India’s highest civilian award should be given to someone who is admired by everyone — like Zubin Mehta.
The first Bharat Ratna was awarded in 1954, not to one, but to three people, C. Rajagopalachari, S. Radhakrishnan and C.V. Raman. This struck a nice balance — an independence fighter who was our last governor general (and the first Indian to hold that post); a philosopher-statesman; a scientist. In the 62 years since, the honour has been bestowed on 45 people, which includes three non-Indians — Mother Teresa in 1980 (although she was an Indian citizen by then), Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan in 1987 and Nelson Mandela in 1990. A preponderance of these 45 awards have been given to politicians (as many as 23 of them). In one way, this is not surprising since it is politicians who make the decisions: It’s not just that they want to reward themselves; it’s also that politicians think that their jobs are the country’s most important ones. On the other hand, the number of Bharat Ratnas in the field of art and culture is pitifully small — just six (Satyajit Ray, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Lata Mangeshkar, Ustad Bismillah Khan and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi). All six are names beyond the slightest dispute; you might wish there were more than just these six names, but you wouldn’t want other names instead of these.
Zubin Mehta’s name would be a wonderful — and fully deserving — addition to this list. On April 29, he turned 80, but in his case, age is truly just a number. After three quick concerts in Mumbai with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra recently, he jetted off to Vienna where he will conduct the Vienna Philharmonic for a series of concerts. The list goes on, and needless to say, all concerts everywhere are sold out in advance. In Mumbai, people queue up all night whenever Mehta brings an orchestra here, and the demand for seats is such that the organisers have to impose a limit of just two tickets per person.
Mehta’s achievements are truly staggering. First of all, he has reached the pinnacle in a field which is fiercely competitive throughout the developed world, and has stayed there for an incredibly long time. Beginning as assistant conductor with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in 1958 when he was just 22, his career really took off in 1961 when he was appointed music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. A year later, he became music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic concurrently, becoming, at 26, not only the youngest conductor of an international orchestra but also the youngest ever to be in charge of two international orchestras.This would have been an astonishing achievement for anyone, but for an Indian it is almost unreal because Western classical music has such a small foothold in our country. The achievement is even more astonishing when you consider that his fame rests not on being a soloist, which would be considerable in itself, but on being a conductor, who is the leader of musicians, who at this level are all excellent soloists themselves. Amazingly, Mehta has been doing this non-stop for 58 years.
A music director, of course, goes beyond conducting a concert: During his tenure, he shapes the sound of the orchestra, selects musicians, draws up the programme of concerts for each season and thus becomes an arbiter of taste for the city and the community as well. To have played this role for so many years in notoriously difficult and snobbish places like Los Angeles (16 years), New York (a record 13 years), Berlin and Vienna shows us the regard in which he is held in the music world. The Israel Philharmonic went one further, taking the unprecedented step of appointing him music director for life. Six orchestras (Vienna, Munich, Los Angeles, Florence, Berlin, Bavaria) bestowed the title of “Honorary Conductor” on him. The scale of Mehta’s achievement can be gauged by just a couple of numbers: With the New York and Israel orchestras, he has conducted over 1,000 and 3,000 concerts respectively in all five continents.
Not content with these achievements, Mehta has also been a great populariser in the best sense of the word. He put together and conducted the first “Three Tenors” concert (Placido Domingo, José Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti) in 1990, following up with several repeats. The recording of the debut concert became the best-selling classical album of all time. A televised performance of the concert was seen by 1.3 billion people worldwide. That’s an audience of truly epic proportions.
Mehta’s strong belief in the healing and unifying powers of music has also led him to arrange and conduct some unusual concerts. For example, he broke a taboo by playing Wagner in Israel (the composer was a vicious anti-Semite), and Mahler’s Second Symphony (Resurrection) next to the Buchenwald concentration camp, using German and Jewish orchestras playing side by side. Puccini’s Turandot was performed in Beijing in the surroundings of the Forbidden City with 300 extras and 300 soldiers participating. In 2005, he brought the Bavarian State Orchestra to Chennai to commemorate the Indian Ocean tsunami, and in 2013 to Ehsaas-e-Kashmir in Srinigar’s Mughal Gardens. There have been many other such concerts — held either to break down man-made barriers or to heal old wounds.
In all this, he has retained his strong ties with India. Over the years, he has brought the world’s best orchestras to perform here, along with the greatest of soloists, thus enabling Indian music lovers to hear music at its highest level. By persuading these orchestras and soloists to forgo or reduce their fees, he has also enabled the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation (named after his musician father) to run a school for music, which now reaches out to nearly 2,000 students, half of them in low-income municipal schools.
What more is there to say? There’s one final point: For all the adulation he has received all over the world for almost six decades, Zubin Mehta remains a true son of the country of his birth, and till today retains and uses his Indian passport.