Performing artists usually prefer to buy their violins overseas because the ones made in India lack the perfection of western ones.

Features Music Saturday, February 01, 2020 - 14:11

If someone had told 33-year-old Renjith KP of Malappuram district in Kerala that he would be making a copy of the prized Stradivarius violin someday, he may have laughed out loud. A trained traditional carpenter, Renjith neither comes from a lineage of musicians nor has any prior exposure to instrument making. Yet, a chance meeting with violin maestros Lalgudi GJR Krishnan and Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi changed his life forever.

“I still remember meeting Krishnan Sir and Vijayalakshmi Madam at Guruvayur and how he convinced me to attend the next workshop to be held in 2015. He even arranged my tickets, stay and paid me a stipend to attend the Violin Wise workshops,” recalls Renjith.

The story of father-son duo Murali ED and Vinay Murali from Ernakulam district, Kerala, is equally magical. Despite being a much sought after violin repairer in Kerala, Murali had no formal training in the field. However, like Renjith, he is a wood worker whose understanding of the tools and techniques is very fine.

Of the four graduates of the Violin Wise workshop, Sathyanarayana hails from a family of musicians and is a violinist himself. This 52-year-old veteran is no stranger in the film music industry, having worked with famous music directors like AR Rahman and Vidyasagar. However, he always had an aptitude for instrument repair and even tried teaching himself from books.

Father-son duo Murali and Vinay 

“But when I attended the first workshop held in Kalakshetra, I knew my life would change forever. There was finally an opportunity to reinvent myself and I was so glad,” says Sathyanarayana.

The journey of the violin in India

Despite its complete assimilation into the Carnatic classical music system today, the violin was not an instrument used traditionally, and in fact, the instrument made its entry into Carnatic music as late as the 18th century. The instrument’s popularity apart, it would come as a shock for many to know that the art and craft of violin making did not reach Indian shores until recently.

The local hand-made and factory manufactured violins, while being distributed widely, lack the perfection of western violins. Performing artists prefer buying their violins overseas and even get them serviced outside India.

“Apart from the lack of trained craftsmen, traditional Indian woods such as teak and jackfruit tree wood are not suited for violin making. European woods like maple and spruce are essential to bring out the right tones,” says Lalgudi GJR Krishnan, an ace violinist, who has been the guiding force behind these workshops.

“Violin repairers abroad work on workbenches which we built specifically for this project. Tools used by western violin makers as well as European wood was imported. Apart from understanding how to perform minor repair work, we are proud we now have four graduates who can make violins from scratch. It is a special milestone in the history of Indian music,” adds Lalgudi Krishnan.

“I feel very proud that I had the opportunity to learn from one of the best, Mr James Wimmer. His technical knowledge combined with his understanding of our sounds is so profound,” says Sathyanarayana.

Wimmer’s workshop

James Wimmer is a luthier (someone who builds and repairs string instruments that have a neck and a sound box) hailing from Santa Barbara who trained in Germany under Wolfgang Uebel. According to him, the methods and tools used in the making of bowed orchestral stringed instruments have remained largely unchanged since the sixteenth century. Great care is taken in the choice of European tone woods, specifically milled for use by luthiers. The varnish and subtle coloring are formulated by the master and applied by brush, much like the painter's art, resulting in instruments of great sonority and classical visual beauty.

“It is our privilege that we have had the opportunity to be associated with someone of Wimmer’s capabilities. Needless to say, he shares a love for India and has not only been kind enough to come down all the way from Santa Barbara despite his age and family commitments, he has also donated some rare tools to these craftsmen. A trained Irish fiddler himself, Wimmer’s love for the art and craft of instrument making is immense,” adds Krishnan.

James Wimmer with Renjith

Every change requires a catalyst, someone who ensures that the project crosses all hurdles and emerges successful. Krishnan and The Lalgudi Trust have been exactly that.

“For me personally, Krishnan Sir is like a god. He and the Lalgudi Trust have not only helped us learn a unique craft with a rich heritage but also provided us stipend and tools worth $1000 for us to continue this journey,” says Renjith.

Krishnan is a renowned violinist who needs no introduction. He hails from a family seeped in Carnatic music tradition. And his love for the instrument is immense. It would always pain him to see violins damaged by instrument repairers in India and yet not everyone could afford to take their violins abroad to be serviced by trained craftsmen.

“The lack of access to quality repair persons for violins was always a sore point for upcoming artists. It is surprising how this craft was not passed to Indian instrument makers. Even a slight change in the alignments can change the sound quality a violin produces rather drastically,” he notes.

Sathyanarayana working on a violin

Wimmer is no stranger to India himself. In fact, he had spent several years in Varanasi learning the nuances of Carnatic violin and santoor. So, when Krishnan met and expressed his desire to conduct this workshop, Wimmer was instantly on board with the idea. His enthusiasm to share his knowledge and teach with patience helped overcome any language barriers the pupils may have had.

“He speaks some Hindi and we also speak some English, so we managed to communicate. However, given our background in wood work and also the passion we all share, communication was seldom a problem. In fact we even managed to learn some German from him” says Renjith.

The four apprentices with their mentor

Although this is the first time in the history of Indian music that four violin makers have been formally trained in all aspects of violin making and have also made four copies of the Stradivarius violin, the ground work for this project started in 2013 when the Lalgudi Trust conducted the first ever violin repair workshop.

Since then, there were three more workshops held in 2015, 2016 and 2018, two of them in collaboration with The Kalakshetra Foundation, Chennai. However, with a need to produce master craftsmen and given Wimmer’s advancing age and ability to travel, it was decided that 2019 would be a 45 day workshop with specific focus on building a violin from scratch. The four chosen participants would not just go back rich with experience but also a complete set of tools – many of which are not available in India. This would enable these craftsmen to produce more violins and repair violins in India.

Mysore Nagaraj, Lalgudi GJR Krishnan, Mysore Manjunath with James Wimmer

Going forward

The lives of these four craftsmen have changed forever.

“I already have a few orders for violins and am also restoring and repairing a few violins. There are a lot of people visiting me at home and I'm considering opening a small workshop. I’m getting a lot of calls from other states and people want to send their violins over to me,” says Renjith.

“From being one in a million, I’ve become famous. I’m recognised and respected by my peers. My music background and connections also come in handy,” adds Sathyanarayana.

Renjith also claims that changing his profession from a traditional carpenter to that of an instrument maker has added a sense of respectability. He says he has found a sense of peace and focus which was missing earlier. Needless to say, all four men are busy with orders and enquiries pouring in.

“The four craftsmen are a part of a historic moment. They are the first trained violin makers in India. They can repair violins, violas, cellos and double bass. This is such a significant moment for all music lovers. The objective of the whole project was to give something back to the society. And we are thrilled that this has happened,” says Krishnan.

This change is also likely to make quality violins accessible to ordinary people.

“Accessibility is key. After all, not everyone can travel overseas to get their instruments fixed. It is like when a village does not have its own doctor,” concludes Krishnan.

These craftsmen may be reached on Facebook or email for further enquiries. 

Priyanka Raman is an Indian classical singer currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She is trained in both Carnatic and Hindustani forms of music. She continues to teach and perform globally.