Everywhere he goes, Zubin Mehta, the globally acclaimed Bombay-born conductor, carries a little chilli box to keep his palate synchronised with memories of the motherland. On September 7, the ‘music director for life’ of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra will create history conducting the Munich-based Bayerische Staatsorchester (Bavarian State Orchestra) in the land of red chillies: Kashmir. For Mehta, 77, performing at the Mughal Gardens in Srinagar by the Dal Lake brings back fond memories of family holidays in the 1970s. But while this marks the fruition of a personal dream, it is very much the Kashmir crisis that impels him. Speaking to Neha Bhatt on the phone from Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he is on a South American tour, he says one shouldn’t underestimate the healing power of music in conflict zones. Excerpts:
You have said before that you would drop everything to perform in Kashmir. Is this a dream coming true?
Yes, it is. I am particularly looking forward to the concert in Kashmir. But I really hope that the situation in the state will be better by the day of the concert, September 7, which is very soon.
What are your personal memories of Kashmir like?
I have been to Kashmir many times, especially with my family, in the ’70s. I went first with my wife (Nancy Kovack) when we explored the area around Srinagar. The next time we went, it was with our children to Amarnath, and that’s a holiday we’ll never forget. It was just heaven on earth. Then we went to Leh, back in 1973, when hardly anyone was going there. Thanks to Mrs Gandhi, we were allowed to travel in a military plane from Chandigarh. So we went over the Himalayas into Leh. There was no hotel there in those days and we stayed as guests of the army. That was also an unforgettable experience. So, yes, I have been wanting to make music there a long time. But I had to take into consideration the continuing crisis there. It breaks my heart. Recently, when Indian military personnel were killed at the LoC, I was so upset. It was so unnecessary.
Is your impending performance in Srinagar a message of peace?
Yes, that’s the only thing we want. We want people to understand how sincere we are in transmitting this message. People can partake and share the beauty of Kashmir. So if both people, Hindus and Muslims, stick together, even symbolically, for an hour-and-a-half, and hear some beautiful music, it could bring some peace to those present and to those who will listen to it on television.
Musicians have, in the past, tried to bring a sense of calm to conflict zones. Do you think music has that power?
Never underestimate the power of music. I don’t know what we can change physically, but spiritually, we can bring some peace into people’s hearts.
Your contemporary Daniel Barenboim has defied the hawks to become a symbol of Israel-Palestine unity through the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Do you see yourself playing that role in Kashmir?
All my life, apart from the thousands of other concerts over 50 years, I have done a certain number of concerts dedicated to peace around the world. It was always frustrating to me that I had never done anything in my own country. So I’m really looking forward to this concert. Let’s just go and make music there.
We hear you will be playing Beethoven and Tchaikovsky at the Concert for Kashmir. What are the pieces you have chosen to play?
We will also be playing a small piece with Kashmiri musicians. We have just had the music for that written for the orchestra, and Kashmiri students will play with it. There will also be a Concerto for Trumpet by Haydn, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and one movement from the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. There will be great soloists like Andreas Oettl (trumpet) and Julian Rachlin (violin).
In the recent past, cultural events in Kashmir have run into protests. Last year, the literature festival was cancelled. Earlier this year, an all-girl rock band had to be disbanded due to fatwas from hardliners. Are you concerned about performing in a hostile environment, and that the concert could run into trouble?
Well, I’m thinking positively. I will only come with good in mind. We don’t mean to harm anyone.
How many musicians from the Orchestra will travel with you?
There will be about 60 or 70 musicians. We haven’t brought the whole orchestra because of the problem of space.
It has been one of your regrets, hasn’t it, that we don’t have decent western classical concert venues in India?
In Bombay, we have a fine concert hall. I think it is high time we built venues in Delhi and Calcutta, not only for western music, but also Indian music. It doesn’t matter which party is in power, don’t you think the capital of India should have a concert hall? I was in Madras with an orchestra in 2005, on the first anniversary of the tsunami, and we played in a little hall. Madras is so culturally advanced, they deserve a concert hall too.
But is there a growing audience for western classical music in India? There are fears worldwide that orchestras are losing listeners.
I think the audience for western classical music is growing, certainly. But you must understand: I don’t mean to demand these halls just for western music. We need venues for all sorts of music. The private sector is growing so incredibly in India, in every city you have industries for whom building a concert hall would be nothing financially. But they just don’t do it.
Of all the concerts you have held across the world, how challenging is the one in Kashmir going to be?
It has been a great challenge just organising it, a group effort on the part of the Kashmir government, Indian government and the German embassy in India.
Have you tried to perform in Kashmir before?
No. This happened last year, when I was given an award at the German embassy. In my felicitation speech, I said, “What a shame that I have given concerts for peace all over the world but never in Kashmir”. The German ambassador (Michael Steiner) took that up as a challenge and here we are.
Would you say India is throwing up impressive young talent in western classical music?
There are certainly talented instrumentalists coming from India. I see them performing all over the world.
Will the little chilli box you always travel with to spice up your food come with you to India too? You may not need it in Kashmir, though.
Yes, Kashmiri food is very spicy. But the chilli box goes everywhere with me. You never know when I might need it!