Zubin Mehta says his father was extraordinarily musical – and these rare Bombay recordings prove it

1My father Mehli Mehta was born in 1908. His father was a cotton miller, and was earmarked quite early to join the family business at a later stage. Nevertheless he soon developed a tremendous passion for music. Needless to say music was not nearly as easily available in the 1920s and 1930s as it is today. One had either to play an instrument oneself or, every now and then, one could listen to great soloists who were gradually beginning to come to India. In those days musicians did not travel around the world so often.

My father heard Jascha Heifetz, the most important violinist of the twentieth century, and the Czech violinist Jan Kubelik, father of the conductor Rafael Kubelik, who often went on extensive concert tours and stopped over in Bombay on his way to Shanghai. Such concerts must have made a deep impression on him. He saw a musical cosmos opening up before him and felt more and more drawn to it. He felt an innate sense of belonging to this world, a world which was to increasingly determine his life. He was so inspired by what he heard that he absolutely wanted to learn how to play the violin himself. For a young Indian, trained as an accountant, this was in no way easy. My parents came from an old-fashioned Parsi family. In those days musical ambitions were certainly much better tolerated among the Parsis than among other Indian communities, but my father’s immense passion for music was definitely unusual even in his circle.

Mehli Mehta, however, was determined to fulfil his dream of playing the violin. He got himself a violin and learnt to play it. He did this without any directions, and without a teacher, except some occasional suggestions from an immigrant Italian music teacher. He simply taught himself to play. My father was extraordinarily musical. His talent and his determination to master the instrument were equally strong, so he soon reached a level where he was able to play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto without any difficulty.

I grew up in these surroundings with my father practicing music in the living room, and with the musical scores scattered all around the house. I liked looking at them even though I could barely read them. My father also had something marvellous, a record player on which we could listen to music endlessly.

Not surprisingly, this gramophone was a real monstrosity. The records in those days, that is, in 1940s, had a ridiculously short playing time so that one had to put on a new record after barely five minutes of playing a symphony or a quartet. The vinyl records with their hair-thin grooves, on which one could record really long works, did not exist back then, not to mention the CDs. Some symphonies were pressed on four or five of such records. As a result one was compelled to constantly run to the record player and to put on another one of these breakable and easily scratchable black discs extremely carefully if one wanted to hear the symphony in its entirety.

My father’s record collection was quite impressive by the standards of his time. This enabled me to listen to the most magnificent music all the time. Since I could not read at all in the beginning I distinguished between the pieces on the basis of the different coloured labels on the records. From early on I heard symphonies and became familiar with Beethoven and Johannes Brahms. I also heard a bit of Gustav Mahler. Later I would often miss my favourite sport, cricket to attend a rehearsal of my father’s string quartet.

My father founded the Bombay Symphony Orchestra in 1935, and also the Bombay String Quartet, and they also practiced at our home. In fact I was wrapped up in and surrounded by music. Music was my daily pleasure. The records, the practice sessions of the quartet and my father playing music, all this meant no more and no less to me than a very early access to paradise. I entered this musical pleasure garden as a very young person and so far nothing and no one has managed to drive me away from it

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