I'm ashamed: Zubin Mehta on the growing bigotry in India
Lending his voice to the rising chorus against intolerance in India, music maestro Zubin Mehta reveals why he is appalled.
Mehta just completed a three-city tour with the Australian World Orchestra. He completed the Mumbai leg of the tour, sponsored by Tata Sons, and later performed in Chennai and Delhi.
In an interview with ETPanache, the 79-year-old maestro expressed dismay over the current climate of religious extremism in India, something he echoed in subsequent interviews. Mehta also spoke about his childhood friends and corporate giants Dr Yusuf Hamied and Nusli Wadia, returning awards and his brother Zarin among other things.
You have come to a Mumbai where intolerance, expressed Shiv Sena style, has risen to the surface again (as seen from the recent cancellation of a Ghulam Ali concert). As a man of the arts, how do you feel about it?
I cry for my hometown, because it (the tension) is all starting from this area and spreading into India. I am quite ashamed of what's going on. And I'm sad that I am not playing a Muslim composer's music in these concerts. I grew up in a Bombay where we didn't know who was Sunni and Shia or anything. In my school, St Mary's, there were students belonging to seven different religions. We made fun of each other. There was no animosity, no hatred.
Do you feel that returning awards is a strong form of protest?
I don't see how returning a prize will help anybody, except make a few headlines. I would like to change intrinsically the way people think.
It's been two years since your concert in Kashmir. Looking back, do you feel you agree with the Bavarian State Orchestra General Manager's complaint that the event was politicised?
No. He was disappointed on a personal level, not having been given the accolade that he expected. His opinion didn't count at all.
"A lot of the Hollywood stars of the past generation were great music lovers. They came to concerts. Edward G Robinson, Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas. Today's generation, I don't know too much"
The Kashmir concert on the whole was a huge success. At that point I had said that I would love to come back and play in a large stadium. And frankly, I did offer on this visit to go back to Kashmir and I wrote to the Kashmir government and I never received a reply. I wrote twice.
Dr Hamied and you are childhood friends. There has been the tradition of getting a picture together at the same spot for years now. How do you both view the passage of time?
We took a picture just this afternoon (October 21). Both our houses still exist. It (taking the picture) was his idea. Once, when we visited, we got a picture. The next time, we got another and it stuck. My friendship with Dr Hamied goes back such a long time. I am so proud of what he does, not only as the head of Cipla, but also what he does beyond it. He recently started a factory in Uganda. He has saved thousands of lives magnanimously, without any thought of profits.
That's his personal achievement. My achievement goes another way. We are friends who don't want anything from each other materialistically. We are just friends.
You would have seen both Kamil and Samina growing up. What are your memories of them growing up?
Well, not much. I met Kamil sometimes in Florence as he stayed there for some kind of cultural studies. I see the family every time I come here. But I see more of my other friend, Nusli Wadia, all over Europe and US. He visits his mother in the US often.
Does a legend like you still face challenges at work?
I interpret music that has been written for the past 400 years. There is so much music that I have not done. I can say that I am still young in that respect.
How do you strike a balance between your personal and professional commitments?
Not too well. I work 11 months of a year. My wife (Nancy Kovack) manages to invent vacations. Some of our most amazing vacations, like to the Amazon or the Antarctica or going and watching the gorillas in Rwanda, have been my wife's concoctions. These have been amazing excursions, from which I return quite tired. It's not like going and lying on a beach. That's the kind of vacation we like.
Your brother Zarin and you have been a team for decades. You have been through life together — in fact your former wife Carmen Lasky is now married to him. Was that ever a cause for awkwardness?
Not between my brother and myself, never. It has to be done with love and intelligence. There was never a fissure between my brother and me.
Dr Yusuf Hamied and Zubin Mehta as kids (in 1940) and now ( Photo credit: Cipla Archives)
What makes a gentleman? And in the final measure of life, what is a man's true wealth?
Well, it's the spiritual aspect of life that we adopt. I have a wonderful partner. She looks after my spiritual enhancement and my growth. Pretty soon, we'll be married for 50 years. I have a loving family. I don't keep in touch with my children on a daily basis, but we are connected. Next year, for my birthday, they are all coming to Vienna.