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Zubin Mehta: The Maestro From Mumbai

It was called Bombay when he left, but the city is still a piece of his heart...

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Things sometimes come full circle - and it's an amazing feeling when they do. I had interviewed Maestro Zubin Mehta 18 years ago when I was just starting out and he was music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Now there I was, back again, sitting in the Maestro's Green Room.

That last time I had caught him fresh off the stage from rehearsals, and he had munched a sandwich as he rushed between appointments. He had given a surprisingly fulsome interview and I had also spoken with his father Mehli Mehta and his mother, Tehmina, to weave a profile of Zubin Mehta.

He is performing at Avery Fisher Hall after many years, but once again he is grabbing a hurried lunch, which he had earlier abandoned for an impromptu meeting with emerging conductors. The applause from these young musicians had followed all the way to the green room. As he takes a bite of his half eaten sandwich, he pushes a box of quite delicious looking brownies toward me.  "Here, have some mithai!" he says.

Life is indeed sweet for Mehta right now. He has just come from Washington D.C. where he had been saluted, along with Andrew Lloyd Weber, Smokey Robinson, Dolly Parton and Steven Spielberg at the prestigious star-studded Kennedy Center Honors Gala, which had been attended by President and Mrs. Bush. The honors had been bestowed the night before at a State Department dinner hosted by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Earlier the honorees had visited the White House where they were received by the President and Mrs. Bush.

"Conductor Zubin Mehta's profound artistry and devotion to music make him a world treasure," said Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman. These were words the young Zubin Mehta could hardly have hoped to hear when he was growing up in Bombay in the 1940's. Western classical music played little part in this tumultuous city and it was his father Mehli Mehta who created a little oasis where classical music flourished.

Growing up in a home where music was almost as necessary as food and water, Zubin Mehta was exposed to classical music even before he could speak. At the age of two his cherished possessions were a pair of drum sticks, and he kept them under his pillow at night. His father held rehearsals of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra in the living room and music became a second language for the future maestro.

Hard to believe, but Mehta almost went on the stereotypical track for Indian youth: medicine   He gave up his premed studies at 18 to pursue his real passion - music. In spite of financial constraints, the Mehtas sent him to Vienna's prestigious Academy of Music and here his world revolved around music, absorbing the city's rich musical traditions.

In 1957 Mehta graduated and had to wear a full dress suit for conducting a concert as part of the final examination. Still financially squeezed, he bought a passable substitute for $25 from a place where waiters purchased their uniforms. Martin Bookspan and Ross Yockey described this tidbit in their book Zubin along with the fact that he often wore two unmatched black shoes, as the others had holes in them.

Since then a lot of water has flowed under the bridge: Mehta won the Liverpool International Conducting Competition in 1958 and by 1961 had already conducted the Vienna, Berlin, and Israel philharmonic orchestras. He became music director of the New York Philharmonic in 1978, commencing a13-year tenure. After that, he was music director for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and then of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Since 1985 he has been chief conductor of the Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence, and has also served as music director of the Bavarian State Opera. Mehta is an honorary citizen of both Florence and Tel Aviv; an honorary member of the Vienna State Opera; and the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Peace and Tolerance Award of the United Nations.

He and his wife Nancy spend several weeks at a time in Florence, Israel and now in Valencia, Spain, where he is involved with the new opera house that opened in October. Since they travel so much, they cherish their villa near Los Angeles, a fabulous private paradise with ocean views and a garden bursting with flowers.

Mehta has been the longest serving music director of the New York Philharmonic so was there a feeling of homecoming returning to the stage of Avery Fisher Hall? "Yes, absolutely," he says. " It's a wonderful feeling. I was so close to this orchestra for 13 years and playing the pieces I've done with them so often is a wonderful feeling ."

Music runs in the family's blood. His late father Mehli Mehta had left India at the age of 45, because there just wasn't enough appreciation for western music and had a successful career in America. Even at the age of 80, he was conductor of the American Youth Symphony Orchestra in Los Angeles. Currently Zubin's brother Zarin Mehta is the executive director of the New York Philharmonic, and his son Merwan is the vice president of programming at the Kimmel Center, home of the Philadelphia Orchestra. His daughter Zarina is a nurse in Montreal, and life is rich with grandchildren and children and moving between homes in Florence and Los Angeles.

Mehta has had a long relationship with the Israeli Philharmonic and is its music director for life. Passionate about issues, he uses music to voice his support: "I've always been involved with my music," he says. "I've tried in the Middle East to bring the Arabs and the Jews together. I don't do too much, because of time constraints. But that's not an excuse; we should be doing more. Arabs and Jews sitting together in concerts, but we don't have enough of those.

"Last month I took the Israel Philharmonic to Nazareth and performed for a completely Arab audience. They gave us a standing ovation. Imagine Arabs standing up for a hundred Jews playing on stage. It's very healthy. It doesn't change the West Bank problems, but it brings some goodwill at least."

This maestro is a foodie too. He's a diehard Indian food fan, especially of Parsi food, which he can't get in restaurants. The fact that Indian restaurants have sprouted up everywhere, even in Tel Aviv, does make life easier. His personal favoprite "one of the best Indian restaurants in the world" is Tandoori, which is owned by the Pushkarna family in Tel Aviv. They own four or five restaurants in Israel and surprisingly, Israelis are very much into Indian food. He smiles, "So I'm very much at home there."

Mehta has a very special relationship with India and Bombay, where he grew up, is very close to his heart. A staunch Indian national, he has stuck through thick and thin to his Indian passport, in spite of all the inconveniences during travel. His mother once shared a memory of how when some people hreferred to him as a national of their country, Zubin, though honored, had responded, "I feel very friendly toward your country, but make no mistake, I'm an Indian first."

So after living on other continents for decades, how close does he feel to India? He says, "Spiritually very close, very close. I keep going back. I have many friends, I still have friends from my youth. I still talk to them on a weekly basis."

While he's very proud of the achievements of India and of Indians abroad, he also sees the full picture, warts and all. He questions why in Bombay, a city of plenty, 60 percent of the people don't have clean drinking water. He also feels strongly about the AIDS epidemic in India. While visiting New York he hosted "A Night for India," a musical fundraiser for American India Foundation to raise funds and awareness for the AIDS-HIV campaign in India.

Mehta was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India's second highest civilian honor, in 2001. He is going there next October with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra for a celebration of his late parents' 100th birth anniversary and to open a music school to honor his father's memory: "There's a lot of talent in India. We now have to nurture it so they don't have to leave the country, like a lot of us had to."

His father, Mehli Mehta, who had to leave Bombay because there wasn't enough encouragement or funding for western music, always felt the hurt about leaving "that beautiful home by the Arabian Sea, that beautiful country, all my friends and all my music circles,"  he said.
When I had asked him many years ago he if he had made his peace with Bombay, Mehli Mehta had responded:  "I have no quarrel with Bombay. When I came away from Bombay they gave me parties, they gave me receptions and a good send off. But my life, my main aim and my goal is my music. A man stands for his work and my work was not appreciated or accepted."

 So when Zubin Mehta inaugurates the Mehli Mehta School in the heart of Bombay for all the emerging young talent in a new India, it will certainly set some things right and complete a story with an unfinished ending.
Yes, things have a way of coming full circle.


"Even as a child he was only happy with his phonographic records. Even before he could speak or do anything - there must have been some kind of a mark on the records -because he would point to the ayah to play that certain record. He had two or three favorite ones, and he would, from a pile of records, point out just those two or three records. When he was sick or in pain, if we played a record he would just put his head on my shoulder and be quiet. As soon as the record finished, he would remember his pain and start crying." Surrounded by the best in classical music at the age of two, did he have any favorites? "A tango with a hrefrain sung in German was one of his favorite records."

-Temina Mehta, Zubin's mother, in an interview in 1988.


"I cook Italian food mostly and I cook Indian food. I don't cook too much, because of my time problem. But you know,every Indian, as soon as he gets out of India, starts cooking, right, basically because they can't get anything. But today New York is full of Indian restaurants. But when I first came here, there was only one restaurant. In those days I used to cook. Now it's not necessary. Now we get it everywhere. I carry my chilies when I travel. I grow my own chilies and I carry them in my pocket. I don't mix them with Indian food though."
- Zubin Mehta, 1988.

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Entertainment | Arts & Entertainment | Magazine | February 2007

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