29 April 1936: Zubin Mehta, Indian conductor of Western classical music, was born

Zubin Mehta, a world-famous conductor of Western classical music, was born on 29 April 1936 to a Parsi family in Mumbai. His father was a conductor of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. 

Mehta’s father, Mehli, taught him how to appreciate music from the age of six or seven.

Mehli would put on a record, open a score and show the little Zubin the instruments in the orchestra.

In an interview to the Opera magazine in 2009, Mehta recalled: “My father started the [Bombay Symphony] orchestra in 1935, the year before I was born, so I don’t remember exactly when I heard music first. It was simply a part of my life. He was the concert master, but had been entirely self-taught, and some dissatisfaction with his own playing led him, after the war, to intensive studies in New York. He . . . came back to Bombay a finished violinist of the Russian school.”

Mehta studied at Mumbai’s St. Mary's School and St. Xavier's College. He later went to Vienna at the age of 18 to study music. He took conducting lessons from Hans Swarowsky.

He started conducting in Vienna in 1958. He won an international conductors’ contest, which was organized by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, and soon became the assistant conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic. By 1960 he had become the music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

Mehta was the first Indian to conduct a major British orchestra in 1961. He became the Music Director and Principal Conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1978, and was with them till 1991.

Beyond barriers

Zubin Mehta has a very long and special association with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which made him Music Director for Life in 1981. In an interview to America Aljazeera, he said: “This orchestra is really the positive face of what the world views Israel today. We are not on the first page. We are on page 56. And I wish all of Israel would be on page 56 — in other words, that Israel to the world would be the arts and sciences. Because that’s what excels in Israel beyond anything else.”

Mehta has won numerous awards in his career, including the ‘Nikisch-Ring’. Florence and Tel Aviv have made him an honorary citizen. The President of Israel conferred the Presidential Medal of Distinction upon Mehta in October 2012 for his outstanding contribution to culture in the State of Israel. Germany’s Ambassador to India conferred upon him the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in July 2012.

Mehta’s foundation in Mumbai teaches music to more than 200 children. His Bavarian State Orchestra concert in Kashmir in September 2013 caused some controversy, with Kashmiris divided over the relevance of having the concert in the troubled state. But few could deny the brilliance of the maestro's performance.

The Hindu noted: “In a first, a western music orchestra captivated audiences in sync with a 15-member group of Kashmiri instrumentalists — sarangi, rabab, nout and tumbakhnari — and artists from Delhi. Shalimar Bagh, revived after 25 years of hibernation, reverberated with 16th-century melody-queen Khatoon’s ‘Tsoulhama roshay roshay’ and ‘Tse kamiu souni miani’ and held rapt 2,960 people, 2,000 of whom were Kashmiris.”

As the German ambassador Michael Steiner put it: “The distance between Munich and Srinagar is 7,076 km. Tonight, music reduced this distance to zero.” A product of various cultures, Zubin Mehta is a brilliant example of how music has a universal language. 


Also on this day:

1848 — Raja Ravi Varma, Indian artist from the princely state of Travancore, was born  

1919 — Alla Rakha, Indian tabla player, was born 

1958 — Ramachandra Guha, Indian historian and writer, was born   

1979 — Ashish Nehra, Indian cricketer, was born   


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