Dreamscape: A Fiddler Is Seduced by the Ancient Arts
Life is just a dream in Varanasi, India—the City of Music
Greetings from Varanasi, “City of Light,” home of Shiva, the god of creation and destruction in Hindu cosmology. Often referred to as the oldest living city on Earth, Varanasi is located on a large bend in the Ganges River and situated to face the rising sun. It is widely regarded as one of the birthplaces of Hindu culture. The inner realm of the old city is an extensive maze of narrow passageways, designed to withstand the withering heat of summer and to confuse and divide invading armies.
Strolling through these crowded galis, one is confronted with a bewildering array of colorful pilgrims, sadhus (wandering holy men) begging alms while migrating from temple to temple, silk sellers and hawkers of all sorts, snake charmers, funereal processions transporting the deceased to their old favorite haunts before their final release on the famous burning pyres along the Ganges, all liberally interspersed with the cows, water buffaloes, monkeys, and other wildlife sharing the narrow path.
Every step of the way, music blares from stores at deafening volume and from countless wedding processions with brass bands in uniform leading the way, loudly blasting out exuberant exotic melodies. Sadhus sing in praise of Shiva, the street singers busking for any offering.
Varanasi is truly a city of music.
Years ago, and quite by chance, India’s black market brought me to this ancient city. I had spent two months trekking in the Annapurna region of the Nepal Himalaya and intended to travel overland to South India. In those days, travelers from Kathmandu could save two days of bone-breaking bus travel by booking a flight to Varanasi, then recoup the cost of the flight by purchasing a carton of cigarettes and a bottle of whisky in the duty-free shop and selling them in the bazaar.
I was introduced to Indian music by Pandit Vikash Maharaj, a 14th-generation master descended from courtly musicians to the maharajas, whose technique on the fretless sarod so dazzled me that I found myself discarding all my previous travel plans and settling in for several months of music lessons.
It was during this time I discovered that Indian music is also played on the violin, so I took daily lessons with Mr. V.K. Venkataramanujam, lecturer in South Indian classical music at Banaras Hindu University. I had no idea what I was in for. After playing fiddle for my living for so many years, it was humbling to be reduced to a struggling beginner, spending hours sitting on a concrete floor developing calluses in more places than just the fingertips of the left hand. Lessons were rigorous—two hours daily at 7 am with four hours of daily practice expected. It was the hot season, so I awoke at 4 am each day to get some practice in before the temperature rose to 110 degrees.
The practice of punishing wrong notes with the swift blow of a stick had only recently been banned, so he would only yell at me, occasionally explaining that the loving violin teacher must also be a “shouting man,” and that my myriad wrong notes were “ruining his mind.”
I practiced my sliding gamakam scales up and down one string with a certain terror in my heart, and wrote postcards to my friends that I was studying with the King of the Slide Fiddle. The six compositions (kritis) of the 19th-century composer Sri Tyagaraja I learned from Mr. Venkataramanujam remain the precious jewels of my tune collection to this day.
The years passed. I trained in Germany as a violin maker before returning to Varanasi to visit my old friends. My newly acquired skills in violin restoration were most welcome and I soon found myself spending more hours sitting on the old familiar concrete floor with a busy repair schedule, hopefully returning the favor for so many rich cultural experiences in their home.
Mr. Venkataramanujam’s son, Dr. V. Balaji, already was in charge of the family’s violin-repair needs and took an immediate and active interest in my work, even to the point of dismantling and refinishing perfectly functioning family instruments in order to satisfy his endless curiosity. A virtuoso violinist, but also an innovator by nature, Balaji was investigating ways of mounting sympathetic strings on the violin, so I introduced him to the systems used in Europe in the making of the viola d’amore.
However, soon afterward, he was severely injured when his scooter collided with a large bull and the beast attacked him. His left arm was massively fractured and required numerous metal plates and pins to knit it back together. He endured almost two years of painful rehabilitation, slowly reacquiring his skills on his instrument, switching to viola played with the scroll resting on a stand, since the loss of mobility in his left arm no longer would accommodate the smaller size of the violin. Despite so many difficulties, the notion of the sympathetic-string violin had not gone lost on my irrepressibly inventive friend.
Recently, Dr. Balaji introduced his newest, a viola that he had converted to accommodate a second neck, devoted solely to sympathetic strings. Much like a banjo neck, it extends as a rod through the upper left rib, attached to both upper and lower blocks in the body. The viola has two sound posts and extra bracing. In addition, ranks of tiny machine tuners direct yet more strings over four additional bone bridges, giving this instrument a total of 40 strings!
Balaji can easily swing the instrument, which is played with its scroll resting on the stand and its bottom bout suspended from a neck strap, on its side to allow easy access to the highest positions on the bass strings. Dubbed the Shringar Bela, the instrument was inspired by Balaji’s desire to recreate the sound of the ancient sarangi, which was reputed to have had 100 strings. The name in Sanskrit means “one hundred colors.” On the Shringar Bela, Balaji can mimic other instruments like the double-reed shahnai, the sarod, and the santoor, a type of hammered dulcimer. He has created a viola unique to his personal ergonomic situation while simultaneously giving the instrument a profoundly Indian voice.
In the words of his student from France: “It weighs like a stone.”
But when Balaji lays a bow on the strings, the effect is downright dreamy.
Balaji is chairman of the department of music and performing arts at Banaras Hindu University and is working on establishing closer artistic collaborations with instrument makers in his academic setting. He will still find time to show you how to split a single bowed note into two, using only a practice mute and a big grin. In the meantime, I am researching harp guitar design, trying to figure out where to put the other 60 strings.
It’s bound to look like a full rack on a bull moose, but I’m certain my friend will have a zany solution for the details.