Meeting the maestro Zubin Mehta in Mumbai

I have been a Zubin groupie for decades

One of the world’s most respected conductors of western classical music was back in the city of his birth, and expectedly there was high excitement across Mumbai as soon as his concerts were announced. Mumbaikars adore “Aapro Zubin’’ and feel proprietorial about the legend, who, at 87, continues to exude rock star vibes as fawning admirers vie to get a picture clicked with the son of Mumbai. I have been a Zubin groupie for decades, ever since I watched him conduct, immaculately dressed, whether sporting a tuxedo or the traditional Parsee dagli. Zubin provides a visual and musical treat on the podium, conducting with an exaggerated flourish and much drama. His ear being perfectly attuned to every note since the age of 16, when his self-taught violinist father Mehli Mehta “allowed” the teen to conduct at rehearsals. Zubin’s musical scholarship kept growing, and is still growing, for the man who believes in the power of music to transform lives.

Recently, we were privileged enough to be seated at his table in the imposing Crystal Room of The Taj Mahal Palace for an intimate dinner featuring a dazzling musical repertoire performed by the highly talented students of the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation (launched by Zubin’s father in 1995 and ably led today by Mehroo Jeejeebhoy).
Zubin looked visibly tired after a long flight—his irritability with pesky selfie-seekers (me) was understandable. We had met on several occasions in the past, and had a few common friends as well. I promptly whipped out my phone to establish my credentials by sharing a few images from previous occasions. His face softened and he turned to his wife, Nancy, to show her the photographs, especially the one that had been sent to me by his childhood friend, and cricketing buddy—Cipla’s chairman Yusuf Hamied, which showed the duo posing in front of the old Cuffe Parade mansion where they were neighbours. Aaaah…. Cuffe Parade. My hood. Once the ice was broken, it was so wonderful to chat away with the couple and recall memories of a city (Bombay/Mumbai) we love.

Shobhaa De with Zubin Mehta Shobhaa De with Zubin Mehta

Soon it was time for the Padma Vibhushan awardee to get on to the stage and begin a scheduled conversation with media stalwart Karan Thapar. It was going swimmingly well, with Zubin talking candidly about his life, telling the rapt audience that he still counts in Gujarati, not English, and how distressed he was when his professional driver took time to locate his old home because of all the changes in the city. More than 20 minutes into the free-wheeling exhaustive chat, it was clear Zubin was fatigued. He turned and asked the audience in Gujarati whether they were also hungry and wanted to eat dinner.
Thapar had one final question for Zubin: “Two of the countries you love the most—India and Israel—are going through bad times…. Does that upset and hurt you?” Zubin deftly countered, “Is India going through bad times?”

Karan replied, “It depends on who you talk to…. ” The audience would have none of it. “ No politics!” someone shouted. But by then the dam had already been breached by Zubin’s earlier comment about a deleted line from his interview to a newspaper: "I hope my Muslim friends can live in peace forever in India." This was in response to Karan’s question: “What do you think of the sort of country we are becoming? I am talking about the treatment of minorities, Muslims in particular…"

It is important to remember that Zubin, along with the Bavarian State Orchestra, had performed in the Mughal Gardens, Srinagar, in 2013. All fees were waived. He had conducted in Sarajevo, and raised funds for the victims of Yugoslav wars. As a citizen of the world, he has no equal in his chosen field. Call him an activist, and he is sure to protest. The maestro clearly lives by his passionate belief in the transformative power of music to soothe and heal. That is not politics—it is humanism. Bravo!