There is no space for any kind of conflict in a life devoted totally to music, says maestro Zubin Mehta, in Mumbai currently to launch his autobiography and do what he does best, conduct symphonies. Excerpts from an interview with the conductor who believes completely in the healing power of music…
That music can heal rifts is something he is sure of. “It won’t have an effect immediately, but gradually it will,” says Mehta.
For a defier of stereotypes, Zubin Mehta is disarmingly gentle. But to say that too is to fall into stereotypes. If India is known for artistes representing Indian classical music and dance and crafts, he is a unique export, who made his mark in West ern classical music. And he was not born in some hub of the art but in our very own Bombay — in 1936. His first teacher was his father, Mehli Mehta. Not only did the son make the grade among his peers from the West, he rose right to the top. The awards, honours and recognitions that have come his way would fill an essay. With honorary citizenship of Florence and Tel Aviv, and a home in America, he truly belongs to the world. Yet Zubin Mehta in conversation is as warm an Indian as any NRI, concerned about the country and retaining his connection. Suffice it to say that Zubin Mmehta is himself. And if his name is synonymous with Western classical music, then it carries as much scope for variety as the well-loved symphonies he has taken to all corners of the earth.
Now, with his autobiography, The Score of My Life published by Roli Books and released this week in Mumbai, Mehta need no longer be a vaguely mysterious entity for lakhs of readers. Vaguely mysterious, because, though Western classical music has a niche following in India, and the masses are not entirely familiar with his music, they are certainly aware of the larger-than-life persona which media buzz lends a celebrated artiste.
A honest account
As images are wont to, one has already grown up around the autobiography, which some even refer to as a “no-holds barred” confession. To be in constant limelight, then, and defy the assault of the image is not an easy task. Was it difficult to be completely honest, to disclose his life to passionate scrutiny? “Well, I’ve tried to be completely honest,” says Mehta with a warm laugh. “There’s nothing dishonest in it.”
Sometimes great artistes are expected to be great human beings too. The tendency to deify a musician is high, especially in India. “But that’s not the musician doing it, that’s the public,” says Mehta. It doesn’t burden him, though, as long as he is being “perfectly honest”. He adds with humility and a zestful chuckle, “at least I think I’ve been”.
Mehta, who has been the Music Director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra since 1977, a post that was designated for life in 1981, is known for taking the healing of music to troubled people of the world. Art may be a world of its own, but it is not always possible for an artiste to remain aloof from the world around him. Occasionally Mehta’s opinion on world affairs is quoted, and at times he has been in the news for choices or actions that might raise a political murmur. But ask him about conflict and his first reaction is, “If you knew my life you would know there is no real conflict. You get up in the morning and you make music. And in the evening you make music!”
There may be an inner conflict, says Mehta, about how a certain musical composition should be interpreted, “but basically we pour our hearts out and it’s up to them (the audience) and it’s up to us.”
It is easy to get lost in the beauty of music. Paradise perhaps it is when the greatest quandaries are musical. Yet not a region in the world is devoid of conflict of the harmful kind. Mehta is quick to agree. “That’s why we try whenever we can to have music to bring people together,” says the conductor who famously brought the Israel Philharmonic and Bavarian State Opera onto a single concert platform for the first time. “That is why I said recently I wish to play for the people of Kashmir.”
His calmness graduates to a warmer passion as he points out that “at least for those couple of hours”, the listeners would be able to forget strife. That music can heal rifts is something he is sure of. “It won’t have an effect immediately, but gradually it will,” says Mehta, who received the Lifetime Achievement Peace and Tolerance Award of the United Nations in 1999.
Music education is a key if music is to blend so much into the personality that all of life becomes a metaphor for it. “Music education is about young people, and it is vital,” agrees Mehta. “And especially in India, education is vital. I wish that our Government would be in a position to impose compulsory education everywhere, in every village,” he momentarily digresses. “Education is the only thing that will bring our people up. There are so many things we are already so proud of. Can you imagine with the intellectual prowess of our people, where this country would go?”
When he talks of imposing education, he adds, he doesn’t mean it in a totalitarian sense. “We are a democracy and we can’t do it that way.”
If India’s literacy rate leaves much to be desired, what about the rate of musical knowledge? When Mehta was a little boy, and his father, a Western classical violinist and conductor, was pursuing his career in what was then called Bombay, there were not many takers for the music. It was Mehli Mehta who founded the Bombay String Quartet and the Bombay Symphony Orchestra but he eventually settled abroad. “Well, I don’t think it has changed that much,” feels Mehta, who first brought the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to perform in India in 1994. “Before the (Second World) War and after the War there were a lot of Jewish refugees and a smattering of Europeans and others who listened to this music. They have gone now. Now, it is only those who adopt it,” he notes. Yet, adds the conductor — obviously more abreast with happenings in Mumbai than other parts of the country — Mumbai’s National Centre for Performing Arts and the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation have been doing commendable work to popularise the form. “We have at least two-three hundred children learning from us,” he says of the Foundation named after his father.
With the release of Mehta’s autobiography and his performances on this tour, perhaps that movement will get a fillip. Originally written in German in 2006, the memoir has been translated into English. “Roli Books employed someone to translate it into English,” concedes Mehta, “but I reviewed it and corrected it and added many more passages to bring it up to date.”
One thing is for sure. The score of his life adds up to a magnificent symphony.
6 months ago