Phani Narayana Vadali says that when he plays the veena, a traditional plucked string instrument from southern India, the instrument’s tonality is so incredibly rich that it effectively “sings,” allowing him to create a rich tonal presence that sounds like the human voice — but without any vocalizing at all.
“I sing only with the instrument, not with vocals,” Phani Narayana said of his chosen musical tool. “I can show that it has a vocal quality. Audiences can enjoy the song as much as in the ‘vocals’ when I’m playing.”
On Saturday, Aug. 18, Phani Narayana will present “The Voice of the Lute,” a concert at the Kalanidhi Dance studio in Bethesda. Percussionist Srikar Chittari will accompany him on the mridangam, an ancient hand drum.
Phani Narayana said his typical program consists of two hours of classical Carnatic music on the veena — one of the most ancient strings instruments of India — although he has been known to greatly expand the length of his performances. “The regular program is two hours, and people from the audience can [make] requests. Sometimes it goes to three-and-a-half or four hours,” he said.
“We don’t often present performances other than dance, so this is somewhat of a special occasion,” said Chitra Kalyandurg, Kalanidhi Dance’s Director of Engagement & Arts Partnerships. “We thought it would be interesting to provide audiences insight into the Carnatic music that plays such an important role in the work that we do as Indian classical dancers.”
“Phani Narayana often accompanies dancers on the veena for dance performances, so it’s a great opportunity to hear him working in the dance space,” she added. “Veena concerts themselves are a rare thing anymore, so it’s also a nice way to share the music in a more intimate concert setting. Our collaborators at Spilling Ink [a D.C.-based multi-arts organization that creates, performs and presents performing, visual and literary arts of India and the diaspora] approached us with the idea of presenting Phani Narayana, and we thought it was a great idea to showcase him.”
The origins of the veena may be traced to the early centuries A.D. on the Indian subcontinent. The instrument resembles a guitar and, indeed, its descendants include lutes, zithers and harps, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. On his website, phaniveena.com, Phani Narayana said that he is a seventh-generation “vyinka,” or one who plays the veena. He grew up in Hyderabad, located in the south-central portion of India, and began playing on the veena at age 16.
Phani Narayana said the veena’s origins is in sacred rituals and dance, but its modern use has expanded into contemporary music as well as its ubiquitous use in film scores of the prolific Bollywood scene.
“We can use the instrument in so many kinds of ways and in so many kinds of programs,” he said. “The kind of compositions we can perform on the veena [offer] a free composition range. You can enjoy every note of the composition by playing the veena.”
In addition to offering concerts and recitals, Phani Narayana has performed on well over 200 Indian film soundtracks — in films of nearly every language of the multilingual country.
Beyond film scores, the veena player also lends his talents to various dance performances throughout the world. “I played for more than 100 dance ballads from the different kinds of dance music,” he said, adding that veena “has a total quality. You can play the veena [closely resembling] a tonal quality that is like a voice.”
Indeed, despite the fact that he plays an instrument, Phani Narayana calls himself a “singer” given that very tonal quality resembling the human voice. He has composed dozens of dance ballads for the veena and continues to write and release new music. “If you practice full-time, you can [master] the instrument in a minimum of five to six years,” he said. “I am a ‘singer’ along with the veena.”
For his Bethesda concert, Phani Narayana will perform solo on the stage, using only the veena to give “voice” to his home country’s ancient traditions.
However, while traditionalists maintain that the veena can only be played from a sitting position, Phani Narayana claimed that he has in fact recently mastered a technique of playing the instrument from a standing position as well. “It is ‘not possible’ to play the veena standing, but recently I invented” a way to do precisely that, he said. “It is one of the richest achievements from my [perspective].”
Phani Narayana’s music is available on iTunes. He continues to compose and tour, and also has a studio in which he records at his home in Hyderabad, India, under the brand name “String Wings.”
“I [am visiting] the U.S. for a ‘holiday,’” the musician said. “And in between, I [will] play some concerts for community organizations.”
Kalanidhi Dance and Spilling Ink present Vadali Phani Narayana in “The Voice of the Lute” at 6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 18, at the Kalanidhi Dance studio, 6816 Bradley Blvd., Bethesda. Admission is $20; visit veenaconcert.brownpapertickets.com or call 202-361-3067.