Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Music Conductor Zane Dalal

On Saturday night, Zane Dalal will lead the Symphony Orchestra of India into the future. But for this London-born Parsi, the journey to the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre has been replete with the grandeur of music

Clad in a black kurta and jeans, and oxfords, orchestra conductor, Zane Dalal, has just finished morning rehearsals. Minutes earlier, the hall reverberated with Mendelssohn’s overture Fingal’s Cave.

Now, it’s silent, as the performers, lugging their violins have trotted out to lunch. Before the next rehearsal, Zane will grab a bite, even as he ponders the trio of pieces slated for the opening concert.

That concert takes place on Saturday evening at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre where Dalal will make his professional debut conducting a programme comprising compositions by Brahms, Mozart and Mendelssohn.


It’s another small step in the musical journey of a young Parsi boy, who spent most of his life abroad, and whose childhood desire was to play the church organ, but was told, “your feet are too small to reach the pedals, you must first play the piano”.

Now, years after a trans-Atlantic education in music, and having conducted symphony orchestras in several US cities and Jerusalem, Dalal’s current repertoire on the podium and off it, includes discovering talent in India, honing a promising bunch of players, and creating “the atmosphere of a conservatory” in Mumbai.

Born and raised in London, Dalal has spent the better part of the last 18 months here as assistant conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI). That is officially his mandate, but like the suffusive character of music itself, so has been his most recent role.

It would be fair to say that music runs in Dalal’s blood. His father played Indian classical music and his mother appreciated Western classical music. This, perhaps, explains Dalal’s musical genes, but it was a myriad of influences — prep school and later at Charter House, where he was head of choir; the Organ scholarship that took him to Oriel College, Oxford (where he was choirmaster and church organist), that nurtured  Dalal’s budding talent. “Early on,” he says, “as I played organ and piano, and sang in choirs, I learned the group effect of music.”

The “group effect” was further honed in the US (his parents had moved to Los Angeles) at Indiana University, where he enrolled at the suggestion of the late Mehli Mehta, the Bombay-born violinist and conductor, a decision that would influence the course of his life.

Moreover, Dalal recalls the strong influence of two teachers there — Bryan Palkwill, a “musical father”, and Thomas Baldner (to the latter he recently wrote: “you were special to me”) — and the prodigious musical atmosphere at Indiana (1,590 graduate students of music, five full orchestras, six operas a year) that segued to make Dalal, a conductor. “A good education,” he said, “is that when you look back on it, you see your starting point and your ending point, but not the blocks in between.”

Now, after years of conducting experience, Dalal says, “A player in the orchestra must look at you when he feels comfortable, not because you insist so. And when they look at you, you must be clear and apparent in your beat so that they must know what they have played, are playing, and will play.”

His mentors taught him that it’s important to make the group sound better than they believe they are, and better than they actually are. 

This role has added more notes to Dalal’s evolving musical score and which he has taken up with a sense of mission. It’s another kind of “group effect” that includes overseeing the introduction of the Suzuki method of violin playing in Mumbai, and which led him and some SOI members to set out in a bus to visit four Mumbai schools. The response, he says, from students and teachers alike, has been heartening, as “we have introduced individually the violin, viola, cello and bass, and then all together.” 

Overall, Dalal does feel not his teaching mission is compartmentalised. “It’s about life, and your success is only as good as the number of people you were able to take with you.”
And even as he nurtures local talent, Dalal is aware that his role at SOI is akin to that of a parent, in that “you have to be willing to bend down as he takes his first steps with care and also instill in a student a sense of the future”.

It is also part of another kind of “group effect”, on which Dalal seeks to bring to bear his experience and learning and which, he feels, will in the long run provide a track for the SOI’s talent search. Parents of musical aspirants have got the bug, and hopefully build future audiences.

Having said that, in three years, and with four seasons completed, Zane is proud of what has been accomplished at SOI, singling out the performance of the opera Madame Butterfly, as a high point.

When I ask what music means to him, Dalal’s reaction comes from the gut. “I cannot answer that.” He says music is all that there is. But the answer to how music effects him is unequivocal: “Music lifts my spirit. With music, I know that I am never alone.”

On the connection of Western classical music with the wider world, Zane puts it this way: “Music was not written to be agonised over or analysed by the musicologist or performer. The operative words are ‘How do you feel’ or ‘How do it make you feel’.” To an audience, Dalal would say, “Open yourself to music, and go with your gut.”

Describing a composer, Dalal likens him to an artist who has created a master painting. For the conductor and performer, the challenge is to be able to take that master painting and to know it “with one’s training and tradition, and how it was painted and with what material, and what influences”.

“My challenge with music is to reproduce what has already been produced, in two-and-a-half hours, but with the same translucence, colour, and without mistake. With music, one paints in sound; every piece has its own life and strength. It is indeed, a heavy onus.”
Finally, Dalal appears to want to wield the baton over a wider “group effect”. “There is the human element of music; of the contact of one person sitting side by side with another; of the composer to everyone; and then to those outside as you walk out onto
the street.”