Santa Barbara violin maker James Wimmer was selected to travel to Chennai, India in November, 2013 to teach European style violin repair and restoration to a class of 10 hand-picked craftsmen and musicians. This is the first time in the history of the violin in the ancient tradition of South Indian Carnatic classical music that such a program has been undertaken. The violin was introduced to India by the British around 1830 and has since become the overwhelmingly ubiquitous accompaniment and virtuoso solo instrument in South India. However, violin repair and maintenance has not kept pace with it’s tremendous popularity. This has led to a certain deterioration in the condition of the great body of antique violins left behind after the end of the British colonial period.
The program is funded by the Lalgudi Trust, founded by India’s legendary violinist Lalgudi G. Jayaraman, whom Yehudi Menuhin referred to as a world heritage violinist. The program is also receiving generous support from corporate as well as private sponsors. Spearheading this effort are Mr. Jayaraman’s son Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan and daughter Lalgudi Vijayalakshmi, both of whom travel worldwide as solo performers and renowned ambassadors of Indian classical music.
James Wimmer trained in Germany and established his shop in Santa Barbara in 1986. He has since made nearly 200 instruments, including violins, violas, cellos and baroque stringed instruments, and several years ago completed the Hubert Schwyzer quartet, a matched set of 2 violins, viola, and cello for Westmont College. His clients include well known classical musicians as well as professional traditional musicians from many different styles. His current assistant Alexandra Armanino will accompany him to India to aid in the program as assistant instructor.
The stories you read on this blog have been composed by Jim Wimmer himself, as he regales his time teaching in India.
Now to the Story of How this Came About…
In 1980, I had the opportunity to take a year away from everything. I had spent the better part of the 70’s as a musician touring primarily Germany, with forays into France, Netherlands, Austria, and Switzerland. I figured I was good at traveling, so I ended up in Varanasi, India after 6 weeks trekking in the Annapurna range of the Nepal Himalaya. I had no intention of staying in India. My plan was to travel to the south and catch a ferry to Malaysia. However, I had seen a musical instrument called sarod at a festival in Germany and decided I’d like to get one while in India. At the time, sarods were difficult to come by, and the outlook was bleak for success when I was introduced to a young sarod player, Vikash Maharaj. I asked him to play a bit, so I could hear again how the instrument sounds. After an hour and a half, he wrapped up the private concert. I was stunned by his astonishing agility with a huge coconut shell plectrum and the melodic voice of the sarod, so I asked if he would teach me a little. His brother, Prakash soon produced a fine old sarod and I settled into 6 months in Varanasi. Vikash and that old sarod are still two of my very best friends to this day.
Jim and Vikash Maharaj, 1980
At some point, I took a month or so to travel to South India to visit the ancient Dravidian temple sites of Mahaballipuram, where the earliest examples of India’s temple caves are located. Along the way, I visited the giant Brihadeeswarar temple in Thanjavur. It was full moon festival time, a phantasmagoria of exotic sadhus and pilgrims, and walking around inside the temple was like traveling in a dream sequence full of painted elephants, guys with beards almost to the floor, everybody blowing on horns and striking bells. Like nothing I had ever experienced. There I came upon two boys playing violins in such an enchanting
way that I sat down for two hours to listen, determined to find out what this incredible violin style was called. They informed me that this was Carnatic music and took me to visit their father, and together played violin trios all afternoon for me. I was hooked. When I returned to Varanasi, my friend introduced me to Mr. V.K. Venkataramanujam, violinist and professor of Carnatic music at Benares Hindu University.
Mr. Ramanujam didn’t seem too impressed that I wanted to learn from him. When asked to play for him, I laid into “Fire on the Mountain,” my old show stopper from Germany. It stopped the show, all right–halfway through, he told me to stop playing, then retuned my instrument so that “Fire on the Mountain” would no longer be possible. I had stepped off into the deep end of the pool without even realizing it. He announced that he would teach me 5 compositions in 5 weeks and that I should show up at his house 7 days a week at 7 a.m. for a two hour lesson. The lesson never failed to be difficult and to help me along, Mr. Ramanujam would yell at me that I was ruining his mind when I played so many wrong notes. We had a wonderful time, and after four weeks, I asked him how he knew I would learn 5 compositions. His reply: “It’s easy–if you don’t learn like this, you can go…”
Mr. Ramanujam, 1980
After returning to Germany for nearly four years, where I completed my apprenticeships in the violin shops of Wolfgang Uebel and Rainer Knobel, my wife Peggy and I returned to India and Nepal. As a newly trained violin maker and repair person, I immediately ascertained that the violins played by my teacher and friends had seen some very bad repair work, often covered with a coat of brown house paint to hide the deeds of the butcher. I had some bridges and soundposts along, with a small kit of tools, and Mr. Ramanujam immediately put me to work, sitting on the floor with his son Balaji, doing my best to get their instruments in shape. All the while trying to teach young Balaji 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’ve sent the occasional box of broken violins to (now) Dr. V. Balaji, who would somehow repair them and give them to his violin students. Mr. Ramanujam has passed on, but our friendship with his entire family has been rich and enduring, with Dr. 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 this year I finally decided after almost 30 years to throw in the towel and maybe take a vacation in Hawaii instead. My good friend and Carnatic violin teacher Dr. Saravanapriyan Sriraman would not hear of it and kept prodding me. He took the matter into his own hands and contacted his own teacher in Chennai, Sri Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan about the idea, and before I knew it, I was once more dropping all my plans for the fall and headed to Chennai.
That’s the short story of how this all came about…