When conductor Zubin Mehta was told in 1978 that for political reasons his touring Israel Philharmonic would not be welcomed in India, he vowed never again to perform in the land of his birth. But time has softened his rage. Two weeks ago, leading the New York Philharmonic, Mehta capped a 13-city Asian tour with concerts in New Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay, his hometown. “I love India,” the 48-year-old maestro declared. “It is important to my spirit to come back.” Besides, he added, “I couldn’t make the New York Philharmonic responsible for my outburst.”
The road home was not entirely smooth. Two performances in Muslim-dominated Malaysia were abruptly canceled when the government there objected to a program that included Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo, a Hebrew Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra. In New Delhi some of the New York musicians refused accommodations at the fading government-owned Ashok hotel, complaining that it was bug infested. But none of the annoyances put a damper on the almost hysterical enthusiasm that greeted the ensemble in city after city, some of which had never hosted a major orchestra before.
Mehta saved Bombay for last, and scheduled three full orchestra concerts, one more than anywhere else. Favoritism? Most assuredly. He still has a lot of relatives and friends there. One distant cousin, 16-year-old Roxanne Mehta, presented Zubin with a six-foot scroll of the family tree, on which Mehta seemed delighted to find his name. Did Roxanne have a ticket for that evening’s performance? No? The maestro signaled an aide to make sure she did.
Mehta is a Parsi, a member of the Zoroastrian sect that migrated from Persia in the 8th century and concentrated around Bombay. The faithful have dwindled to some 90,000, but they remain Mehta’s passionate concern.
His father, Mehli, a violinist, founded the Bombay Symphony, and when Zubin (the name means “powerful sword”) was 13, he was appointed the symphony’s assistant manager. One chore was to hand out free tickets to assure a respectably large audience. The result, predictably, was a persistent deficit. Eventually the elder Mehta became so discouraged by the lack of interest that he left Bombay, never to return. He and Zubin’s mother live today in California.
As for the son, whose homecoming was greeted by huge “We Love You!” billboards at every turn, all was forgiven. On passing a lush expanse of lawn, he shouted excitedly, “This is the cricket field where I played!” At a fruit stand, he sniffed the air and announced, “The best mangoes in the world can be found right here—not now but in May and June.”
A nostalgic morning was spent at Mehta’s alma mater, the Jesuit Saint Mary’s School, from which he graduated in 1951. “They believed in every single person doing well, and Father Ca-sale, the headmaster today, was one of my teachers,” Mehta recalled. “You know, 80 percent of the boys were non-Catholic, but no one ever tried to convert us.”
Mehta was introduced by Father Ca-sale to the student body (600 youngsters, grades 1 through 12) as a man who “strikes like a colossus through our lives and delivers the world from its wounds and tortures.” The students applauded wildly, then presented him with cuff links bearing the school seal. “My, they look like Olympic gold medals,” said the pleased old grad.
As a student Zubin was urged by his parents to abandon music for medicine. Nonetheless he left Bombay at 18 to enroll in the Academy of Music in Vienna, where he studied piano, string bass, composition and conducting. Prior to becoming conductor of the Israel and New York Philharmonics (he now holds the two posts concurrently), Mehta won accolades with the Montreal Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was with the L.A. ensemble that Mehta embarked on his first—and only other—performing tour of India 17 years ago.
On the final day of his current tour, a Bombay newspaper reported a bomb threat against the New Yorkers, allegedly for playing “Jewish music.” The musicians milled about the hotel lobby, a few close to tears. “We have made the decision to play with as many as choose to come,” Mehta announced firmly. As it turned out, fewer than a dozen among the 100-plus ensemble declined to proceed under heavy police protection to the sold-out auditorium. For a rousing finale the maestro, togged in a white cotton Parsi jacket called a dugli, led his orchestra in The Stars and Stripes Forever, played standing up.
The hometown audience answered with a five-minute standing ovation, which clearly moved the maestro. “I’ve played all over the world, but through all the years I’ve kept my Indian identity,” he reflected afterward. “Standing there, playing for my own people, I knew I had been right in always being an Indian.”