The rudra veena is one of the oldest instruments in India. Depictions of the large, sitar-like instrument can be found in Hindu temples dating back over 2000 years. It was one of the most popular instruments of the Mughal period, performing Dhrupad, the oldest form of North Indian classical music still in circulation. Despite its longevity and significance, rudra veena recordings are few and far between. Recordings by women playing the “king of instruments”, as the rudra veena is sometimes referred to, are virtually non-existent.
There are strong feminine elements in every aspect of the instrument, however. The instrument’s shape is said to be inspired by the form of a woman when the God Shiva was inspired by the sleeping form of his wife Parvati, reclining with her arm across her breasts. Those temple carvings of antiquity depict women playing the rudra veena, as well. Despite this mountain of evidence, there has been an enormous stigma against women playing the instrument in modern times, rooted in patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes.
Lovers of Indian classical music are lucky that Madhuvanti Pal ignored such ridiculous stigmas. The Holy Mother: Madhuvanti Pal Plays the Rudra Veena is 90 minutes of pure, deep trance-inducing bliss that not only shows off the deep, beautiful resonance of the rudra veena and Pal’s deft, fluid playing but also the tranquil, explosive magic of Indian classical music
The Holy Mother is made up of two lengthy Ragas, each of which is split into two sprawling 20-plus-minute tracks. The album opens with “Todi”, a Raga about a beautiful young woman surrounded by deer. A late-morning raga, “Todi”, starts moody and thoughtful and ends up ebullient and joyful, like a sluggish, silvered river bursting into frothing, bubbling motion. The alap – the opening phase of the raga where the performer outlines the scale and melody – is deep and thoughtful like the sun peeking over the lip of the horizon. It’s little wonder “Todi” is such a popular Raga for master instrumentalists, as it allows them to show off their technique in a wide range of moods and styles.
The second Raga, “Bhairavi,” is sometimes referred to as “the queen of the morning Ragas”. It’s revered for its devotional aspect, making it a popular pick for Bhajan performances – music with spiritual or religious themes. It’s a fitting choice as the Raga is named after the Hindu Goddess Bhairavi, one of the ten manifestations of the Mother Goddess whose name means “awe-inspiring” or “terror”. Pal’s performance of “Bhairavi” is more spacious and sedate than “Todi”, largely lingering around two notes with ample space in between. This spaciousness lets Pal show off her tonality and technique, luxuriating in long shakes and graceful glides. This makes the climactic second half all that much more thrilling, with its throbbing bassline and galloping upper register giving the feeling of a pensive cloudy day erupting into thunderous tumult and pouring rain. Well over 70 minutes into the performance, you’re completely under Pal’s thrall by this point, making this subtle explosion all that much more thrilling.
Pal’s love and devotion to the rudra veena goes far and deep. She started studying the instrument at 12, being born to a family of musical teachers dating back four generations. From there, she graduated to building her own instruments and then opened her own rudra veena school. This deep understanding manifests in every aspect of The Holy Mother, particularly the recording, which is so close-mic’d and intimate you can hear the creak of her fingers on the fretboard. The rudra veena is notoriously difficult to record, and Pal has shown herself to be an expert in that, too. Add in extensive, detailed liner notes from Sublime Frequencies, and you’ve got one of the loveliest and most essential documents of Indian classical music in recent memory. If you’ve ever been looking for a way to get into Indian classical music, The Holy Mother would make an excellent choice.
The Holy Mother is the crown jewel of a busy year for Pal, releasing three albums of rudra veena recordings and an original single. She is doing an excellent service, bringing the rudra veena and North Indian classical music to a wider audience. She’s doing an even greater service still by restoring women to their rightful place as queens of the king of instruments.