R. Govindan and his son G. Vijayakumar have a healing touch that makes old and decrepit instruments sing again

A narrow lane off the busy Tennur High Road leads straight to a modest blue board printed with ‘Saraswathi Musicals’. The faint twanging of a string comes up from the path. We follow it to find a small room, with a line of veenas standing upright against the walls, that are covered with weathered portraits of goddesses, old photographs and framed newspaper cuttings.

Sitting cross-legged, just below a painted idol of Saraswathi holding a veena, is a silver haired Govindan with a protruding belly, peering through gold tinted spectacles at a violin between his arms. He welcomes us with a benign smile, seated immovably on a long slab- the ‘guru peedam’, on which his forefathers sat before him, setting right the veenas and violins of vidwans, for close to a century. Govindan nods to a younger man, his son, bent over a harmonium. A fine-looking dark wooden chest, filled with polished tools, reaffirms that the art of making the old, as good as new, is at work here.

Govindan may have never given a concert, but music has been the lifeblood and daily bread of his family for four generations. It is to him, people bring their thatha’s violin and patti’s veena, from all over the country, hoping this healer and rebuilder, would find their lost tunes.

“Whatever the condition the instruments are brought to us, be it a veena with a cracked dome, a harmonium with broken reed or a violin that has dismantled into parts, we rebuild and restore them to as good as they were before,” claims Govindan proudly. Recently, he was brought an old harmonium, which required a lot of work to be done. “When I took apart the front portion, I found my uncle’s signature inside. He had crafted the harmonium in1929, as a young man.” To reinforce his father’s claim, son Vijayakumar gently unseats a violin from its case and says, ‘Look inside’. I peep in and the date reads 1732! “This is a rare piece, it is an Antonio Stradivarus, the best in the world,” says Vijayakumar proudly. Though the duo does not reveal the musician name, there is little doubt that this is a treasure.

It is the trust has made artistes, both obscure and renowned, cross the threshold of his humble shop. M.S. Subbulakshmi, Lalgudi Jayaraman, Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, D.K. Pattammal, M.S. Goplakrishnan and K.V. Narayanan – the list of luminaries who have sought him is exhaustive. “Once when I applied for loan, I had to furnish a list of artistes who I have served. The bank manager, reading it said, “A vidwan is yet to be born who has not set foot inside your shop.”

“I believe in perfection, which is how I have made my name,” says Govindan. “The sruthi sutham is what makes artistes believe ‘Govindanta kudutha nalla pannuvaru’(Govindan can be trusted to do a good job).” M.S. Subbulakshmi’s letter of commendation is one of Govindan’s cherished possession, where, pleased by his efforts, she writes, “..the shruti box made to our satisfaction, not only in appearance but also in quality.” Govindan highly esteems the recognition and respect musicians have accorded to him. “What does profit amount to when you are able to satisfy a vidwan?”

His astuteness in spotting flaws in an instrument before an artiste can note them, had earned him a name even across the seas. When Jon B. Higgins, an American known for his prowess in Carnatic music, performed at Lawley Hall, St. Joseph’s College in Tiruchi, he was so impressed by Govindan’s work with the shruti box, that he ordered ten boxes to be crafted and shipped to York University, Toronto, where Higgins headed the music studies department. Govindan has preserved Higgin’s letter in 1974 which praises the craftsman’s ‘fine skill as an artisan’.

Making a name came only after years of hard labour, acknowledges Govindan, though the craftsmanship perhaps runs in his genes with maternal grandfather Somachariyar who was the first in his family to fix instruments in his shop at Kumbakonam. “But I owe everything to my uncle and guru, Gangadhar Acharya , who took me under his wings after my father died. I have little education to boast of but I spent 20 years in Kumbakonam learning the nuances from him, before I set up shop in Tiruchi in 1970,” narrates Govindan. “The great violinist Rajamanickam Pillai had praised my guru, saying there is no equal to him,” says Govindan, producing another letter. It was the idea of Virudhunagar L. Ganapathiar pillai, an AIR artiste, who suggested Govindan move to Tiruchi to further his prospects. “When I arrived here it was Alathur Thiyagarajan , secretary of the Sri Sathguru Tyagabrahma aradhana Trust, who not only spread the good word about me, but also allotted space for me to open a shop in front of his house.”

Though the father-son do not work on wind instruments like the nadhaswaram, they have restored old church organs, accordions and guitars. Govindan also takes pride in the fact that he has crafted the first sruthi box for many upcoming musicians. “The secret of this trade is all about customizing according to the artiste’s need,” says Vijyakumar, who joined his father in 1993. He demonstrates that nuances matter with a tiny stick. “This is the sounding post which holds the upper and lower boards of a violin together. Fixing it in the right place, according to the playing style of the musician makes a difference.”

Govindan feels his musical sojourn may end soon. “I only hope the future is good for the next generation.” Today with electronic shruti boxes and service centres available for each brand, Vijayakumar is more of an authorised dealer for instruments than a craftsman. “Though restoration has gone the electronic way, our veenas and violins still require the human touch,” he believes.