Mumbai’s music diva

Preservation of India’s rich cultural mix — particularly in the performing arts — is the mission of the Mumbai-based Mehli Mehta Foundation (MMF), co-founded by Zubin Mehta, the globally renowned western classical maestro and music conductor of the Metropolitan Open New York, Vienna State Opera and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and Mumbai’s well-known western classical diva Mehroo Jeejhebhoy in 1995.

Named after the late Mehli Mehta (1908-2002), a western classical aficio-nado who initiated his son Zubin into music, MMF has been offering state-of-the-art western classical music education to students in Mumbai since 2003. Currently the foundation has 300 students learning the piano and violin, in its 2,200 sq. ft premises in Kemps Corner, Mumbai. Moreover from July 2010 the foundation, in collaboration with the Barcelona-based Palau de la Musica will be deputing its trained music educators to teach in primary and secondary schools in Mumbai.

“School systems in India don’t sufficiently encourage creativity; they require students to memorise and reproduce. That’s why learning music which stimulates creativity, is an important component of holistic education,” says Jeejhebhoy, a prof-essional pianist certified by Trinity College, London who has been managing, expanding and diversifying the activities of MMF ab initio.

The first NGO to organise an international western classical music festival in India when it invited the Israel Philhar-monic Orchestra in 1993, MMF has also been hosting Mumbai’s annual Sangat festival since 1995, in which outstanding Indian western classical performers from India and overseas are showcased. The objective of these concerts is to stimulate interest in western classical music, and enthuse teachers and students in India to exhibit their talent and learning. “The best western classical musicians of Indian origin tend to migrate abroad because there are no opportunities for them here. This is what MMF wants to change,” says Jeejhebhoy.

Since it began offering piano lessons in a backroom of the Jeejhebhoy home in 1995, the foundation has come a long way. Currently it has a corpus of Rs.5 crore and the support of eminent Mumbai citizens Shyam Benegal, Iqbal Chagla, Yusuf Hamied and Nusli Wadia, who are its trustees. “We still don’t have enough money to train students and teachers on a mass scale as most of the interest on our corpus and income from music classes goes into teachers’ salaries. We don’t raise much through concerts either because organisers of western classical concerts — unlike Indian classical concerts — have to pay higher entertainment tax to the state government,” says Jeejhebhoy.

Despite official discrimination, Jeejhebhoy believes there’s a huge reservoir of untapped demand for western classical music in India. “We have students from all communities learning with us. Every 25 years a prodigy comes along and we are ever ready and waiting to nurture and train this prodigy. Once the demand for western classical music is unleashed, our school will be the first to supply great musicians,” she says.

Currently the foundation holds two-three concerts per year in which MMF students entertain Mumbai’s western classical audiences. “One of our objectives is to work with government to build a National Orchestra which can perform on behalf of the country. India’s children are very talented and interested in western classical music. With our commitment and perseverance, we will make them into great musicians,” she says optimistically.

Bharati Thakore (Mumbai)