Arriving in Mumbai on Wednesday, ahead of his performance conducting the Australian World Orchestra at the NCPA on October 25 and 26, world-renowned conductor Zubin Mehta spoke to HT about the growing atmosphere of intolerance in India, his roots in the city, and an upcoming performance in Delhi, being held in association with the Hindustan Times, on October 31.
Q) This is your first performance in your home city in two years. What can audiences expect from the Australian World Orchestra?
This is the only orchestra in the world composed entirely of players from one country. We gathered the finest Australian musicians from across Europe to create the AWO. Listening to such an orchestra is unique because its greatness comes from traditions that have been passed down through generations.
You are visiting the city at a time of some political turmoil. Indian writers are returning their awards, local parties are attacking visitors from Pakistan…
I think those writers [who are returning their awards] are very brave. They are prodding the central government to do something about the growing intolerance. As far as I can tell, there is not too much action from Delhi. A little lip service is not enough. There should be steps taken. A courageous leader should take up this task.
Do you feel there is growing intolerance within the country?
Hindus and Muslims have lived in complete harmony. Now, there’s a movement here in Maharashtra which is starting to exaggerate [the differences] in a way that I cannot stomach at all. There is a massive Muslim population in this country, and we have to take care of these brothers.
Do you think returning literary awards is an effective mode of protest, then?
I don’t think returning it is the best way to protest, but it’s a good way. I hope it’s taken seriously and not treated like lip service and forgotten next week. There should be a face-to-face meeting so that these artists can ask the leaders what they are doing about the situation.
You had a concert in Kashmir in 2013 that became quite a politically charged event. How do you see the role of music in areas of conflict?
I have given concerts in conflict areas my whole life. I was very frustrated that I hadn’t done anything similar in India. Even if it was symbolic, I am very happy that the people of Kashmir came together, to listen to music, and hopefully smiled at each other at the end of it.
Last year, we performed during the Gaza firings. Not a single person cancelled their tickets. They all came knowing they might return to bombed homes. Some shows began late because we heard sirens. People stayed on because they needed the music. That was very inspirational to me.