Biographies written about artist-celebrities by Indian writers often read like extended Wikipedia pages. Or like a résumé running into hundreds of pages. Most of the information is either known, or poorly sourced, with Net myths often being the touchpoints on which the career of the celebrity is established. The trend is more pronounced when the celeb has just passed away, the effort reminiscent of exploiting the recency factor. Fortunately, the hero of Zubin Mehta: A Musical Journey is someone who is hale, hearty and healthy, has written an autobiography (which incidentally came in for some criticism) around eight years ago and, courtesy being India’s import to the US, has his work chronicled well enough for Bakhtiar K. Dadabhoy to write a fascinating book. This is one of the very few biographies about a musician written by an Indian in English which is comparable with decent biographies written in the West. In a sense, like the work of Zubin, it surely has an appeal which is international and it is no wonder that Zubin has courteously given it the tag of “authorised biography”.
At the very outset, Dadabhoy makes his limitations clear. He acknowledges that he doesn’t have any knowledge about the technicalities of music. It is his love for Zubin and his music which guides him. It is a case of the whole being more than the sum of its parts and, accordingly, he does not attempt to deconstruct the music in the process.
While this could have triggered a dangerous precedent, i.e. a hagiography, Dadabhoy keeps his opinions to himself and avoids getting trapped in the appeasement mode. He prefers to base his stories on published reports, hordes of them, corroborating many a fact from Zubin’s secretary. It is this neutral flavour of storytelling — never shifting from the I-am-your-fan-for-life approach — that makes the book a pleasure to read.
The book is structured chronologically. It recounts tales of Zubin’s father, the illustrious Mehli Mehta (readers must have heard the AIR signature tune which was composed by him, though one cannot be sure of the raga — Shivranjini or Sohini), his days as a classical musician in Bombay, the apathy of the city to Western classical music (even Jazz clubs came to Bombay later than Calcutta or Madras as told to this author by Kersi Lord), Zubin’s childhood and the impact of music on him from a tender age, his move to Vienna, training at Sienna in Italy, his return to Vienna, etc. Moving on to more serious things, Dadabhoy touches upon the important landmarks of Zubin’s life and career, like his marriage to Carmen Lasky and the subsequent divorce, Carmen’s marriage to Zubin’s brother Zarin, Zubin marrying Nancy Kovack, his trysts with various orchestras worldwide — the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and, most importantly, his demi-god status in Israel.
It’s nice to read these stories, and some of them are intrinsically funny too. Of his days of struggle at Vienna, one is told how a young Zubin, unable to acclimatise to the winter chill of Vienna, put the room heater under the quilt and ended up setting his bed on fire. Another story is about us how Zubin, who had little experience in singing at concerts, was made to sing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by the famed conducted of the Third Reich, Herbert von Karajan, and it actually became Zubin’s first recorded concert. One of the most interesting stories I found was about Zubin getting into an animated conversation with Atal Behari Vajpayee, which started with the conductor distributing red chillies from his box to diners at a banquet in Munich.
Quibbles? A few. While Zubin’s work and concerts are fleshed out in great detail, one wonders what was the actual value add he brought to the field of conducting. His branding as a romantic is not substantiated with relevant data. The topic of why he never chose to be part of Bollywood despite the fact that musicians from the Parsi community were prolific is not brought up. Neither is his friendship with Raj Kapoor. Calling him India’s most famous immigrant to the US is also being unkind to Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and certainly downplaying the impact made by Indian classical musicians like Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar. I did think that while Dadabhoy tried hard going into the details of musical history, there is, at times, too much “padding” in the form of the importance of a particular place or academy in the firmament of Western classical music. This could have been avoided or at best curtailed, as there is a separate notes section at the end of the book.
Nevertheless, for the serious reader and scholar, these could be of great importance as they help establish the coordinates and timelines to Zubin Mehta’s journey. I must also confess that these are minor nit-pickings of someone brought up on Hindi cinema and music, and make little difference to the monumental, near-500 page hardbound edition of sheer brilliance. A must buy for a fan or for someone who has a deep interest in the history of Indian musicians, and Western classical music.
Anirudha Bhattacharjee is a consultant with IBM and the co-author of RD Burman: The Man, The Music and Gaata Rahe Mera Dil with Balaji Vittal