It is an image that sticks in the memory. Yehudi Menuhin, one of the greatest 20th century violinists, is upside down in a yoga headstand before a stageful of musicians of the Berlin Philharmonic. As the ensemble plays the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the maestro conducts it with his impeccably shoed feet – a downbeat signalled by opened feet.
The image, taken in 1982, crystallised the Indomania of the American-born Menhuin who would have turned 100 this April 22. For a good part of his life, the violinist, conductor, humanitarian and pacifist was captivated by Indian music and yoga.
In his autobiography Unfinished Journey, Menuhin acknowledged that “Indian music took me by surprise”: “I knew neither its nature nor its richness, but here, if anywhere, I found vindication of my conviction that India was the original source. The two scales of the West, major and minor, with the harmonic minor as variant, the half-dozen ancient Greek modes, were here submerged under modes and scales of (it seemed) inexhaustible variety.”
His first encounters with the East had come early in his life. His teacher, the Romanian violinist-composer George Enescu, had taken a young Menuhin to the Exposition Coloniale in Paris in 1931 to hear the gamelan, the traditional ensemble music of Bali that Enescu was deeply interested in. India first appeared on Menuhin’s horizon around two decades later.
In 1952, the Indian government invited Menuhin to offer a series of concerts in the nation’s principal cities – Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Madras and Calcutta – with the proceeds going to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund. Many of these concerts were performed in cinema halls, such as the Regal and Excelsior in Bombay, and the New Empire in Calcutta.
In Bombay, the concerts included a veritable who’s who of music in India: it had Mehli Mehta (father of conductor Zubin Mehta) as concertmaster. The violins included, in order of mention in the programme, Sebastian Vaz, Adrian de Mello, Mauro Alphonso, Siloo Panthaky, Josic Menzies, Oscar Pereira and Keki Mehta. Among the violas was Terence Fernandes (who, with Vere da Silva, Keki Mehta and George Lester formed the Dorian string quartet, apparently Bombay’s first string quartet). The celli had, in addition to George Lester, Antonio Sequeira, who later taught cello at the Academia da Música (today the Kala Academy) in Goa. Mickey Correa headed the list of clarinets.
Zubin Mehta remembers these concerts in his autobiography The Score of My Life:
“Rehearsals with him [Yehudi Menuhin] were always an education. His good nature and patience with which he tried to explain everything and respond to each musician were wonderful. I witnessed it for the first time when he played with my father in India. Rehearsing and performing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with him was a lesson for the entire orchestra. He was never unduly severe on that occasion. Instead, he allowed the musicians to share in his musical experience, his great knowledge and his musical skill in a perfectly natural way.”
It was during this 1952 visit that Menuhin was introduced to Pandit Ravi Shankar, although the two had met briefly in Paris in 1932. “From the moment we met, we clicked, both as musicians and as human beings,” Shankar, the illustrious sitarist, reminisced decades later. “It was the beginning of not only a very great friendship but a learning and sharing of each other’s work.”
Menuhin and his wife Diana returned to India several times after that, often annually, and “one of the high points” of the trips would be their meetings with Shankar. The two performed at the Bath festival in 1966, and recorded their Grammy Award-winning album West Meets East the following year.
Menuhin even commissioned composer Alan Hovhaness to create a work (Shambala, c. 1970) for violin, sitar and orchestra, with a written part for the violin and room for improvisation for the sitar. Although it is the earliest known work for sitar and orchestra, predating Shankar’s two sitar concertos, Menuhin and Shankar did not record it.
Besides Shankar, Menuhin also collaborated with Carnatic violinist Dr Lakshminarayana Subramaniam, of whom he said: “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.” Their friendship began in 1986, when Subramaniam was invited to Germany to perform at Menuhin’s 70th birthday celebration.
During the historic 1952 visit, Menuhin befriended BKS Iyengar and developed a great interest in yoga. So impressed was he with Iyengar that he arranged for the yoga guru to teach in several European and American cities, catapulting him into international celebrity.
“As a form of exercise, it appealed to me because musicians who are always on the run need to unwind,” Menhuin wrote. “Unlike swimming, yoga doesn’t have to be done in a special place. It was something I could do anywhere and, most importantly, in a hotel room, safely near to my violin. Unlike tennis, I didn’t need to make arrangements with any other person in order to do it. It was perfect.”
Menuhin's headstand at the Berlin Philharmonic performance might have been a gimmick, but his belief in the practice of yoga wasn’t. He felt that yoga improved his violin playing, and presented Iyengar with a watch. On its back was the inscription: “To my best violin teacher, BKS Iyengar."