Song of Surrender

Friday, 6 May 2016

“Fevicol? Nylon? Fiddlesticks!”

By Navaneet Krishnan

Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan invited master violin craftsman James Wimmer and his apprentice Alexandra Armanino, to Chennai in November 2015, to conduct a workshop to train a few specialist craftsmen in the art of violin repair. This two-week workshop was a continuation of a longer one conducted by Krishnan and Wimmer in 2013. The workshop was held under the auspices of the Lalgudi Trust, founded by the late Lalgudi G. Jayaraman. Navaneet Krishnan caught up with them on a rainy afternoon in November.

How did this idea of conducting such a workshop come about?

Wimmer: I was struggling to learn some Carnatic violin in Santa Barbara from Dr. Saravanapriyan Sriraman, a disciple of Lalgudi Krishnan, sometime around 2000. At the time Saravanan was a student at the university there. When Krishnan came to Santa Barbara for a few concerts, Saravanan felt Krishnan would be more comfortable staying at my place, rather than at his student quarters. So that’s how I first came in contact with Krishnan. I gained some keen insights into the system of teaching and learning violin in the Carnatic tradition during that period, watching Krishnan teach Saravanan. Around 2002, I made a trip to south India, when I made a slide presentation about the cello and its repair. Krishnan and his father, the late Lalgudi Jayaraman, were present, and they were impressed.

Krishnan: He (Wimmer) played the Mohanakalyani tillana in my father’s presence.

Wimmer: Yes I was terrified! Subsequently I met them at their house, and I asked if I could see their violins. Seeing them, I realised how poorly violins are maintained here in India, because of the absence of the rigorous repair and maintenance culture that we are so familiar with in the West. I saw the makeshift adjustments made to the instruments of Lalgudi Jayaraman, and I thought to myself, “Here is the violinist of the century, whose violin barely has a tone!” I didn’t have the proper tools with me, so I asked for a butter knife, held my breath and tapped very gently to set the sound post right. With just that minor adjustment, Krishnan told me that every violin’s tone appreciably improved.

So was that the starting point for this programme?

Wimmer: Not exactly. I had had prior exposure to similar “repair” work in the 1980s. After I completed my apprenticeship in the violin shops of Wolfgang Uebel and Rainer Knobel in Germany, I returned to India in 1985. When I visited my first guru, V.K. Venkataramanujam in Varanasi, and saw his violins, I immediately knew that they were in an atrocious condition. I was horrified, and told him that he should never again go to whoever had butchered his violins like this, under the guise of repair. To make matters worse, they were painted over with a coating of brown house paint, to cover up the botched attempts at repairing the instruments. I told him that I had become a certified violin repairer, and could set right his violins if he wanted. He immediately put me to the task. I luckily had a few basic tools, sound posts and bridges, and I got down to repairing his violins as best I could, trying to get used to sitting on the floor. All this while I was trying to teach young Balaji, Ramanujam’s son, how to approach repair while holding the violins with our feet. It wasn’t easy, but I got very used to sitting on the hard concrete floor, and ever since then I have sent the occasional box of broken violins to (now) Dr. V. Balaji, who would somehow repair them for violin students. Ramanujam has passed on, but my friendship with his entire family has been rich and enduring, with Balaji encouraging me to continue to teach repair in India on a larger scale.

Over the years, efforts to get grants and the like never panned out, and in 2013 I finally decided, after almost 30 years, to throw in the towel and maybe take a vacation in Hawaii instead. That’s when my good friend and Carnatic violin teacher Saravanan, who would not hear of it and kept prodding me, took matters into his own hands and contacted Krishnan in Chennai about the idea, and before I knew it, I was once more dropping all my plans for the Fall, and heading for Chennai. That was how this workshop came about the first time.

How was your experience the first time around?

It was difficult, as it took me time to get to know the participants and their ways, learning to communicate with them, making them understand the importance of the right tools, and removing the culture of trying to fix everything with Fevicol. Also, since we had some novices, and one participant who had no experience with woodwork whatsoever, the progress was very slow.

Krishnan: It was also difficult for us, as it was the first time we were arranging such a workshop and we had no idea what to expect. And to make matters even more difficult, half way through the workshop, my mother unfortunately passed away, so we had to put everything on hold for a couple of weeks. Also the last time, it was not so intensive and focussed. This time around from the very first day, we have had full focus, covering a lot of ground.

How many participants from last time have come again this time?

Krishnan: Just one, Anbarasan. Last time we had a mixture of craftsmen, novices, carpenters, and music students. This time we were careful to only choose those who were already professional instrument craftsmen. Anbarasan has been repairing violins for the past 15years, mostly based on what he learnt on the fly. But he has shown tremendous improvement. In fact, he has possibly made the most progress this time, as he was already very familiar with the techniques and tools from last time. He runs a small instrument shop in Mambalam, and this workshop gives him a rare opportunity to interact with such master craftspeople from abroad. The others participants are Aryan and Nagaraj, who work in a piano shop, and Ranjit, who is a carpenter from Malappuram in Kerala.

Wimmer: Krishnan here has made some very astute choices in the selection of this year’s course participants. At first I was sceptical of the two young gentlemen, Aryan and Nagaraj, who came to us from a piano store, of all things. However, as it turns out, they both trained for two years in Mumbai in a programme presented by none other than the venerable Steinway firm, and they bring considerable technical handwork skills and conceptual abilities to bear on our projects. They speak outstanding English, and shriek with laughter together with us when we make feeble attempts to learn Tamil from them. They have a great sense of humour, and when I take revenge for the Tamil teasing by having them pronounce the names of the important violin makers and bow makers of Italy, France, and Germany, they squirm and howl good naturedly, rolling their eyes with the difficulty of the task. Fair is fair; we all guffaw as one unit. Then there is Ranjit, who has travelled all the way from Malappuram in Kerala to join us. A carpenter by trade, he has already made a very passable violin out of teak, jack and mahogany wood, without any formal training or other input. He also brings along quite a palette of skills with hand tools and adapts immediately to the problem solving and focus specific to our craft. He works precisely and swiftly, and it is often difficult to keep ahead of him and keep him busy. Finally, there is Anbarasan, our only returnee from the first course two years ago. He runs his own shop, yet finds time to enjoy our teaching. He gives us the opportunity to check his progress after the intensive course held in 2013, and he does not disappoint. 

All of these gentlemen prove to be a tremendous resource for us, as it is impossible to remember every last little item that we need to bring from the US in order to make this course a success. They all know how to find materials and supplies that we did not even know existed in India, and they know how to improvise them into existence. We never cease to be amazed at their resourcefulness.

Together, they have accomplished as much in these two weeks as many established shops in the US might accomplish in a similar time frame, with Alex (my assistant) doing a stellar job of carrying half the teaching load. When the visitors have all gone, and everyone is concentrated on their own project, the productivity arising from the tranquillity is nothing short of astonishing.

All your participants have full time jobs as instrument repairers. How then do they manage to spend so much time here? Wouldn’t it hurt them economically to be away from their day jobs for so long?

Krishnan: We provide a daily stipend for all the participants for the entire duration of the workshop. Also, we have given them all the specific tools for violin repair, for free. We are trying our best to make it economically viable, trying to equip them with both the tools and the knowledge to go about proper violin repair. I have also made sure, that they need not work sitting on the wrong kinds of tables, or on the floor. A proper workstation has been provided on a permanent basis here. In fact, we have also arranged for Ranjit’s stay, since he is the only participant from out of town. But naturally if this could become a larger movement, with support from the government and corporate houses, more people could be trained on a larger scale, in a much more efficient manner. Ultimately we would like to spread the word about this kind of violin repair culture to as many people, be they practitioners, students or craftsmen. A lot of people have evinced interest to take part in this workshop, but they want to come only part-time, which does not work to anyone’s advantage. Unless they can dedicate themselves to this art, and learn it full time, they cannot grasp the intricacies of these techniques. And it would not be fair for me to ask Jim (Wimmer) to structure two separate courses – one for the full-timers and another for the part-timers.

What is the biggest obstacle to violin repair in India?

Wimmer: (emphatically) Fevicol! We never use any of these chemical adhesives in the West to glue the violin together. We use only animal fat-based glue. (Suddenly picking up a couple of bows) See this. We never use any kind of adhesive to string a bow. We cut a small piece of wood, to very precise measurements and insert it along with the hair. That way, when I need to re-string a bow, I don’t need to get in with the sharp instruments that will cut into the wood of the bow. There are some bows in the West, that are easily worth anywhere between $50,000 to $100,000. Often the owners of these very valuable bows would be sitting before me, as I strung them. So I could not afford to cut into the wood, permanently damaging the bow, and possibly bringing its value down to scrap!

Do you use nylon to string the bows?

Wimmer: Never! We always use horse hair, and the hair has to come from wild, free running horses. Domestic horses are lazy, and their hair is weak. That just won’t do! Also it has to be the white hair from the horse’s tail, which is the finest quality. Black hair is coarse and won’t serve the purpose. Most of the horse hair comes from Mongolia. China is a big player in the export of Mongolian horse hair. The other places where wild horse hair is available are Poland and Argentina.

Krishnan: 200 odd years of violin playing in south India, and no one has even thought about these aspects! There is absolutely no awareness. In the olden days if something went wrong with the violin, they would send the instrument over to the local music instrument shop, and the repair person there would try his hand, and the end result would invariably be tragic. I remember my father once sent a violin so that the sound post could be set right, and the repairer went about it in such a violent manner that the front of the violin just fell off! He then used vajram (a natural adhesive, similar to shellac) to glue the violin back together. My father could not even complain, as there was no other option. Once he started getting foreign concert tours, he would take as many violins as he could, and get them repaired abroad. I think that is still the norm. Most top violinists in the field continue to get their instruments repaired abroad, rather than in India. There is no craftsman who knows anything about violin repair in India.

Wimmer: I think the problem stems from the fact that most violin repairs in India are done by repairers of other instruments like the veena or the sitar, which are structurally very different. If the gourd of a sitar breaks, it is glued together, and then painted over with furniture polish. But the violin is very different. In the West, we make the violin to be a work of art. If you had a priceless antique painting, and you wanted it to be retouched, you would not get it done by someone who paints houses! But unfortunately that is the mentality when it comes to repairing violins in India. Frankly, in the West such an act would be considered criminal, because violins (especially the older ones) are extremely valuable, and treating them this way is equivalent to throwing them into the garbage. The value is gone. Well preserved violins often fetch very handsome amounts, as they are seen as an investment. Don’t get me wrong, there are shoddy workers everywhere, even in the West, but here it seems that good violin craftsmen are almost non-existent. See this violin (shows his own violin). Even the wood is extremely valuable. I bought this wood around 1983-84, and just this plank of wood cost me around $250. So imagine my consternation if some fellow were to come along and dig into it with all kinds of sharp instruments, and then paint it over with furniture polish.

Is the tonal quality of the violin affected by this top-heavy treatment?

Well, not so much, but more so the aesthetic quality. Imagine the disappointment and anger of the owner when they receive the instrument, with so much damage done to it. If, for instance, you were to give me your car for fine tuning, and I were to bang around with a hammer and break the wind shield, your car would still work, wouldn’t it? But the pleasure of driving it would be greatly diminished. It is the same logic here.

Coming back to horse hair, how economical is it compared to nylon?

Well, earlier, when horse hair was not as widely available, nylon did make sense, but now horse hair is easily available all over the world. A bunch of good quality horse hair will cost me between $400 and $450. It is still much more expensive than nylon, which can be manufactured in bulk, but that extra amount is worth it. The end product is much more superior.

So is the difference merely aesthetic, or is there tonal difference too?

Oh, a bow with nylon is simply not up to the task. It will not produce the requisite tone from the violin. The reason is that the horse hair has the ability to take the rosin very well. Rosin is a very sticky substance, and it penetrates well into hair. But it just does not stick as well on nylon. Also horse hair tends to stretch over the strings, as you play, giving you more grip, and ultimately creating this grand tone (plays and demonstrates).

Krishnan: You see how almost every violinist in India, due to the lack of awareness, is having to play with instruments of substandard quality. The instruments are functional, but just so. Indian violinists are missing out on a world of tonal beauty because of this.

Wimmer: This is the discussion we often have here with our participants. They tell us that they are getting to learn a wealth of new techniques here, but our techniques are very exacting, expensive and time intensive. And when the musicians (their clients) themselves are unwilling to either allow the time, or spend the money on these techniques – if they would rather get their instruments patched up the old, cheap way – then the damage is done. So it is going to be a challenge to change the mindset of Indian violinists. We are trained to look at each violin that comes for repair as unique. We take two months to think about how to go about repairing a particular violin. We do have impatient clients even in the West, but if they want their instruments in a hurry, I would rather not work on them at all. I just tell them, “If you can’t wait, then take it back now.” We have a saying in the West, “Good repair and good work takes time. If you want it bad, you’ll get it bad. The worse you want it, the worse you’ll get it.”

Do you see more youth getting interested in the art of violin making and repairing in the West?

It takes time, especially with these old arts and crafts. With technology, movies and the like dominating their interest, not many come to violin making. But things are slowly changing in the West. Alex (my assistant) is a rare breed. She’s been with me now for more than four years, and she is a very promising protégé indeed. I am the easy-going teacher, Alex is the tough one.

Alex: When I came to Jim (Wimmer), almost five years ago, I didn’t know anything about violin making. He taught me from scratch, but I was a quick learner, and I was willing to put in the necessary time and toil to understand and master these techniques. I was originally a musician, and a student of architecture, and I was interested in learning about the structural integrity of the violin. I was also a wood worker, as my father was a cabinet maker. I had this interest in learning this craft. Jim was willing and patient.

Is it important for a violinist to know how to repair a violin?

Wimmer: We prefer they leave that aspect to the professional repairers, unless they’ve trained with a master maker. It is important for a violinist to know their instrument. Often violin players will come to me, and they will sit with their violins, and I will try to make them understand what they need to look for, tonally speaking, in their instruments. Professional instrumentalists become very nervous at the slightest change in their instruments, worrying that it might mar their performance. I have to allay these fears and make them understand that a violin is temperamental, but that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with it. I try to engage them this way, and teach them to understand their instruments better; that way they know when to go to a violin repairer, and when not to. This knowledge is very important. When I was an apprentice, we had to regularly hold these “programmes” to sensitise people, but really, sometimes it seemed hopeless. That is because violin players only want to play their violins and feel good about it, drown themselves in a spiritual experience. They do not want to think about the instrument while they are playing. That is really our work, to make the violins such that there is no struggle for the players. So it is good for them to understand their instrument, but they should not go about repairing it themselves.

What about minor adjustments?

Best they don’t do anything to the instrument – it will only end up damaging it in the long run, and will involve a lot more work to restore it. I knew this one famous bass player in the US. He had this habit of adjusting his own instrument, and would do the same for other musicians too, telling them not to unnecessarily go to violin makers and spend money. The tool that you need to repair an instrument only costs about $5. So this one time, he had a concert in Las Vegas with Barbara Streisand, and before the concert, he used his tools to adjust the sound post in his bass cello. Midway through the concert, his cello cracked open so loudly, that security personnel came running on to the stage, fearing a bomb explosion! So a few days later he was standing in my shop with his broken and abused cello. I looked at the box and thought a piano had been passed through a wood chipper and brought to me. It took me some time to understand what the instrument was! When I open the top, and looked in, the anterior section, where the sound post should have been, looked like the surface of the moon, replete with craters! I knew this was his doing, but I could not be rude, so I told him, “Look here! I don’t know who’s doing your sound post work, but if I were you I would never go to him again.” He sombrely nodded and kept quiet.

Musicians need to understand that violin makers are there for a reason. Most violin makers never play the violin. In fact, there is no known documentation to show that Antonio Stradivarius ever played a single note on the violin. But he is considered as the greatest violin maker ever. This is because, as violin makers/craftsmen, our hands and fingers face a lot of abuse. Look at my hands. I used to play the violin, but years of working on violins has made my fingers big and hard. I use my hands literally like sledge hammers and I cut my fingers so many times during the course of my work. If you are a professional violinist, you cannot afford such abuse to your hands and fingers. You will lose the supple dexterity required to play concert music.

Did you manage to get word out about this programme to other violinists in the city?

Krishnan: We informed as many people as we could. We have had many professional violinists visit us, like V.S. Narasimhan, M. Narmadha, Pakkala Ramdas, cello player Sekhar (son of Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan), and many others. We want the awareness about this programme to spread as much as possible. Ultimately this is a precious art, that needs to be fostered by people. Many violinists brought their instruments very proudly here, and unfortunately it turned out that they had been stuck with Fevicol, which is far stronger than the wood of the violin. So when he (Wimmer) tried to fix them, the wood started developing cracks, and the violin was in a worse condition than before. So we are basically educating violinists to stay away from Fevicol or any other chemical adhesive, and to go in for animal fat-based glue only. But it is an uphill task, because people are used to a particular way of working for so long. Considering the number of violinists we have in Chennai alone, both in classical music as well as film music, it is shocking to see the lack of awareness about the instrument and its proper care. Of course this problem is unique only to the acoustic violin. The electric violin has none of these issues, though it entails problems of its own. I have seen violins with nails driven into the back to keep it in place. Such atrocious work! And unlike the West, we have no dedicated schools or institutions that can train good quality craftsmen in instrument making. Even the music colleges in India, have very little, if anything at all, in the line of training craftsmen to make and repair instruments properly.

We are very happy that our participants are now well-versed with the skills involved in proper violin repair. But unfortunately for them to be able to use these techniques, the awareness among violinists needs to grow manifold. Educating and convincing violinists about the value of these techniques, that despite the time and money involved, it is worth their while, as they can get the best out of their instruments – that is possibly the biggest challenge.

Are you planning to continue with this programme as an annual feature in Chennai?

Yes, God willing. I am very happy that Wimmer is gracious and magnanimous enough to share his knowledge in such a free and open manner, with anyone who is interested. That is a rare quality indeed.

(Navaneet Krishnan is a Carnatic vocalist)

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