I first read about the great violinist Itzhak Perlman before actually hearing a note from his instrument. It was the 1970s, and we had old issues of the German magazine Stern lying in the house. In one of them, there was an article intriguingly titled “Meine Hände sind nicht Krank” (“My hands are not ill”). Splashed across the page was this black-and-white picture of this exuberant young man in his twenties or so, with an Afro and sideburns, eyes closed dream-like, enigmatic smile on his face, lost in the music of his violin.
The article described his affliction with poliomyelitis at age four, and how he had nevertheless become one of the most promising violinists of his generation. Since then, he has become a violin legend, as soloist, chamber musician, and as conductor and pedagogue. History will remember him as one of the all-time greats of the violin, up there with Elman, Milstein, Heifetz and the rest of the violin pantheon.
Like most of the world, I have heard him, on recordings and in the cinema (notably “Schindler’s List” and “Cinema Paradiso”) and I have also been fortunate to hear him perform live, first in Mumbai in the 1990s and on several occasions when he toured London in my England years. I met him backstage after the Mumbai concert, and had a first dose of his impish sense of humour, with a great love of puns, which he delights in sharing with (inflicting upon?) his audience. The more toe-curling the puns, the better he seems to like them. For instance, he plays the 1714 ‘Soil’ Stradivarius, and he loves to tell people how he has to take pains to clean his ‘soil’ed violin.
Perlman is also an ardent champion of polio eradication and disability rights. In an interview in 2011, he reminisced how polio changed his life: “One afternoon I was on the bed, and I was standing up on my bed in Tel Aviv, and I felt a little weak, and I had to sit down, ‘cause you know I was four years old – I was wild riding bikes and stuff like that… And all of a sudden, I felt like I couldn’t do it, and that was it.”
Perlman was born in 1945, a decade before the Salk inactivated vaccine against polio came into use (1955), and sixteen years before the oral polio vaccine developed by Albert Sabin (1961). Even a few decades later, studying medicine in the 1980s, and having to learn about these vaccines in paediatrics and preventive and social medicine, I did not quite imagine we would see a polio-free India (the World Health Organisation declared India polio-free on 27 March 2014, with no cases of wild polio reported for three years), and a polio-free world tantalisingly close, with only two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan still polio-endemic. And one has to be constantly vigilant that countries where polio has been eradicated remain polio-free, through vigorous vaccination drives, and well as public sanitation measures. Polio can still make a comeback until these reach the most remote corners of the world.
Perlman feels very strongly about this. At the “Concert to End Polio” in December 2009, he stated “There is no reason anybody in the world should have polio… it’s just ridiculous.”
“If people know that I am a polio survivor, that I’ve had my career despite that, for me, that’s not really an important fact. The important fact is why go through that if you have a vaccine.”
“We’ve been jabbing at this thing,” Perlman added, “and the knockout punch is very close.”
He shrugs off the attention on his illness, and his having gotten to where he is despite it. In an interview to Wall Street Journal in 2014, he said “A lot of people say to me that it’s amazing that I persevered despite the polio….That’s baloney! Because you do what you are supposed to do. If I did not have some sort of talent in music, I wouldn’t have done it.”
He was a regular guest on Sesame Street, the educational television for preschoolers. In 1981, a poignant episode shows a little girl bounding up the couple of stairs to a platform, while Perlman climbs up using crutches, behind her. As he settles into a seat beside her, he says “You know, some things that are really easy for you, are real hard for me.” He then proceeds to play his violin effortlessly, up and down across its register, causing the girl to reply ”Yes, but some things that are easy for you are hard for me”, and plays her instrument at an elementary level (J. S. Bach’s Gavotte in G minor, which is a Suzuki Book 3 piece).
That short clip of about little over a minute long inspired countless children of that generation not only to take up the violin, many of who are professional musicians today but also taught an important lesson at a young age that people with disability need have no limitations in what they are able to achieve. It is inspiring to watch even today, and many teachers, of music and in general, use this video in their classes for this reason.
(An edited version of this article was published on 29 May 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)