Waiting for the next Zubin Mehta

Why haven’t any of India’s great institutions produced world-class Western classical musical talent?

First Published: Fri, Oct 19 2012. 06 00 PM IST

A concert in progress at Mumbai’s NCPA, home to the The Symphony Orchestra of India. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
A concert in progress at Mumbai’s NCPA, home to the The Symphony Orchestra of India. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
The Bangalore School of Music is celebrating its silver jubilee. The Delhi School of Music is close to its golden jubilee. The Calcutta School of Music, founded in 1915, is even older. Chennai has two recent institutions dedicated to non-Indian music: A.R. Rahman’s KM Music Conservatory and the Swarnabhoomi Academy of (contemporary) Music.
Here is the question: Why haven’t any of these institutions produced world-class Western musical talent since Zubin and Zarin Mehta? Even Mumbai, the city that has the deepest culture in terms of Western classical music, has not been able to nurture a single musician of global calibre.
Put another way, this is another China versus India question. China has its own indigenous music and instruments. It has Chinese opera. It presumably got introduced to Western classical music around the same time as its neighbours did, give or take a few decades. And yet, look at the talent it has produced since its introduction to Western classical music: Composer Tan Dun and pianist Lang Lang are two in a long line of Chinese music prodigies.
If you include countries of the Far East such as Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, the list becomes even longer. Midori, Sarah Chang, Helen Huang, Yo-Yo Ma, Lang Lang, the list goes on. Some of these musicians were born and raised in the US but for all practical purposes, they are often listed as Asian.
I searched far and wide but cannot come up with a single Indian name. Is it because we Indians have our own highly evolved systems of music that we cannot be bothered with Western classical music? Is it because our music is linear and consequently, Indian musicians find it harder to adapt to the harmonic convergences that Western classical music requires? Is it a funding issue? Or is it an insecurity thing? We Indians are secure in our musical traditions and therefore don’t need to look outside. The scene is vibrant enough with Hindustani and Carnatic music, so why bother with Western classical music? Just as the Chinese and Japanese throng to Louis Vuitton showrooms to buy style and taste, so too do they turn to Western classical music to buy culture—is that it?
I email the NCPA (National Centre for the Performing Arts), Mumbai, to look for answers. A few days later, I am on the phone with Khushroo Suntook, its chairman. We have a delightful half-hour chat. Suntook walks me through current musical trends; gives me names of conductors and composers I haven’t heard of, and ends the interview with a piquant question: Why are there so few women music composers? But that’s a topic for another piece.
Suntook agrees with me about Indian music being highly evolved. “But just because we have Kalidas doesn’t mean we cannot enjoy Shakespeare,” he says and refers to Mahatma Gandhi’s quote about winds blowing through our land but not being blown off our feet.
But Mumbai (when it was Bombay) did allow other kinds of music to blow through its land. As Naresh Fernandes’ book Taj Mahal Foxtrot demonstrates, the city was home to jazz greats. The Parsis of Mumbai nurtured Western classical music too. As for the talent question, Suntook is categorical: “I absolutely disagree with the notion that Indians don’t have it in them to play Western classical music,” he says. “You should see the kids coming to our advanced school of training. Little things carrying their cellos on their back, coming from north Bombay, after school. The problem is that there is a lack of infrastructure of any kind for a young person to contemplate a career in Western classical music. Even the Mehta family tried it out in India for a while. Only after they emigrated did they make it.”
At the end of the day, it is the tired old question of money. China has earmarked renminbi 2 billion (around Rs.1,680 crore now), or $315 million, for its national arts funding in the current five-year plan, according to Time magazine. “Our funding is 5% compared to that,” says Suntook. China has over 100 million young students learning strings and the piano, according to estimates. The Juilliard School in New York, famed as a breeding ground for world-class musical talent, plans to set up its first branch in the coastal Chinese city of Tianjin. China’s NCPA is housed in a stunning building in Beijing. The Bird’s Egg was built at a cost of €300 million (around Rs.2,050 crore now). A look at China’s NCPA website will give any music-loving Indian the bitter bile of envy. Their current season includes an original Chinese dance and theatre production, world-class conductors like Valery Gergiev and others in the performance roster, along with commissioned projects.
In which area can India compete? Sure, we can say that we have raw talent, but that will go nowhere without nurturing. Suntook admits that his best students drop out because parents are worried. “We have talented students and in order to become world-class, they need to practise 6-8 hours a day. At some point, their parents worry about what happens if they cannot make it.” That is the point, perhaps, when a would-be Zubin Mehta joins a call centre.
There is some hope. Suntook says that their current season saw sold-out performances. “We were sold out two weeks before our booking ended. And the old Parsi and expat audience is decreasing now. I saw young people coming in. There is a perceptible difference.” As for government support, Suntook cites Jawhar Sircar, currently the CEO of Prasar Bharati, as a “wonderful and broad-minded man” who wants to use television for the promotion of culture. He is hopeful about the current minister for culture, Kumari Selja. “Let us hope that we can influence these people.”
Another source would be the multinational companies that donate liberally to the arts in other countries. But when it comes to India (and I have seen this personally), many multinationals say that donating to symphonies and culture is not part of their CSR (corporate social responsibility) mandate. How can that be changed?
For a layperson outsider such as myself, a world-class influencer lies close to home for the NCPA; a man who promises to be a game-changer in the world of philanthropy.
Shoba Narayan grew up listening to Handel Manuel in Chennai, when it was called Madras. Write to her at [email protected].

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