India and her music have attracted some of the finest minds of this century. Poets, thinkers, scholars, writers, dancers, musicians, philosophers, actors and many creative individuals have looked towards India for inspiration.
Among the western musicians who got drawn to India in the 20th century, violinist Yehudi Menuhin’s name outshines all. This is his birth centenary year.
It would be interesting to look at his encounters with India, Indian music, musicians and culture that influenced his life and work. In this piece, I take a look at five phenomenal Indians who changed Menuhin’s life and outlook on music.
Menuhin’s introduction to Indian music came early in his life. In his autobiography "Unfinished Journey" (A brilliant book and a must-read for every music lover), he writes about being taken by surprise by Indian classical music, as he didn’t expect to find so much in it. That this genre took him by storm, challenged his intellect and drew him to make lifelong friendships with Indian musicians.
Pandit Ravi Shankar
Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin
Menuhin first met Ravi Shankar in Paris in 1932. Though he recollected that being a very brief meeting, he fondly remembered it. The bigger meeting happened in 1952. In 1951, famine had devastated a large part of India. Menuhin contacted the then Prime Minister Pt Jawaharlal Nehru to see how he could help India.
The next year in 1952, the Indian government invited Menuhin to give a series of fund raising concerts across India, with the proceeds going to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund. He accepted it gladly. In Delhi, Menuhin met Tabla wizard Pt Chaturlal and his family. Unknowingly a long love story with India began.
Yehudi Menuhin greeting Mrs Chaturlal; Pt Chaturlal and Narayana Menon can also be seen in this picture from 1961
He met Pt Ravi Shankar and jammed with him. The result of this was an album titled "East Meets West". But their friendship stayed life long. Panditji introduced him to a big host of Indian musicians. Check this little YouTube clipping and see how the two musical geniuses interacted:
It was during his 1952 visit to India that Menuhin met Mehta. The chief conductor for Menuhin’s concerts in Bombay was Meli Mehta, the illustrious father of Zubin. Meli and Menuhin traveled and performed together. On Meli’s request, Menuhin also performed with the Bombay Symphony orchestra.
Yehudi Menuhin and Zubin Mehta taking a bow after a show in 1972
To cut down on rehearsal time, Meli said he would play the violin solos. It was during these rehearsals that young Zubin picked up the conductor’s baton and began working with Menuhin. A long fruitful friendship had begun between the Mehtas and Menuhin.
In 1954, when Menuhin visited Bombay again, Meli conducted all the concerts. Zubin’s friendship with Menuhin continued long after Meli departed. Menuhin who had already fallen in love with Indian classical music, both Hindustani and Carnatic, found Zubin’s world-class standards impressive. He was convinced that Indians were capable of the best of western classical as well.
M S Subbulakshmi
Menuhin visited the Madras Music College in 1952. The legendary Carnatic vocalist Musiri Subramania Iyer was the principal then. He organized a series of concerts for Menuhin. It was during his this visit that Menuhin met several others like violinist M S Gopalakrishnan.
Menuhin with M S Subbulakshmi
Menuhin heard MS for the first time when she was invited to perform at the International music festival held at Edinburgh in 1963. That year, several Indian artistes were a part of it icluding Pt Ravi Shankar, mridangam artiste Palghat Raghu, Veena players K S Narayanaswamy and V K Narayana Menon and Bharatanatyam diva Balasaraswati. Menuhin met MS and attended her concert. Not just that, he was moved to tears listening to her music.
Menuhin looking at Palghat Raghu on Mridangam, V K Narayana Menon and KS Narayanaswamy on Veena
He went out of his way to befriend Sadasivam and MS, a bond he cherished all his life.
Menuhin was not new to Carnatic violin. He had heard everyone from the great Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu in the 1950s to several others like Lalgudi G Jayaraman and M S Gopalakrishnan.
He was certainly in awe of how the instrument was played in south India.
While that being one side, it certainly must have taken a lot for Menuhin to decided to perform with one of the many Carnatic violinists he heard. And then L Subramaniam happened.
Lalgudi Jayaraman presenting an ivory statue of Nataraja to Menuhin
Thanks to Pt Ravi Shankar’s intervention, Menuhin got to listen to the young Subramaniam in 1986. "I find nothing more inspiring than the music making of my very great colleague Subramaniam. Each time I listen to him, I am carried away in wonderment," he would say later.
He was so impressed by his style and technique, that he invited Subramaniam to perform at his 70th birthday celebrations.
Later they cut an album together. A small clipping of both of them performing is available online.
Co-incidentally, as the birth centenary celebrations of Yehudi Menuhin are underway, L Subramaniam has once again been invited to perform, as a long time friend and a fellow-musician.
Yogacharya BKS Iyengar
This is one man who Menuhin acknowledged to have changed his life forever.
Way back in 1952, Menuhin had praised the power of yoga to Nehru and said it was India’s biggest gift to the western civilization. In fact, just before the welcome dinner Nehru hosted for Menuhin, both of them got into discussing yoga and they even decided to show who could hold the longest headstand, much to the amusement of everyone around.
However it was Meli Mehta who managed to persuade the yoga master to meet Menuhin when he came for his concert to Bombay. The master had traveled five hours by road to reach Bombay where he was given an appointment to meet Menuhin, but only for two minutes at the Raj Bhavan. Those precious two minutes became forty-five minutes.
BKS Iyengar making Yehudi Menuhin do Yoga
By the end of this meeting Menuhin was hooked. He became a loyal disciple of the yoga master. He even arranged a series of yoga workshops across Europe and America. This made the yoga master an international figure to reckon with.
When the yoga master wrote his famous book "Light of Yoga", Menuhin gladly endorsed it by writing a glowing foreword to it. Menuhin immensely believed in the power of Yoga and the master.
He felt it improved his music as well.
Given a chance, Menuhin would have gladly settled down in the masters yoga ashram in Pune. His Guru-Bhakti towards the yoga master such that he gifted him a wristwatch. Behind it was inscribed "To my best violin teacher, B K S Iyengar".
That Menuhin was a musical genius is known. But he was an Indophile at heart and India, Indian musicians, music and yoga ruled the rest of his life ever since he first encountered them.
(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Images credit : Selva Kumar, Keshavamurthy, Sudeep Kumar, Paromita Deshmukh