In the news: Shosoin biwa likely to have been played

A section of the decorated neck of a five-string biwa–a Japanese traditional lute–stored in the Shosoin warehouse in Nara shows signs of wear, according to researchers of the Imperial Household Agency.

The researchers and other experts said the attenuation of the decorative pattern proves a theory that the lute–named Raden Shitan no Gogen Biwa–was actually played, and was not just for ornamental use.

The pattern was found to be fainter on part of the rear of the neck of the instrument and is thought to be the result of friction caused by the hand when being played.

Officials of the agency said they plan to conduct acoustic experiments on the lute such as analyzing the sounds that are generated inside the instrument’s body.

The biwa lute measures 108 centimeters long and 31 centimeters wide. It was decorated with a technique called raden, in which pieces of seashell were glued onto the rosewood body of the lute.

Researchers say five-string lutes originated in India and spread to central Asia. However, the Shosoin lute is the only surviving five-string lute in the world.

The agency asked Shosai Kitamura, a 70-year-old lacquerware artist in Nara who has been designated a living national treasure, to examine the biwa’s design and make a replica.

Kitamura discovered that lines drawn around a petal shape made from seashell pieces–about two to three centimeters long–on the back of the body were fainter than in other areas.

Though other lines around seashells were drawn with black pigment, the section in question was colorless.

Kitamura said: “It’s improbable that black pigment wasn’t also used for this section. It’s more likely the lines were worn away after being rubbed repeatedly by the left hand holding the strings.

The biwa lute will not be displayed during Nara National Museum’s 60th exhibition of items from the Shosoin warehouse to be held in Nara starting Oct. 25.

(Sep. 29, 2008)

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