 16, of Orchard Street, started playing her family's veena.

"My mom (Anita) played this when she was growing up in India and now I play," said Sarita, who will be a senior in September at Andover High School. "It's so heavy and is straining at first. But, now I manage it fine."

She started playing at age 7 and still takes a weekly veena lesson with a teacher in Marlborough. Her younger sister, Trisha, 12, also plays the veena.

Sarita performed for the U.S. Armed Forces at their Asian American/Pacific Islander Heritage Month in Natick this spring. The performance was at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center. She has also performed at Sri Chinmaya Temple in Andover.

"A bigger audience than usual," Sarita said of her Armed Forces performance. "But someone came up to me after and asked for a lesson so I guess I did OK."

Sarita explained that veena music varies.

"It can sound happy or a bit more mysterious, which I like," said Sarita, who captains the AHS Robotics Club and enjoys playing Ultimate Frisbee.

The veena has been categorized as having a "mellow tonal quality which is capable of evoking a meditative atmosphere." It's a good background sound for a yoga class and popular at Andover's Sri Chinmaya Maruti Temple at 1 Union St., where meditation reigns.

While playing, Sarita sits cross-legged on a floor and rests half of the veena on the left side of her lap. Her fingers of the left hand are used to press, pull and glide on the frets, while the fingers of the right hand are used to pluck and twang the strings.

"At first it was so straining. Now. it relaxes me when I play," she said.

Playing the veena keeps her connected to her Indian roots and she likes that, too, she said.

"Indian culture is important to me. That's how my parents (Arvind and Anita Ballakur) raised me," said Sarita. "Playing the veena is just a lot of fun and it's so popular in Indian culture."

Her family will travel to India for its summer vacation as her parents both grew up there and her grandparents still live in South India. She's sure to hear veena music somewhere.

VEENA FACTS

One of the most ancient string instruments of India.

1.5 meters long and is made from jackwood, which is abundant in South India and termite resistant.

Has a large, round body with a thick, wide neck, the end of which is carved into the head of a dragon.

A small resonator is attached to the underside of the neck.

24 metal frets (the raised portion on the neck of a stringed instrument) are embedded in hardened bees-wax, mixed with charcoal powder.