In the eponymous Italian fable, a wood-carver fashions a puppet out of cherry wood, and in a series of twists and turns that have fascinated children all over the world ever since, it eventually comes to life as the adorable little boy we know and love, Pinocchio.
The work of a luthier (maker and restorer of stringed instruments) sees a similar magical transformation, from disparate, inanimate blocks of wood into a sublime, “living” objêt d’art, in not just the visual and aural, but the spiritual sense of the word. Yehudi Menuhin describes it best: “A great violin is alive; its very shape embodies its maker’s intentions, and its wood stores the history, or the soul, of its successive owners. I never play without feeling that I have released or, alas, violated spirits”.
This “spirit” influences every fortunate owner of an instrument, regardless of degree of talent or social rank. Another noted violinist Ivry Gitlis writes in his “The Art of the Violin”: “I have a violin that was born in 1713. It was alive long before me, and I hope it lives long after me. I don’t consider it as my violin. Rather, I am perhaps its violinist; I am passing through its life”. A humbling thought.
Huddled in a cluster around petite luthier Regina Stuetzle at the Kala Academy every morning for the last two weeks, we are awed even more by the knowledge of the intricacies that go into the making of a good-quality instrument. A Rolex watch seems far less complex in comparison. Every miniscule, seemingly innocuous aspect has to be just so, from the choosing of the wood, to the accurate micro-measurements of the dimensions of each component, to the sandpapering, fitting, gluing, drying and polishing of the finished product; it demands utmost precision, diligence, and a limitless reservoir of patience. This is not a job for the faint-hearted.
This is a vocation which is at once an art and a craft, a science and a philosophy, perhaps even a religion, inasmuch as its pursuit of the ideal attains quasi-spiritual proportions. Certainly some aspects of the job, for instance when carving out the belly of an instrument from a carefully selected wedge of spruce, to just the right uniform thickness, where one false move would mean having to start afresh, summon up reserves of focussed mental concentration that would be the envy of a yogic master or a brain surgeon.
The most mundane task, like the fitting of a bridge onto an instrument, requires utmost precision in measurement, drawing upon the accumulated knowledge and experience of masters of the field going back several centuries, and thoughtful placement. A tenth of a millimetre out in any direction could have huge implications in terms of facility of playing, and transmission of sound. There is a deliberate science in the positioning of the strings when they traverse the bridge.
It is perhaps no coincidence that the violin and its larger cousins have parts corresponding to those of the human body (head, neck, body, waist, belly, ribs, back). So it should come as no surprise that like humans, they do have fluctuations in health, and need the occasional ministrations of a “doctor”. Instruments even have a “soul”. The sound post, the cylindrical pillar of wood positioned between the top and back plates of the instrument, is called the “soul” of the instrument (âme in French, “anima” in Italian) as its location is so vital to its overall tonal quality. Shifting its position requires experience and an unhurried sense of time. A little adjustment, then the owner of the instrument plays upon it. Is she content with the sound? On both extremes of the register? If not, the adjustments continue until a satisfactory result is achieved.
We learn all this, and so much more, as the workshop unfolds. We examine the innards of a violin, learn how to inspect for cracks, how to care for, how to clean the instrument. Perhaps even more importantly, we understand what NOT to do, what should be better entrusted to a practised luthier. The incompetent, or often the well-meant interventions by those ignorant about this exact science, can cause the detriment of the instrument, not only in terms of its sound quality, but can also steeply depreciate the value of a priceless masterpiece to zilch.
“We” are a motley crew. The most obvious and logical candidates among the participants, of course, are the representatives of the two leading music stores in Goa, (Pedro Fernandes and sons, and Furtados Music), but our ranks also include the faculty of the Kala Academy, and a tiny clutch of enthusiasts of the violin, viola, cello and double-bass. As word spreads that the good “doctor” is in town, several instruments materialise from all over Goa, for a spot diagnosis. A few need intensive care, beyond the scope of her short visit; some need minor surgery, but thankfully many are given a clean bill of health.
Quiet, unassuming, Regina is on a volunteer mission in India, and is serving for a year as restorer of the large number of stringed instruments in dire need of restoration and repair at the Jesuit-run Gandhi Ashram School in Kalimpong, a hill station town in West Bengal. The “patients” of this violin doctor span the entire spectrum of the stringed family, from small-sized violin, to the big granddaddy of them all, the deep-throated double bass.
She is in Goa at the invitation of Schubert Cotta of Goa Guitar Guild and the Indo-German Educational and Cultural Society, with the support of the Department of Western Music, Kala Academy Goa. A few of the young musicians (Ajay Darji, cello; Dominic Tamang and Bimal Subba, violin) from the Gandhi Ashram School have accompanied her on this their first ever trip to Goa.
Regina is part of a relatively new phenomenon: female luthiers are storming the citadel of a hitherto male-dominated profession. Nor is it any longer the monopoly of the West. Apprentices flock to the school she apprenticed in, deep in the breathtakingly scenic health spa town of Bad Mittenwald, Germany, from corners of the globe as far-flung as Korea, China and Japan. No Indians yet, though, she admits with a wry grin.
This may change, however, as an increasingly affluent and confident India takes centre stage. One need only look at the burgeoning art market, and the nascent wine industry, to note how much can change in such a short span of time. Our country is famed for its skilled artisans. How long before one, or a few among us begin to apprentice with luthiers in the Western world, and bring the art to home soil? And perhaps even build upon what they have learnt there, taking into account the vagaries of our punishing climate upon these delicate instruments and taking preventive measures to ensure their longevity and good health? Only time will tell.
Do’s and Don’ts of Instrument maintenance.
- Do clean off your instrument and the stick of the bow after use with a gentle, soft cloth. The residue from the resin applied to the bow if allowed to accumulate, adversely affects the resonance of the instrument, and leaves unsightly stains that damage the varnish and are difficult to remove. Avoid letting perspiration get onto the instrument. If it does, wipe it off before it dries. The salt is extremely corrosive and will eat through the finish. Resist the temptation to do any further cleaning or polishing of your instrument on your own.
- Do get the bridge and soundpost of the instrument fitted by a qualified expert. Do NOT on any account try to fit or shift the position of the soundpost on your own. It can damage the sound-holes (f-holes) and the top and belly of the instrument irreparably.
- Do get the pegs fitted by a professional as well. Ensure that they turn easily but do not slip or jam. A peg that creaks as it is being turned needs looking at.
- Do keep your instrument in an environment that is not too hot or humid, and does not suffer from fluctuations in temperature. An ideal ambient temperature would be a steady 20oC but this might be difficult to achieve in our part of the world. Never EVER leave it where direct sunlight could fall on it. Likewise, never EVER leave it in a vehicle or trunk, where temperatures on a sunny day could ruin it.
- It goes without saying that water and high humidity are sworn enemies of a wooden instrument, and should be avoided at all times. This has huge relevance in a tropical country like ours. If you do have to carry your instrument in the monsoons, ensure it is an a water-proof case.
- If your instrument does develop a crack, comes apart or require major repair, its care is best left to an expert. In inexperienced hands, with the wrong techniques and glue, irreversible damage could result.
(An edited version of this article was published in the Navhind Times on 19 April 2011)