Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Zubin Mehta in Conversation

Interview by Noopur Tiwari Sunday, September 28, 2008: (Zurich) :

NDTV’s Noopur Tiwari got talking to music maestro, Zubin Mehta about his personal life, his Indianness and his love story with Israel. Here are some snippets from the interview.
NDTV: Zubin Mehta is one of the greatest conductors of western classical music of all times. He became a world citizen long before the phrase become fashionable. Thank you so much Mr Mehta for talking to NDTV.
Zubin Mehta: World citizen yes ..but Indian first.
NDTV: Indian first right. So in your biography which you narrated originally in German, is finally being published in English much to the delight of all the Indians who admire you so much but know you very little. So we’ve always wondered how Indian is Zubin Mehta. Is it true that you always carry a box of chillies whereever you go? Is that your Indian touch?
Zubin Mehta: Yes, because I’ve still not gotten used to western food and chillies are my saviour…chillies are not Indian of course. I get whatever hot chillies I can lay hands on but you know for instance they have these dinners after concerts and you know what kind of food you get there. Chillies save me!


NDTV: You were born in Mumbai. And you’ve talked about your grampophone when you used to listen to your father’s records. That was really your first encounter with music, wasn’t it?
Zubin Mehta: First of all I had no choice. It wasn’t a concentrated effort. Of course I don’t remember the first time I heard music in my life because it was always in my home. My grandfather was either teaching or practicing or rehearsing. I think I learnt music and Gujarati at the same time. And my father’s influence was of course indelible. I grew up with him and his orchestra and the quartet. He infulenced me a lot when he came back from America. After the 1945 war, he went to america for 4 years to study violin. He came back in 1949. I was only 13 years old and from that moment on, until I left for Vienna in 1954 his was the primary influence. He introduced me to orchestral works, to the orchestra as an instrument, talking about his 4 years in America, about the things he had heard all the, the conductors he had admired, so that was an ongoing 24 hours a day education. All this manifested itself when I went to Vienna. Thats when I heard a really good symphony orchestra for the first time in my life. Until then I had either heard the Bombay symphony which was a mixture of amateurs, Goan professionals and the Indian navy band.
NDTV: And apparently the navy band members used to wear their uniforms when playing in the orchestra?
Zubin Mehta: Yes (laughs)
NDTV: So that milieu wasn’t there then for western classical music? And your father also had to at a certain point leave india?
Zubin Mehta: Well it wasn’t anymore after independence immediately. He was there until 1955 then he just couldn’t make two ends meet. It was purely an economical decision not patriotic one. He was as nationalistic and Indian as one can get. In my home there was quite an anti-british feeling and for him to have to go to England to earn his living was very difficult at first. He also had to face rough times. He didn’t even have a room to live in his first job was in Glasgow because they would see him as an Indian and not allow him in. He finally settled in New York, Philadephia but these were difficult times for my parents. When I went to Vienna I didn’t feel that at all as an Indian. I felt no antagonism about my being an Indian which my father felt in England. Not with musicians but with social conditions.
NDTV: Perhaps because you came in as a student to learn music?
Zubin Mehta: Yes but the Viennese were more sort of curious about why an Indian was suddenly here 9 years after the war ended in Vienna. So they welcomed me and I had a wonderful time studying, listening and playing in orchestras.
NDTV: But before you went to Vienna, you also tried to learn music in Pune. You often took a train from Bombay to Pune. Do you miss those days? Do you miss India today?
Zubin Mehta: I miss it every day of my life. But may be this happens to other Indians as well, who live abroad. I started to learn to cook Indian by myself remembering what I used to have at home. Today there’s no place you can go to where there are no Indian restaurants but not in the 1950s in Vienna. There were no Indian restaurants, so I had to improvise for myself and the young family that I had. So this is the way the bridge was kept and of course everytime I went to an Indian embassy I would not stop practising my Bombay Hindustani. Today my parents are no longer with us..I hardly speak Gujarati and I miss it a lot. I have friends with whom I speak in Gujarati and they reply to me in English.
NDTV: What about your passport…isn’t it Indian even today?
Zubin Mehta: Passport is Indian.
NDTV: Did it ever strike you that life could become easier for you if you changed it?
Zubin Mehta: Yes every time I have trouble with the British, I think that. To get for me as an Indian, a British visa is so incredibly frustrating.
NDTV: Even today?
Zubin Mehta: Yes I even try to use the influence of our ambassador in Tel Aviv. After filling out 25 pages they gave me a 6 month tourist visa. I have to play in London next february with the Vienna Philharmonic. I ‘m not going through that again. I’m going to tell the Vienna orchestra you get me the visa or get another conductor..I will not go through this embarrassment. Thank god for Schengen. I used to change the visa every 6 months because the pages used to get filled. These things only an indian can appreciate.
NDTV: Your biography also says “When I am in India I am a Parsi first and then an Indian. It is the exactly the opposite abroad.”
Zubin Mehta: Yes absolutely! If I say to an Italian I am a Parsi, what does it mean? Then I have to explain to him the background; my people coming from Iran etc., but I am an Indian 100 percent. When Indian plays in England, I am an Indian, when Pakistan plays england I am for Pakistan also thats the difference.
NDTV: So cricket is your other great love..do you still manage to follow some?
Zubin Mehta: Yes, I do as much as I can.
NDTV: Vienna was an important phase in your formative years you’ve said that you “spiritually” belong to Vienna.
Zubin Mehta: But that was my first teething my first maturity in western music apart from all the knowldege that I brought from India, which was theoretical and which was from listening to gramophone records. My first orchestra that I heard live was in Vienna, after listening to gramophone records. These records in those days did not have the quality. Toscanini Leopold Stokowski had a audio effect on me. This performance had completely blown out the first five minutes the Vienna philharmonic playing in their great hall. It was an audio explosion in my ears. I had never heard anything before like that.
NDTV: In your biography you’ve also been very candid about your personal life. You’ve talked about your 2 marriages, the first one not working out and leading to divorce…and then you had two children outside of marriage.It was important for you to mention this. Was it hard?
Zubin Mehta: Otherwise it would be hypocritical..if I am writing about my life…my other children are part of my life also.
NDTV: You are very much in love with your wife. She discovered that you have 2 children outside the marriage. Was this a hard period?
Zubin Mehta: It was extremely difficult for my life. But next year we would have celebrated 40 years of my marraige and I owe my wife a lot.
NDTV: You have said and I quote “Israel occupies a very important place in my life. The country can count upon me whenever the situation calls for it. “We all know your love with the Israel philharmonic. What really brought you close to the people of Israel? Was it the members of your orchestra who had either direct or indirect experiences with the holocaust?
Zubin Mehta: My first contact with Israel was in 1961. After spending 7 years in Vienna going to Israel brought me somehow closer to my home. The streets of Israel were a little bit like Bombay. A lot of people jostling about everybody having their opinions. You ask one question you get four replies. Everyone speaking at the same time. SO very similar to our situation at home. So after 7 years of Vienna I felt very at home. Then I get to know the orchestra from the next morning it was a sort of love at first sight. The orchestra and I grew up together. Also next year I will complete forty years as music director of the Israel Philharmonic so I’ve grown up with them and in a parallel situation with the country. Now don’t forget that it is one of the only democracies in that area of the world…which means that I am free today or at any time; whether speaking to you or speaking to an Israeli journalist to completely express my opinion. I will not be hounded by the local police or the politicians. It’s a democratic way. I’m told 3/4 of Israeli newspapers are criticisng their own govt. Therefore, I feel very much at home speaking my mind.
NDTV: What do you say to them when you speak out your mind?
Zubin Mehta: I talk about the will, the inner will to want to live with your neighbours and I would say the same thing to the Palestinians too. As an Indian, I can go to Ramallah which I do quite often. I’m involved in helping my friend Daniel Barenbo m who has the foundation helping young musicians in Ramallah, so I go and I help them too. Unfortunately, I cannot take my musicians to teach the Palestinians children because it’s not allowed at the moment but there are many musicians in the Israel philharmonic orchestra who would go tomorrow to teach palestinian children music…tomorrow..there’s no question. And that day Inshallah will come. In the meantime we do concerts in Israel for Arabs and jews that sit together. Recently I did one in the town of Acre in the north of Israel. 1000 Israelis. 400 Arabs. But all buying tickets. It’s very healthy even for the two and half hours of concert that they sit together. Now we’re into changing the future of Palestine but we are bringing two people closer and music has the force to do that and we must never underestimate that.
NDTV: During the Gulf War you actually came back to Israel and even with the scud missiles falling around you..you made it a point to do concerts in the mornings when there was no curfew. You’ve always taken a political stand in your musical career. You’ve perfomed in problem area in Israel, in Bosnia, you even took your music to Harlem.
Zubin Mehta: Because of the strength of music. In Bosnia it was in 1994. It was in the middle of the Bosnian war. We went their in Canadian troops, transport wearing bullet proof vests from the east coast of Italy landed in Sarajevo..the only public building still standing was their opera house. So we rehearsed there but we did the concert in the bombed Islamic library. Like the Nazis the first thing that the Serbs did was to bomb the books, burn the books. So we did it in the bombed court of that library where of course no public was allowed because they couldn’t sit anywhere but it was sold on television to the aid of the UN Refugee Fund. Music has that power and we have to use it. It’s wonderful to use our art for such purposes.
NDTV: There have also been times when you tried to take politics away from music like the time you decided to play Wagner who was Hitler’s favourite composer…in Israel. Do you regret doing that? Do you think that was a bit over the top?
Zubin Mehta: Well Wagner in Israel is an unwritten taboo. There is no Israeli law against it. Jews during the holocaust in camps had to listen to the music of Wagner by force through those dreadful loudspeakers. The nazis used Wagner for their own glorification today there are still survivors with numbers on their forearms who don’t want to hear this music because they don’t want to be transported back to the era of terror and I tried to do wagner once in Israel back in 1981 and there was sever opposition from this minority. I realised intellectually of course in a democracy one should be able to play what we want but emotionally one has to respect their feelings. And when we polled the audience 86 percent wanted to hear it because they are the new generation but we still we don’t play it today until this generation will pass so that’s people with numbers on their arms who are considered holy in Israel. They are a few left now. So we will wait.
NDTV: You’ve also always believed in experimentaton even though your training has been rather traditional and some of your teachers were even very strict. You also believe in sticking to the composers intention.
Zubin Mehta: But that’s why I became a musician. To conduct the symphonies of Beethoven and Mozart. To conduct the operas of Verdi and Wagner but am curious as a musician. My most important experimentation was with Pt. Ravi Shankar when he composed he composed a concert for the New York philharmonic played it with great success and then we took it to London and Paris and made a recording and I’m grateful all my life that I coudl make music with this sage of our music.
NDTV: But this kind of experimentation hasn’t always worked.
Zubin Mehta: No. Because the mixture of Indian and Western
classical music basically doesn’t work because Indian music is where the
artist is a composer himself. He improvises on his raga or on his taal. We play the music written by the composer to the last degree of every detail that the composer puts down. We don’t meddle around with it. So the mixture of these worlds is not very easy.
NDTV: It’s also a sort of difference in sensibilities isn’t it? But you yourself what about Indian music? Do you listen to it?
Zubin Mehta: I listen to Indian classical music with great pleasure. I recently I was at a European music festival and I heard Raviji’s daughter Anushka playing. I know her since she was a child. I was filled with joy and pride listening to her.
NDTV: Do you think there is more room..or talent for western classical music in India like in China?
Zubin Mehta: We have a great talent in our country just like in China or Japan. China and Japan and Korea have espoused western classical music easily because they don’t have a great musical tradition of their own. Like we have. There’s no part of India, I don’t have to explain on this programme, what music means to Indians. But there is a great talent was western music also.and I want to build a school of western classical music in my father’s name in Bombay for pple who study Indian music but who also want to then come and learn western equivalent. I know there’s taken because we find Indian musicians in western orchestras now. Not as many as the Japanese and Chinese but we do. The star violinist today of the LA Philharmonic orchestra is young indian boy grown up in New York Robert Gupta. They just love him. So there is a lot of talent. We should do something to nurture it.
NDTV: You talk about bringing people together with your music. Have you thought about doing that in India?
Zubin Mehta: I wish I could go to Kashmir. I play a concert only symbolically where Muslims and Hindus will sit together. I wish I could do it. I want to take the Vienna Philharmonic to Amman in Jordan, to Cairoin Egypt. It’s not been possible as yet. But it was also my dream 15 yrs ago to bring the Israel Philharmonic to India and I did that. First of all diplomatic relations had to be resumed.
NDTV: You’ve also said in your biography that a conductor should also have something of a dictator in him? You’ve always been so dedicated to your music. Has your career taken you away from your family…you travel all the time?
Zubin Mehta: Constantly constantly. I was with my children recently in Montreal and I will see them next week again in Ottawa when I go there; I try to arrange my travels so that once in a while I can be with them. I have grandchildren now. My grand son is 25 yrs old already!
NDTV: Why don’t we see you more often in India?
Zubin Mehta: I come every 2 years. I would come every year. each time I come all the money goes to charity in any case. So we don’t come on a professional basis. Like I go with my orchestra in Florence last month we went to Istanbul and Spain and in Slovenia. These are impresarios that invite us pay us a fee give us a hotel we do the concert. It’s not the same in India. In India we have to have sponsors. We have to have hotels that drop their rates. So we have to have people, volunteers who are willing to do that. Now I can’t impose upon these people every six months to do that. So I will come now in October with the Vienna philharmonic. All my friends are coming including Placido Domingo are coming voluntariy and hopefully we’ll raise money to build this school of music.
NDTV: When do you say “now I’ve reached home”?
Zubin Mehta: Home is the minute I step into Bombay. But my principal home is in Los Angeles and then my spiritual homes are Tel Aviv, Vienna and Florence. I feel very comfortable in all three places because I make music there with musicians that I have grown up with now.
NDTV: Your appointment book is full for the next few years.
Zubin Mehta: Until about 2013 now.
NDTV: Are you going to continue fillng it up?
Zubin Mehta: I’m trying to do less but I’m not successful. I keep spaces and they get filled up because of projects that I hve difficulty in refusing.
NDTV: So you see yourself as going on for long..forever.
Zubin Mehta: Well conductors are young.
NDTV: Absolutely so you’re going strong. Thank you so much Mr. Mehta for talking to NDTV.
Zubin Mehta: It was a pleasure.