Violin-repairing in India

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Interview by Prof. Muthukumaraswamy of Lalgudi Krishnan and James Wimmer in Chennai in December 2016

 

M.D. Muthukumaraswamy: Mr. Lalgudi Krishnan, Mr. James Wimmer, thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview for Sahapedia. Sahapedia as you know is an online encyclopedia on Indian arts and culture. And we are very glad to do an elaborate interview on the workshop that you are doing. Mr. Krishnan, may I ask you to give an introduction to the workshop that you are doing with Mr. Wimmer on violin making? Maybe you could explain why you feel the need to do a workshop like this.

 

Lalgudi Krishnan: Thank you, Mr Muthukumarswamy, it has been a pleasure to be a part of this. The violin has been in the Indian music system, has been assimilated and adapted for say, a period of 200 years. It was assimilated into the Indian system during British rule. We have four people who have been credited with the job of Indianising this Western instrument. Varahappaiyer, Balaswamy Dikshitar, Vadivelu and Krishnaswamy Bhagavatar. The art of violin making, as Mr. James may say, has been perfected by Stradivarius and not much has been done to improve it any further. We have taken the same violin and Indianised it. Could I ask Mr. Wimmer to play it in the western way?

 

James Wimmer: Actually, it’s pretty well known, Mr Baluswamy learnt from an Irish fiddler. I am not a classical violinist, I’m a fiddler. I don’t get to say I am a violinist.  I always have to say I am a fiddler.  I’ll play you a tune in the Irish manner.

(Plays violin)

 

 

M.D.M.: Very nice.

 

J.W.: You see, it is very different from the Western Classical.

 

 

M.D.M.: Do you mean to say that changing the posture is one of the ways of Indianising the instrument?

 

L.K.: Yes, because our Indian music is vocal based and what we do is to simulate the human voice. The violin is a phenomenal instrument with great potential. We have so many advantages of bringing this instrument into our system because we don’t have the concept of absolute pitch. Each one chooses the pitch that he or she is comfortable with. A female vocalist can choose the tonic or pitch to be G, and we can tune the violin to be G and if it were to be a male vocalist, it could be as low as C and we could still tune it.  Violin is as much a solo instrument as it can be an accompanying instrument. It can literally reproduce any nuance that is sung or played in any other instrument. So we have the gamakams, the graces as we call it, as the essential ingredient of Indian music. And this can be best played when you fold it this way (demonstrates) because it facilitates the upward and downward movements. It could be a little bit jerky and uncomfortable when you stand up and play. (Playing). It is as though a human voice is singing. So traditionally, the veena and the flute used to be the accompanying instruments in south Indian concerts, but after the advent of violin, it has become the ubiquitous instrument. You can find it in any south Indian concert, be it a vocal concert or an instrumental concert, and you also find violin as a solo instrument. It is also found in the Hindustani music, not to talk about the film industry where we have so many violins. The unfortunate thing about the scenario here is that you don’t have enough repair skills. The craftsmen, unfortunately, don’t have the facility of getting themselves trained. In the West they have specialized colleges teaching the art of violin-making and repairing. This drawback was felt even in the 60s. In 1965 when foreign tours were not very common, my father was invited to perform in the Edinburgh music festival. He went to accompany Vidvan Palakkad K.V. Narayanaswamy along with Palakkad Mani Iyyer and his son Palakkad Rajamani. Venkataramaiah (Papa K.S. Venkataramaiah) gave his violin to my father to get it repaired from HillEnSons.

 

J.W.: The most famous violin house.

 

L.K.: My father meticulously got it done. The situation is not any better even now.

 

 

M.D.M.: You mean to say that from the 1960s till now there hasn’t been even a single repair shop here.

 

J.W.: The situation might even be worse, because since then the violin is being on some level systemically destroyed by repair people without proper knowledge of the tools and the methods of preservation. We basically use the methods of conservation and preservation that you might find in a museum, so if you don’t understand the way the violin is made, why everything is made the way it is, then there will be this haphazard approach to the violin. Also it is very important in our method to use what you would call animal glue—we call it the hide glue or bone glue—and this glue is very important. It is the very same glue that was used by Stradivarius, and even before him, by all his predecessors. Since the year 1550, only hide glue has been used properly for the violin. The reason for this is because unlike, say, the guitar—with the guitar they have a big sound hole, the repairmen can go inside with his hands and do things—but for the violin it is necessary to be able to dismantle it. I could take apart my own violin in 15 minutes and put it on the table in about 15 different parts without damaging the instrument. Hide glue allows us to dismantle the violin with no damage. Whereas the synthetic glues are stronger than the wood itself. So when we try to open (the violin), it actually creates a hazard for the violin itself. It is easy to break it further. With the use of these synthetic glues like Fevicol the violin is glued together so strongly, that when it inevitably must be repaired, only more damage will be caused, you see. So our method is really quite important, and we actually don’t have any idea how old the violins can become. The very first violins that were ever made around about the year 1550 are still in common use today due to these careful methods of restoration. With the use of these synthetic glues the violin may survive only for 50 years, and then you have to throw it away.

 

L.K.: As I told you, it has been over 200 years since violin came into Indian music scenario, and we very well know that repair facilities do not exist here, even though in the north we are making and selling violins. There are people making and selling it. But the greatest disadvantage is that the right wood is not available. In the West, they use the wood of maple and spruce trees.

 

J.W.: The best maple comes from Bosnia, the former Yugoslavia, and the best spruce tends to come from Central Europe, southern Germany, Austria etc where you will find old violin makers’ colonies. For instance a place like Cremona (Italy). The 10 greatest violin makers of all time all lived and worked in Cremona. Cremona is, on a clear day, within sight of the Alps, the mountain range between Italy and Germany, and just on the other side is Mittenwalde, the colony of violin makers. So they lived in proximity to the wood source, and in India, it is a big problem that the wood is quite simply not available. I believe that if India did not have to import every piece of wood for the violin, then there would have been a very lively violin-making industry here today. Attempts have been very bravely made. The wood that are commonly used for instruments like the sarod or perhaps the veena, sarangi etc. are  tropical hardwood, which are quite heavy and—I don’t know the structural capabilities of these woods—but they may not be as capable of withstanding the tension as the maple and spruce are.

 

 

M.D.M.: Can you elaborate on the kind of tension?

 

J.W.: Well, if you look at the violin, you’ll see that nothing touches the top except the bridge unlike the guitar. The strings go up and down and they form an angle over the bridge, which pushes down (the bridge). The pressure coming down on to the top of this very small piece of maple in a Western concert pitch will be about 60 pounds. Imagine a large bucket of water sitting on top of this poor little piece of wood. So you see. And so inside this we have a small piece of wood that is six mm only. It’s made of the same wood as the top of the violin and is called the sound post. Now the name in Latin for sound post is anima. 'Anima' in Latin means soul or atma. So it is the atma of the violin.

 

L.K.: Beautifully name. Very appropriate.

 

J.W.: The reason for this is because it is not glued in properly. It is only cut to fit and it stands in there easily, and we can go inside and move it around. Now when you have somebody who doesn’t understand, and when they start moving it, they move it carelessly, they cause damage to the interior of the violin, in particular on the top, which is a softer wood, and this damage cannot be seen from the outside. But then there is so much damage there that a proper sound post cannot be put in. So a very complex patch is required on the interior of the instrument just to restore it. It is quite difficult and quite costly too, and nobody knows how to do that. We have been teaching a bit of this technology here.

 

M.D.M.: In the absence of maple and spruce in India, what kind of wood is used?

 

L.K.: Jackwood is basically used. They make veenas from this wood or whatever wood is available. They just try to make violins, which is not ideally suited and that is why they are not very concert worthy, at best can be students’ violins.

 

J.W.: Often the workmanship is very rough. One of my students here (in the workshop) has his own violin—an Indian violin—and the interior has been carved, so it is extremely rough and it doesn’t follow the exterior of the violin’s curve, you see. We have this curve here so as to facilitate the cutting of the sound post or the anima.  But they have given no thought to the fact that later they would have to put a sound post in. So these are just simple practical matters that make a big difference.

 

 

M.D.M.: Could you also say how this curve is achieved in the entire curve of the violin?

 

J.W.: These are pieces of maple that are 1.2 mm. thick. Only one 1 mm. Very thin. We heat them over very hot iron. First we make a form. The interior of the violin will be represented by the form. We use laminate wood, and we set corner blocks to which these ribs are attached. So the first thing that we do is we carve these corner blocks, and we can glue the ribs as we call them onto these blocks. Once I’ve achieved that, then I can take what we call the ribcage, in other words just the ribs, and I can trace the outline of the violin onto my wood. We cut out the outline and once the outline is cut out, the exterior will be carved and sculpted. Not pressed by heat, nothing like that. We take the tools and we carve it to assume this shape. Once the exterior is perfect, then we can take it and hollow out the interior. We use the exterior shape as a reference for measuring against. So it is all quite exacting. The centre of the violin, between the f-holes should be—depending on the length of the f-hole—round about 3 mm only. And in this part of the violin only 2.5 mm and on the back, because the high tension E string transfers the tension through the top and pushes out on the back, the centre of the violin must be round about 4.5 mm. Now we have here a violin, which is really quite a lovely violin but was repaired by somebody in India, whose name is written in big letters inside. But this violin was 4.5 mm before, this repair man carved out the interior to about 1.7 mm. So of course, a big crack develops here (showing the crack). So we’ve had a very difficult time restoring this here.

 

 

M.D.M.: Where did you learn violin making?

 

J.W.: I learnt violin making in Germany in the times before the European Union. So at the time in Germany, the violin making was protected by the old world guilds.

 

 

M.D.M.: Where in Germany?

 

J.W.:  Mr. Krishnan mentioned the violin making schools. In Germany you have the state-sponsored school of violin making in Mittenwald. It is in the South on the border to Austria. But also, because violin making was very controlled, it was necessary to find a master maker in the guild, who was a certified master; then you could learn one-on-one with a master also in the shop. And this was the method that I was able to follow. At the time it was almost impossible to find a violin maker who would teach you. Mostly they kept it very secretive.

 

 

M.D.M.: So in this workshop you learned from the master?

 

J.W.: Oh yes, this was my training. He needed somebody to work for him. I represented a very inexpensive labour.  I wanted to learn so badly. He paid me next to nothing, but he gave me a room, which had no heat in the winter; it was always cold, I sat with many blankets and I slept on the floor. My washroom was in the shop itself. I didn’t even have a proper shower.

 

 

M.D.M.: Which year was it?

 

J.W.: This would have been 1980. So to get a proper shower, I joined the closest possible sporting facility which was a kung fu school.

 

M.D.M.: So you learned kung fu and violin making together.

 

J.W.: Yes, yes.

 

L.K.: So whenever the violin here developed any problem, we would wait for a foreign trip to happen. It’s like a person getting sick in the village he wouldn't want to go to a doctor in the village, he would wait to go to the city. But only professionals could afford this. So this had been in the corner of my mind that something should be done to benefit the industry as a whole and not just me. So at Lalgudi Trust, we thought about it, and I was fortunate to meet Mr. James Wimmer probably in 2001 at Santa Barbara through a student of mine. It is like his interests and my interests, whatever he wanted to do and I wanted to do were matching.

 

 

M.D.M.: You had common objectives.

 

L.K.: We had common interests, and so I made the best use of Mr. James Wimmer. He is a wonderful teacher who has the heart to impart whatever he has learnt—that is most important. In 2013, Lalgudi Trust took the first step to fly in famous violin makers like Mr. James Wimmer and he was kind enough to come.

 

J.W.: I am not famous.

 

L.K.:  Mr. Wimmer was kind enough to come along with his assistant Alex. We had a 21-day workshop for which we gathered some local craftsmen who were doing some repair work here so that they could get the right knowledge from the right person. We didn’t have specialized tools here, the concept of a work bench is not there. We got it made, and James was kind enough to purchase those tools and bring them with him, and we gave it for free to the participants and apart from that we gave the participants a stipend also because they had to close their shops and come down. I don’t know if they really knew the value of what they were getting, because nobody has done this sort of workshop in India till then. We have been doing it since 2013. We did it in 2013 and again in 2016. This year it is a 14-day workshop and Kalakshetra has come forward to co-sponsor it. It is a very beautiful venue and people are really benefiting from it.

 

 

M.D.M.: Before we go to the participants and the benefits of the workshops, could you please elaborate on the workbench and the tools and what exists here and what do not exist here?

 

J.W.: Well, the tools should be able to exist here. What we need is to find tool makers who are interested in making these tools. Today we use basically the very same tools as used by Stradivarius in Italy 250 years back. So India has become quite a modern country, it must be possible to make these tools in India but the interest has not been there. And we encourage the students to go find engineers, go find toolmakers, go find the person who casts the temple bells to make some of these tools we need, things like this. And so this is very important, we try to impart this knowledge to the students—please photograph these tools, measure carefully, go to the file maker, ask for special files to be made. But this has really kind of been a problem because we have to bring everything in. And you know these tools are quite expensive in the West, to set up with just the tools for basically a pair may cost me round about 10,000 dollars in the US, you see. Because they are specialty tools, there is not a big easy market for them. Now about the workbench, in Germany we call it the werkbank, is made actually for heavy planning, right. So if you have some flimsy table and you try to hook a piece of wood to the table, you’ll walk all over the room here and there while pushing a pane, so the workbench must be very heavy. You can work, you can do very heavy work on the workbench. The carving of a cello for instance is a physically strenuous work, so we need the workbench to hold the piece solidly. And it has various devices for holding in different ways. So it’s really quite central to the workshop.

 

L.K.: Mr. James has consciously planned it in such a way that he imparts on the job training. Real violins, cellos and violas have been repaired so that all craftsmen not only know the art of violin repair but they can also handle a cello, a viola etc. That is a wonderful thing.

 

 

M.D.M.: Who have been the participants in the workshop since 2013?

 

J.W.: Well, my goal is to train what we would call tradesmen. People who are not necessarily academically trained, who are doing the work of cabinet making, or carpentry and who will have some of these woodworking skills already. So this has been my focus. We have a couple of very good (craftsmen), they understand exactly what I mean when we use our tools; they are already very handy with their hands with their tools. Violin making is not a big intellectual activity, it is mostly a simple woodworking activity. And you know, many violin makers are not even musicians. There is no written record at all of Stradivarius himself playing the violin and none of my teachers were able to play, I am the only one who plays this fiddle.

 

 

M.D.M.: But the naming of the parts of a violin is very intellectual, anima for instance.

 

J.W.: Anima, yes. This is Italian. In English we call it the sound post. In German the word for sound post is stimmstock.  Stimmstock means the voice.

 

 

M.D.M.: You were talking about the Indianisation of the violin—about the posture. Could you tell us what are the other aspects of the Indianisation of the violin?

 

L.K.:A major thing is the tuning. We have modified the tuning to suit our system of music. See the western tuning starts (playing) the fifth, then its fifth, once all the way up.

 

J.W.: All fives.

 

L.K.: All fives, intervals of five. But we have done it like the tonic and the fifth, tonic and the fifth. The same two notes will be repeated in the higher octave. (Demonstrating), that’s how we tune it. So this tuning facilitates the traversing through the octaves and playing our gamakams very easily, so that is a brilliant brainwave of the person who did it.

 

J.W.: Also, when you change the song to different pitches, the fingerings will not change. In the western manner of tuning, we never change the tuning of the violin but we have 24 different keys as we call it. Each key will have a different flavour or mood, right, even though it’s the same scale, you might say Shankarabharnam, in a different key it will have a different mood. So like this in the Western music, but all the fingerings change. Sometimes you don’t even use the open string because the key is too difficult. So in this way, the violin will give an entirely different voice.

 

L.K.: My greatest desire is, people should get inspired. A lot of corporates should get inspired, and we need you know not just one James Wimmer, but many of such people so that the whole of India benefits, and in future we have good repair persons and craftsmen to whom we can give our instruments with full confidence and get them back in good shape.

 

J.W.: Our goal when repairing the violin is to give it back as if nothing ever happened. But in fact, in many cases, the violin is already so damaged that we have to give it back as if the other fellow was never there in the first place and this is very difficult.

 

 

M.D.M.: What is to be done for the future of violin making in India?

 

L.K.: We have to import the right wood. And it has to be done in such a large scale so that it becomes economically feasible to compete with the Chinese violins which are flooding the market now. We have to do this with the support of corporates and government sponsorship. We definitely have requisite skills and awareness here, especially after Mr. James has come in. People know at least what they should not be doing.

 

 

M.D.M.: So like glue is for one, and another?

 

J.W.: Yeah, I always harp on the glue. But it is difficult because all the wood must be imported. Now some of the wood is not too expensive. It’s graded out in price, but the actual beauty of the wood—simple wood will have no tonal advantage or beautiful wood has no tonal advantage over simple wood. Like Mr. Krishnan says perhaps with a large enough industry, then the wood can be imported. My recommendation would probably be to get the wood from China.

 

 

M.D.M.: Maple grows there?

 

J.W.: They have maple and spruce in China right, and they are the next door neighbours practically. So it is much more practical to bring from there. Now the Chinese have a very good foothold in violin making. They are very good craftsmen. They are expert at making and innovating tools, and they also have a longer tradition of violin making. In Shanghai they have regular institutions for teaching violin making. So you know they are already well established, you know, and are in the lead and they are coming to India, which you know on some level is not a bad thing. Currently the inexpensive violins from China are not very good, but if the quality can come up and still be affordable in India, this might be a part of the solution.

 

 

M.D.M.: How about graduating these workshops into an institute of violin making?

 

L.K.: Yes, that can be done, but provided a lot of corporates and sponsors come forward to do similar types of workshops. But another suggestion I have is to start a college, a specialised college where this skill is imparted and you invite professors or violin makers from foreign countries. So it becomes a regular curriculum and will be more systematic and we can have enduring benefit out of it. It can easily be done. We have so many management institutes, engineering colleges, so why not a violin repair college?

 

 

M.D.M.: Yes, even an institute that could impart training for making not only violins but all the string instruments.

 

L.K.: Yes, absolutely.

 

J.W.: Well, in the United States we have a school for violin making, but many of the students who come out may not find work in the US. So they would be a good resource to bring to India for six months or one year. Have them teach what they know here, because my knowledge is only part of the knowledge. If somebody else comes he will have a different approach but with a similar result, you see, so, you get many different facets of the same diamond.

 

 

M.D.M.: Well, continuing our conversation of the Indianisation and the European making of the violin, how do you think that it would contribute to the making of violin in India, the European approach to the violin?

 

J.W.: Well for instance, the way I learned was that you cannot be considered a competent violin repair person until you make a concert quality violin. Because, if some part of the violin is broken and missing, you need to be able to replace it as if it were never missing. So how can you do this if you don’t have the skills? Say the scroll is broken and missing. I can make another one in the style of that maker and put it back together and then do the varnishing to disguise it and it will look like the old violin. So these are skills that you need to be understood and made.

 

 

M.D.M.: Yes, but I see your point that the violin repair is about conservation and preservation.

 

J.W.: Yes.

 

 

M.D.M.: That is the idea that you brought out in the beginning of our conversation. How do you respond to that from the Indian situation, say, for instance is your father’s violin preserved and conserved in any way?

 

L.K.: Yes, that is why I am doing this workshop. Because let alone manufacturing fresh violins, the British had left behind so many beautiful instruments in this country, and also the Portuguese. The least we can do is to conserve them. Make them live their full life, which is what they are entitled to.

 

J.W.: Right. With proper restoration and preservation techniques, we don’t know how long the violin can live, maybe 500 or 700 or 1000 years. We don’t know actually because the first violins are still being used in the West even after 500 years.

 

 

M.D.M.: That is a good note to finish our conversation. Thank you so much.

 

J.W.: Wonderful talking to you. Thank you Mr Muthukumaraswamy.