Have violin, will repair

James Wimmer with the participants at the workshop

James Wimmer with the participants at the workshop  

It’s a workshop on violins, but the venue resembles a mechanic’s workshop. In a small room at maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman’s house in T. Nagar, California-based violin-maker James Wimmer is demonstrating the fine art of repairing the instrument.

The room is crammed with workbenches, and bent over one of them is Alexandra Armanino, Wimmer’s 23-year-old assistant, who is trying to fix the bow of an old violin. Watching her with the reverence of a student is P. Natarajan, a professional veena-maker who is old enough to be her grandfather — and is one of the seven participants in the programme.

“I am showing him how to re-hair a bow,” Alexandra, who is also from Santa Barbara, California, tells me. “You see the bow has horsehair strung across it, and every so often the hair get worn out and need to be replaced.”

Re-hair, I write in my notebook. “No, that’s one word, rehair,” she insists with the firmness of a teacher. I comply. By now some other participants have gathered around us, and one of them, T. Venkobasha, who manufactures musical instruments in Chintadripet, says, “We are all in our forties and fifties and even sixties, but she has been very strict with us. Because she is so strict we have been able to learn so much about repairing violins.”

“What did you learn?” I ask him. My question is answered, instead, by K. Venkatraman, a mechanical engineer by qualification who got interested in repairing violins because his daughter is a violinist. “She and Jim (James Wimmer) taught us the scientific way of repairing the violin,” says Venkatraman, “so far we had been doing it the crude way. They showed us the pros of doing it the scientific way and the cons of doing it the crude way.”

“Give me an example,” I ask them. Alexandra, who has trained under Wimmer for a year now, replies, “For example, we never use synthetic glue to fix a violin. We always use animal hide glue, because it makes it easier for a violin to be dismantled (for repairs in future).”

Suddenly, a voice booms from behind, “Synthetic glue is like cancer for any musical instrument. Always use animal glue. You have a word for it in India, saresh.” The voice belongs to Wimmer, the master violin-maker, now 64, who started off as a violin player in 1972 — “touring 100,000 km in a car every year for performances” — before realising that there is more money in making and repairing violins than in playing them.

In the 1980s, when he happened to be living in Germany, he spent four years learning the art of violin-making under the legendary Wolfgang Uebel, and subsequently opened a shop in Santa Barbara, California, where he now lives.

Wimmer, wearing a workman’s apron, is seated at a workbench that has been custom-made for repairing violins. The bench, manufactured in Bangalore and weighing 200 kg, is the first of its kind in the country, according to Lalgudi Jayaraman’s son Krishnan, who is the brain behind the workshop.

“All along, violinists have been getting their violins repaired abroad because of lack of professional expertise in India,” says Lalgudi Krishnan, “but only one percent of the violinists get to travel abroad for shows. Where will the remaining 99 per cent go for repairs?”

He goes on to explain, “Which is why I asked Jim to come over. So that he can pass on the techniques to the violin repairers based here. They, in turn, will pass on the knowledge to others.”

Krishnan’s concern is understandable because the violin is not an Indian instrument. It came to India only in the early 19th Century, and even though it became crucial to Carnatic music, it is manufactured only in north India, in the town of Rampur, near Moradabad. South India, even though it has produced legendary violinists, neither produces violins nor has sufficient expertise for their repair.

The workshop — lasting three weeks — is sponsored by the Lalgudi Trust, set up by his illustrious father who died on April 22 this year. The Trust has not only earned the participants specialised tools — for free — but also a token stipend of Rs. 5,000 each.

“Tools without skills, no good. Skills without tools, no good. Tools along with skills, that’s good,” says Wimmer, who has given the participants in the workshop a bit of both. Wimmer first met Krishnan in Santa Barbara in 1988, when the latter was visiting the U.S.

During that first meeting, Wimmer had played an LP record of Lalgudi Jayaraman for Krishnan — a record he had bought in 1980 and which was his first-ever introduction to Indian music — and Krishnan had told him, “Please make my violin sound like the one playing in the record.”

Thus began a lasting friendship, which went on to blossom into a workshop that today stands to benefit violin-players across south India.

The workshop holds immense emotional value for Krishnan, who conceived the idea shortly after his father’s death. The workshop, which began on November 6, was inaugurated by his mother, Rajalakshmi or Rajam. But on November 18, the workshop still midway, Rajalakshmi passed away.

“But I didn’t stop the workshop, because my mother wouldn’t have liked it to stop,” says Krishnan, who is wearing a grey stubble because bereavement demands him not to shave. But there is someone else who seems to be grieving as well.

The sun has just set and the participants in the workshop, who have been on their feet since nine-thirty in the morning, begin to leave. As they bow out of the room, Alexandra tells each of them, with folded hands, “Naalaikku paakkalaam” — See you tomorrow.

As the last of the participants leaves, tears well up in her eyes because she suddenly realises that there is no tomorrow. The workshop has just ended this evening.

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2020 10:00:15 PM |

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