Zubin Mehta is one of the world’s most popular orchestral and operatic conductors. He recently celebrated 50 years of musical collaborations with three renowned orchestras — Vienna, Berlin and Israel Philharmonic. Despite his international wanderings, the Bombay boy maintains a strong Indian identity. He tells Natasha Israni that he wants to use his music to connect people, and the Kashmir concert was a step in this direction.
You recently won an NRI of the Year award. Do awards still hold meaning and value for you?
I’m going to be 78 soon. I haven’t received awards all my life. The first one I received many years ago was the Padma Bhushan, and then the Padma Vibhushan. But I was very proud recently to be awarded the Tagore prize by the President in New Delhi. Since the concert in Kashmir, a lot of Indian organizations have become conscious of my existence. The Kashmir concert was very important for me, for my soul, for my ambition to do something to get Muslims and Hindus to sit together in my country and listen to some music.
The Kashmir concert created a lot of controversy — that it was elitist and access was denied to local Kashmiris.
The garden that we played in, the Shalimar Garden, thanks to the government of Kashmir, was completely rehabilitated. It was so beautiful. But unfortunately only about 750 people could be seated. Now this elitist thing was propagated mostly by the media and those who were against the concert, which was a minority in Kashmir. In our country when people go out even to a concert, they dress up. So it was a very elegant audience but there were Kashmiris sitting there. But I’ve written to the government of Kashmir again if I could come next year and give a concert in Kashmir at a stadium. And everybody can come muft (free).
Why is Kashmir important to you?
Kashmir is important to every Indian and Pakistani for that matter. I don’t mind going to the other side also to play a concert. So if Pakistani Kashmir invites me, I’ll go.
There’s another conflict zone that you’ve been very vocal about recently — Israel. What are your concerns?
I love this little country very much; I’ve almost grown up in it. I’m very proud that even though I have an Indian passport they have welcomed me even though for so many years India had no diplomatic relations with Israel. But I can’t agree with what’s going on now, especially with the policy of the settlements. On one side they release 400 Palestinian prisoners, which is wonderful. On the other side, they announce 50,000 apartment blocks going up (in Jerusalem’s eastern territories, where Israel’s control is not recognized by international communities). America is very much against their policies. But they don’t come out outright and say it in a strong way.
You have a long-standing relationship with the country as part of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Has that led to uncomfortable situations?
I must tell you that that’s the beauty of Israel, being a democracy, I give these interviews, I speak openly on Israeli television, and with newspapers. There are people who of course disagree with me. I think many in my orchestra disagree with me. What is amazing is that despite everything, the support for the arts in Israel is so tremendous.
You have an Indian passport, will you be voting in the elections?
I have never voted in my life. I am an Indian citizen, I don’t vote in India. I have a Green Card in America so I can’t vote here. It’s a tragedy. Every time I speak to an NRI or a resident Indian, the first topic that comes is corruption. And this new anti-corruption party is a breath of fresh air. I know they’re not going to win the election. But I hope they win enough votes to influence the winner to clean up their houses. I hope whoever the next prime minister is will not turn a blind eye to what’s going on around him.
Why did you choose to keep your Indian passport?
Identity is very important to me. I tell my Parsi people not to give up our Parsi Gujarati either. It’s our way of speaking. I’m very proud that I’m an Indian. I will never give it up. It’s not only because I like the food. When India plays Pakistan, I’m for India. But believe me, when Pakistan plays England, I’m for Pakistan. I’m a sub-continental backer.
Do you see yourself as a global Indian or a citizen of the world?
First and foremost — an Indian, without any doubt. Global Indian is because I travel a lot. I am a curious person. When I’m in Argentina or Japan, I like to know everything that’s going on there. The musicians I work with have different nationalities but we still speak the same language — music. So we become brothers very easily. Therefore I get to know those countries.