Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Proof is in the Pudding

By now, Alex and I have hammered and hammered and hammered home time and again the point that the violin needs to be glued up with hide glue, the reason being that we need to be able to dismantle the instrument completely without damage. This topic is even repeated in the multiple newspaper articles which have been appearing regarding our work. We never grow tired of singing the praises of the miracle substance hide glue. Nor do we grow weary of trumpeting this message to the public.

Just this morning, we arrived early in the workshop and decided to interrupt the tranquility of the neighborhood by playing a few happy tunes on the fiddles for one of the guys in the course who seems to mightily enjoy our music. Somewhere in the middle of the second tune, Alex suddenly stopped playing and began making the strangest faces. I couldn’t figure out what had happened… Was she suffering the onset of some mysterious ailment? Was an invader climbing through the window? I looked behind me to make sure my back was safe. What happened??? Then she showed me that her violin (which by the way she made herself) had decided that it had just had enough of this dreadful cyclone monsoon humid weather, and the ebony fingerboard quite simply fell off into the palm of her left hand during the tune. No damage of course, just a parting of ways without acrimony. We all enjoyed a wonderfully mirthful moment about the incident, then immediately re-glued the fingerboard back onto the neck in its proper position, enjoying the hilarity of this teachable moment. By evening time, the instrument was ready to go again, even though the drying time of the glue is prolonged considerably by the humid conditions.

We were in the violin workshop, with the glue pot handy, so our journey to get the repair taken care of was short. The service personnel were polite and very friendly, and more than pleased to attend to this small job immediately. And of course, the cost of repair was modest.

The Chennai violinist might have to suffer the inconvenience of traveling across town to enjoy the same level of service. The less fortunate violinist might even need to make a trip of several hours to get this small issue of maintenance taken care of. Violinists in the West understand this. It is our job to bring this understanding to the violinists of India.

A Big Day for Violin Wise

Yesterday was a banner day for Violin Wise and the course participants. Two of the participants presented Mr. Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan with the violins which they had repaired and set up by themselves, a donation from us to the Lalgudi Trust to be put to use by deserving violin students. He delighted us by drawing a bow over the strings and giving these instruments his stamp of approval.

Two years back, during our three week course, we were unable to get around to making such a donation. We were inundated with violins which belonged to outside customers and the course participants couldn’t really stick with any one violin in particular in the course of getting repairs accomplished. Alex or I often had to take the instrument away from the student and speed the process with our own hand in order to get it delivered and out the door in time.

This time, I brought along ample numbers of broken violins which had languished in my shop in California, violins which I could never find time to repair, given my busy schedule. Thus, we were able to use these instruments as didactic objects without the pressures of delivery deadlines. A wonderfully tranquil atmosphere ensued in the shop, as if we were all tucked away from the hectic world, left to hum a happy tune and work at our own pace. The students even seem to have gotten used to our applications of spit and animal glue. In this setting, they have accomplished a tremendous amount. With the fine assistance of Alex, they have learned some dauntingly complex restoration techniques. It is humbling to see my own hand reflected in their work.

Tomorrow will be the last day of our course. They will go back to their normal work environs, now better equipped to face the great tsunami of violin repair awaiting them. They have assimilated well the philosophy of approaching the violin without doing harm and leaving it in better condition than they found it. I’ll be like a proud papa, turning them loose in India. And, we’ll hope to see them next time. For after all, we will be back, thanks to Mr. Krishnan and the Lalgudi Trust.

The Mysterious Tamil Language

While enrolled at the University of California in the early 1970s, I was very fortunate to have been accepted as a participant in the Education Abroad Program and spent a year at Georg-August Universitaet in Goettingen Germany. Even though I was not particularly academically inclined and more prone to party and travel with my new-found friends there, I did manage to return home with good fluency in the German language and many fond memories. The experience changed my life forever and I have remained an inveterate traveler and collector of foreign languages ever since. They are a lovely souvenir of our travels and don’t require a great deal of baggage space to bring home.

Several decades back, when it became clear to me that India was in dire need of proper violin repair and restoration techniques and we began formulating the idea for some sort of repair course in India, I believed that such a program would ultimately take place in Varanasi, in the north of India where Hindi is the main spoken language. Since Hindi is widely spoken in India, I undertook to learn this language as properly as possible, even resorting to taking lessons from a very skilled instructor from Varanasi. I figured that being able to speak Hindi would generate good will in general and perhaps be useful in teaching the exacting skills of the violin maker’s art.

Hindi is by no means an easy language, even though it is directly related to our European-based English, German, French, and Scandinavian languages via our common roots in Sanskrit, i.e. an Indo-European language. Because of this direct link to our linguistic cousins in India, I was able to cling to similarities with German, which aided my efforts greatly. The verb structures in German are notoriously terrifying for the novice student, as the speakers and authors of this language love to wax verbose, a single sentence often filling an entire page of a novel, with multiple themes weaving in and out of a complex web of story line, psychological pathos, amusing anecdotes, and perhaps even an order of coffee and cake to nourish the weary reader who will most certainly require some sustenance before finally approaching the longed-for period at the end of the ordeal, only to realize that all the verbs come piling up at the end of this gigantic treatise, like some horrific train wreck at the end of a long novel which explains all the action that went on before, leaving the poor reader to order up yet more coffee while reviewing the entire experience, desperately attempting to figure out what it was that actually happened in the last day or two while trekking through the vast Himalayan mountain range of one single, modest sentence in this lavish German language. As you can see from the previous sentence, this Germanic trait has affected my own writing style, much to the horror of those who would edit my literary ramblings.

Aside from the German verb structure being of such assistance to the student of the intricacies of Hindi, another such useful mnemonic device which can be of solace to us is the similar use in Hindi of the so-called extended adjective, which eliminates the need for many of those pesky verbs, most commonly used in literary works of the Romantic period German authors, but now largely having disappeared from common vernacular.  A typical example might go something like this, with Hindi word order and the extended adjective in parentheses:  (The on the road standing cigarette smoking newspaper reading tea sipping man) turned and away slowly sauntered.  Other than these two very important ports in the linguistic storm of these complex languages, there will be precious little for the adventurous language learner to cling to when it comes to languages of the Indian subcontinent.

So you see, with a little knowledge of archaic German, it’s really quite easy, isn’t it?  Let us now turn our attention to mysterious Tamil, the predominant language of Tamil Nadu in South India, where Alex and I are teaching our violin repair course.
Tamil is not a language for the novice or the faint of heart.  It is referred to as the oldest continually living language on earth, possibly older even than sanskrit, so it has had plenty of time to set traps for the unwary or over-confident language learner.  In fact, I have personal reasons to believe that its endless pitfalls may never be fully revealed.  Tamilians rightly believe that those who are not native born to this language cannot possibly ever learn it properly. At least not without a few extra lifetimes reincarnated into the mix.
First of all, Tamil effortlessly demonstrates a capacity to conceal the simplest message in an endless hailstorm of syllables, all lavishly spiced with vowels which are probably unnecessary, save to protect the native speaker from being overheard in casual conversation or to render invading armies helpless.  Add to this that the words are hopelessly long, far more devastatingly so than the aforementioned German extended adjectives.  A simple “howdy” requires at least 9 syllables (Ninggu yeppedi irikinggu!).  Therefore, velocity of speech is an absolute requirement if one is to arrive at the denouement of the simplest sentence before the sun goes down.  If confronted with a native speaker,  I generally hail a taxi in hopes of arriving at the end of “good morning” in time for dinner.  “Cabbie!  Step on it!  Hurry–follow that verb!”
The consonants provide seemingly endless speed bumps along the wild taxi ride.  Not only are there far more of them than any language should be allowed by law, but the ones that lurk in the most innocent word, for instance “banana” (valai maram), are possessed of hopelessly prickly pronunciations.  If engaged in the simple task of requesting a banana, I generally need to stuff a couple of pieces of buttered toast loaded with peanut butter and mango jam into my mouth, curl my tongue around it onto the back of my palate and timidly utter the “r,” only to find it gurgling past my weary mind again towards the end of the word.  The native speaker of Tamil finds this consonant game infinitely amusing, hailing his friends to join in the hilarity of the “valai maram” spectacle, and as soon as the struggle is over, another consonant is quickly located and hurled at the foreigner for the general amusement of the growing crowd of onlookers.
The only hope for the foreigner is to join the circus, embrace a vowel or two, and accept that this language makes you into a very fine stand-up comedian indeed.  The vision of “hello” (vanakkam) emitting from the foreigner’s mouth generates such waves of laughter that one might believe that Mr. Ed, the talking horse of TV fame just walked into the room and cracked a nice joke.  There is a wonderful woman who helps clean our shop, but I have only caught small glimpses of her face over the last two years.  The moment I utter the simplest Tamil consonant, she covers her face, shuddering with peals of laughter, and dashes from the room in order that we don’t think she is impolite for openly laughing at us.  I’m certain she could carry on polite conversations; just not with foreigners carrying on in her native tongue.
If violin making should ever prove inadequate as a profession, a great career awaits us as comedians in Tamil Nadu, thanks to the wonderful people here who have taught us a couple of words. I’m keeping a few good consonants in my bag of tricks for that occasion.   In the meantime, for serious business, like ordering dinner and a drink, I’ll stick to Hindi.  In comparison, it feels like my mother tongue.

The “A” Team

Today is Thanksgiving, a major holiday in the USA. We celebrated with another busy day in the workshop, teaching as much as possible to the course participants. We’ve been at it now for nearly two weeks, and put in long days and often long evenings, since we are frequently interviewed after hours by reporters and photographers. Then blogging about the experience if there is any time left and the house computer is willing. It is often cranky, and the internet can sometimes be down for several days. The incessant rains seem to creep in everywhere, making everything malfunction. Quite the different experience from the reclusive life of the violin maker tucked away on the hill in California.

Mr. Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan has made some very astute choices in the selection of this year’s course participants. At first I was skeptical of the two young gentlemen, Aryan (left) and Nagaraj (right), who came to us from a piano store, of all things. However, as it turns out, they both trained for two years in Mumbai (Bombay) in a program presented by none other than the venerable Steinway firm, and they bring considerable technical handwork skills and conceptual abilities to bear on our projects. They speak outstanding English and shriek with laughter together with us when we make feeble attempts to learn Tamil from them. They have a great sense of humor, and when I take revenge for the Tamil teasing by having them pronounce the names of the important violin makers and bow makers of Italy, France, and Germany, they squirm and howl good naturedly, rolling their eyes with the difficulty of the task. Fair is fair; we all guffaw as one unit.

Then there is Ranjit, who has traveled all the way from Malappuram in Kerala to join us. A carpenter by trade, he has already made a very passable violin without any formal training or other input. He also brings quite a pallet of skills with hand tools along and has no problem adapting immediately to the problem solving and focus specific to our craft. He works precisely and swiftly, and it is often difficult to keep ahead of him and keep him busy. He always arrives in the morning before us, even though he has a lengthy walk across town. He loves our fiddling, so of course that makes him irresistible as an esteemed colleague!

Finally, there is Anbarasu, our only returnee from the first course two years ago. He runs his own shop in Chennai, yet finds time to enjoy our teaching. He gives us the opportunity to check his progress after the intensive course held in 2013, and he doesn’t disappoint. His sweet nature is infectious, and he tells me I should be a film actor because of the facial expressions I make in an effort to overcome our language barrier. He has spent his whole life sitting on the floor while working, quite common in India, and it is amazing what he can do down there, holding the work piece with his feet.

All of these gentlemen prove to be a tremendous resource for us, as it is impossible to remember every last little item that we need to bring from the US in order to make this course a success. They all know how to find materials and supplies that we didn’t even know existed in India, and if those don’t exist, these guys know how to improvise them into existence. We never cease to be amazed at their resourcefulness.

The record rainfall and flooding, along with personal difficulties, have cut our numbers down to these four, but they are the Fabulous Four. Together, they have accomplished as much in these two weeks as many established shops in the US might accomplish in a similar time frame, with Alex doing a stellar job of carrying half the teaching load. When the visitors have all gone, and everyone is concentrated on their own project, the productivity arising from the tranquility is nothing short of astonishing. Awesome job, dudes! My hat’s off to you all!

It is my personal desire that they each become a teacher of our art to future generations, a monumental and ever so necessary task.

Chennai, Friday the Thirteenth

We arrived in Chennai in the early morning, welcomed by the greatest flooding in this city since 1975. Laden with baggage full of chisels, gouges, glue pots, clamps and other unspeakably heavy tools of the trade, we made our way through small glades of potted plants which had been carefully placed to capture the bounty of the leaking roof in the airport hallways, casually strolling past bored customs officers to the outside, where a fearless driver was patiently awaiting our arrival. Braving the torrential rainfall brought on by the cyclonic storm pounding the coast, the sparse traffic of that early hour was more reminiscent of the gondolas and boat traffic of Venice than that of rush hour Chennai. Blinding waterfalls from the overpasses cascaded down on the car, making a joke of visibility out the front windshield. Trick rider motorcyclists plowed past us like speedboats, holding their feet up on the handlebars to avoid personal contact with the floodwaters. Welcome to India; it never comes up short on adventure!

We had planned four days to leisurely get over jet lag, looking forward to strolling the exotic boulevard of Pondi Bazaar, enjoying the fine cuisine and checking out the silk shops. Instead, we found ourselves stranded in the hotel. Nobody in Chennai goes anywhere during this type of flooding. Seems it is reasonably common, since Chennai is the only major city in India which is exactly at sea level and enjoys no drainage factor whatsoever. Today’s morning newspaper reported of vipers, cobras and leeches in abundance in the waters of the city, along with copious unpleasant water soluble particulate matter, the exact nature of which I will leave to the imagination. Suffice it to say that the locals strongly recommend thoroughly washing your feet after crossing the road. Another 3 days of this and the rain is supposed to subside, leaving us with 90 degree heat and suffocating humidity.

Day four and the workshop was scheduled to commence. By now only violin makers and anybody else who happened to be consumed by insanity were venturing out into the weather. Thus it came to pass that we actually found ourselves in the company of four (out of 10) very pleasant intrepid participants and a great deal was accomplished, interrupted only by the occasional power outage and the concussive explosion of a transformer on the power pole just outside the window, accompanied by sparks showering down into the tranquil waters of the street below. Happy Diwali!