Menuhin memories

A glimpse into the legendary violin maestro and conductor’s long love affair with India


Violinist Yehudi Menuhin and Russian cellist and pianist Mstislav Rostropovich at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1964. Photo: Ted West/Central Press/Getty Images
Violinist Yehudi Menuhin and Russian cellist and pianist Mstislav Rostropovich at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1964. Photo: Ted West/Central Press/Getty Images

In 1952, legendary violin maestro and conductor Yehudi Menuhin first visited India, starting what his wife Diana described as “a long love affair with India”. Menuhin spent two months in the country at the invitation of prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The maestro’s wife, who voluntarily set aside her flourishing career as a prima ballerina in order to dedicate herself to caring for Menuhin, was known to spend a gruelling 17 hours a day managing his work and travel arrangements and it was she who accepted the invitation from India. Nehru’s invitation stemmed from his desire to invite leading musicians from across the world to expose his countrymen to the best in art and artists. Diana accompanied the maestro, and her account of the visit, excerpted from her book Fiddler’s Moll, was published in the 20-26 January 1985 edition of The Illustrated Weekly of India under the headline “The Wandering Minstrel”.

On their first night in Delhi, a dinner was arranged at Nehru’s residence. Pre-dinner conversation opened with Nehru inquiring about Menuhin’s reported interest in yoga, and whether he could do a head stand or sirsasana. When he said he could, Nehru demanded a demonstration. Discarding his shoes and dinner jacket, Menuhin did, but failed to impress Nehru, who proceeded to remove his Gandhi cap to execute a perfect head stand. Not to be outdone, Menuhin executed a head stand once again, at which point the doors of the room were flung open by a turbaned butler who announced that dinner had been served, as other guests looked on in amusement.

Nehru asked his daughter Indira to form a committee of friends who would help her organize Menuhin’s concerts in Delhi, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and Bangalore. Diana had suggested to Nehru at the outset that the performances should be charged, and the proceeds and fees donated for victims of the Madras Famine of 1951. An amount of $38,000 (around Rs25 lakh now ) was collected and contributed by the Menuhins on this trip.

Diana’s colourful account of this first trip is replete with anecdotes that are both hilarious and candid. In Bombay, the couple stayed at Point House, one of the five buildings that form a part of modern-day Raj Bhavan. Among the not-so-pleasant surprises that formed part of her India visit, Diana recounts, in horror, how she discovered rats sneaking in and attacking the mosquito netting around her bed every night. But it is her account of the welcome concert organized by the maharaja of Travancore, who hosted them in south India, that contains a hilarious description of a ghatam player : “…a most intriguing man, whose skill for his instrument was not commanded by the length of his fingers, nor by the strength of his arms, but by the perfect size and shape of his belly”.

Undoubtedly, the account is not always laudatory about her experiences in India, and could raise some eyebrows, but it nevertheless highlights the fact that there are always many stories to be told by family members and close associates of prominent artistes like Yehudi Menuhin.

Shubha Mudgal tweets at @smudgal and posts on Instagram as shubhamudgal.

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