‘Aapro’ Zubin Mehta is in the news. The ongoing Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival has an 89-minute documentary on the celebrated Western classical music conductor in its ‘Discovering India’ section by renowned German filmmaker Bettina Ehrhardt.
Article by Mark Manuel | Huffington Post India
It’s called Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds. In Farsi, the original language of the Zoroastrians, this means ‘Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta’. It’s the central tenet of the ancient religion and Parsis and Iranis of Zoroastrian faith abide by it assiduously. Zubin is a Parsi of old Bombay. His father Mehli Mehta was a violinist and the founding conductor of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. I don’t know if he’s a practicing Zoroastrian, into good thoughts, good words and good deeds, but Zubin produces good music. I think that was enough for Ehrhardt. “I sang before I spoke,” he tells her in the documentary. It maps his journey from Mumbai to Vienna in the 1950s to train in classical music, his professional debut at 20, and his rise in the global orchestra circuit.
In April this year, he was in Mumbai to celebrate his 80th birthday. He did this by releasing a biography titled Zubin Mehta: A Musical Journey that covers six decades of his illustrious career and colorful life. And by conducting three concerts with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and five acclaimed soloists, including the legendary Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. They were held at the old Brabourne Stadium. Which is a venue, after cricket, more suited for an Indipop gig by rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh than grand opera by Zubin Mehta. I would have thought the technically spectacular Jamshed Bhabha Theatre was more appropriate. But the maestro didn’t object. “I once played at a weightlifting arena in Delhi,” he told me wryly. “The Brabourne is an improvement.” He was talking to me long distance from LA, late at night, doing an interview. He fiddled with the phone, putting me on hold, while he switched from the cordless “to the instrument in the other room”. A longish pause during which I listened to music. Then he was back. Sunny and cheerful. It was 9.30 am in LA, no wonder.
He talks like a Parsi from Mumbai, mixing impeccable English with Gujarati bad words and Hindi slang. No trace of his 60 years abroad. I might have been talking to one of his “old boys” from St. Mary’s School in Bombay. Other fine Parsi gentlemen like the industrialists Ratan Tata (“who was two classes down”), Nusli Wadia and Khushroo Suntook, and the renowned advocate Mickey Chagla. Mumbai is among his favorite cities. “I remember Mumbai clearly, I could drive around anywhere, it’s like I never left,” he boasted. I started to tell him about our dug up roads and traffic jams, but Zubin cut me off. “I know this city perfectly. Our Bombay, that is. The new areas I haven’t even seen. But still, I should find my way.” I wanted to talk to him about music, discuss his concerts. But Zubin wasn’t done with Mumbai. He has many friends here and was looking forward to meeting them. “Yes, yes, Parsi friends,” he said. He speaks Gujarati. “But when I talk to my Parsi friends in Gujarati, they reply in English,” he grumbled. “In the US it’s opposite. They speak Gujarati, they cook Parsi food for me. I love the cuisine. But it’s different there, an assimilated version, a little Western with our spices. And utterly bland. So I carry a little silver tin with these small red chillies from the south of Italy…”
His whole life he’s been conducting orchestras. “The orchestra is my instrument. Even illusionary, I believe I can play this instrument,” he said. “A conductor makes music. I’ve conducted over 3,000 concerts with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. That must tell you something. We’re accustomed to each others’ signals. The orchestra knows me. I know them. The conductor must have a love for the work or the interpretations of the composers. The music is completely written by the composer note for note. In India, it’s different, because the artiste is also the composer, and he improvises. We don’t improvise. Our pieces were written over 300 years ago. A knowledge of the style of music is important. Also an understanding of the instruments. Especially the strings. It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of practice. Coming on the podium is only the tip of the iceberg.”
He started at 18. At 42, he was said to be at the summit of his profession. Today at 80, he looks like an elderly Rishi Kapoor, handsome and charming. And he still travels the world conducting his orchestras, to Vienna, Montreal, LA, New York, London, Valencia, Rome, he is an honorary citizen of Florence and Tel Aviv. But wherever he is, Zubin keeps track of whatever is happening back home. “I get your papers off the net,” he told me. He also closely follows the fortunes and tragedies of the Indian cricket team. “My all time favorite player was Sunil Gavaskar. My father Mehli played with Vijay Merchant in Sydenham College during the 1930s, they were good friends, but I used to play for St. Mary’s. This Indian team of ours, it’s wonderful with new people coming in. But look what’s happening to Test cricket with the T20 maara-maari. I don’t like it! There’s no art, no patience, the boys just want to lagav.“
Zubin still talks of India as being his home. Though his visits home are becoming less frequent with advancing age. Yet stubbornly, or maybe proudly, he retains an Indian passport. “It’s a diplomatic passport,” he said, “that sometimes gets me into terrible rows with consulates. Worst was the English. You may write that. They made me fill a form of 24 pages and asked the most embarrassing questions. Then gave me a six months’ working visa!” He put me on hold again. The telephone engaged me with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony this time. “What kind of music do you listen to,” I asked when he got back to the interview. “Not much,” Zubin Mehta said. “I’m involved with music six hours a day. I need to switch off. But I love to go to chamber music concerts to hear the quartets and trios. I’m also fond of jazz. And lately, I’ve taken a liking to rap. It’s the music of suffering. A black man pouring out his soul. As a musician, I can’t stand rock ‘n’ roll. There’s no interpretation, no talent, and no, I’m not being a snob!”