It was a pleasant evening routine for the residents of Old Mumbai’s Colaba in the late 1940s. As they walked along Cuffe Parade, they would slow down outside Number 21, one of the many elegant Edwardian sea-facing bungalows, to listen to the strains of violins being played inside.
Occasionally, the musicians, Mehli Mehta and his sons, Zarin and Zubin, would join fellow residents on the high parade. Between 1930 and 1954, Mehli Mehta was mentor to Mumbai’s music world. He was also the founder of the Bombay String Quartet and the Bombay Symphony Orchestra.
In 1954, Mehli Mehta emigrated with his family to the United Kingdom and later to the United States where he was conductor of the American Youth Symphony for 33 years.
Decades later, it all came full circle when Zubin Mehta established the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation (MMMF) in Mumbai in his father’s memory.
Established in 1995, the MMMF, which is entirely not-for-profit, seeks “to create greater awareness and appreciation of western classical music, to share knowledge and understanding of this music, and make music education and the joy that comes with it, accessible to all”. Its annual concerts are eagerly anticipated events. Among them, the most popular is the Singing Tree Choir concert, which is part of the MMMF’s music education for children.
The MMMF has an outreach programme, conducted via NGOs and schools, that benefits more than 920 students from low-income families who attend its courses free of cost.
During the worldwide lockdown, 63 children from the Singing Tree Choir between the ages of 8 and 18 sang A.R. Rahman’s “Jai Ho” accompanied by the MMMF’s String Ensemble and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra.
The anthem “Jai Ho” was chosen for its positive lyrics and rousing melody, appropriate for the times. The children and instrumentalists sang and played individually from their respective homes. They all wore white and stood against a white background according to specific instructions with regard to the headroom to be maintained in the shot. The instrumentalists used battery tuners set to 144 Hz so that all instruments were at a coordinated pitch. None of the children could hear the rest of the choir. They sang their parts as they had been taught. The recordings were sent to Mumbai’s sister city of Stuttgart, where German music engineers put them together. The whole exercise from recording to release took about a month.
For the children, homebound as they had been, it was a wonderful experience. The MMMF says: “Due to the global pandemic, we have had to cancel many concerts and events, and until such time as we start functioning normally again, [we have been doing things] to keep music alive with our students and innovative teachers. Not to be deterred by closed doors and lockdowns, they have continued music teaching and sharing with individual and group lessons, theory classes, Discover Music sessions as well as master classes with international artists Dan Zhu and Midori, using various Internet platforms.”
As part of its outreach programme, the MMMF works with the Aseema Charitable Trust which manages three municipal schools to teach music to more than 800 children. It also works with the NGO Muktangan, which runs seven municipal schools in the erstwhile mill areas of Mumbai, to provide “extensive music training to teacher trainees in the Muktangan Teacher Training Programme year-on-year”. The MMMF has also tied up with St Stephen’s High School where 24 students learn to play the violin, viola and cello.
The “Jai Ho” video has been viewed over 12,000 times from all over the world. As the MMMF Facebook page puts it: “All this proves that music is a very positive force that links people, countries, and the world.” In many ways, it is a throwback to those early days when passersby would stop to listen to the strains of the violin as Mehli Mehta and his sons played.