The Shillong Chamber Choir and the Home School

Shillong. How does one describe this quaint little hill town in the north-eastern periphery of India? More than the cool breeze and the droplets of rain that tantalize your skin as you walk through its meandering roads, this scenic town is known for its fixation with rhythm; for it is a place where you don’t go around searching for music but let the music find you. It would not be wrong to say that besides its peculiar small-town charms, Shillong is best defined by music. And why not? Thanks to the strong Christian tribal population and the strong influence of western culture in the lives of the people, this small town is one of the most vibrant western music destinations in the world.

But there can be musical surprises even in a place like Shillong which is so deeply soaked in music. I am talking about the Shillong Chamber Choir, a unique choir group based on Meghalaya’s rich musical traditions that has mesmerised people across the globe. Led by seasoned concert pianist Neil Nongkynrih, the choir group recently returned from South Korea, having bagged a silver medal in the World Choir Championships that was held there. Had the organizers not cancelled the championships due to the outbreak of the swine flu epidemic, the members of the choir group feel they could have easily brought home a gold medal.

The year 2009 has been particularly good for the choir group. Earlier this year, the group collaborated with the Vienna Orchestra for a concert held in Shillong and later, in Kolkata. The collaboration with the Vienna Orchestra created musical history for the town of Shillong for it was the first time that a full member western-classical orchestra collaborated with local artists from Shillong in their own backyard. Then last month, the choir bagged the silver medal at the World Choir Championships in South Korea. Talking about the Korea tour, co-Chairman of the Meghalaya State Planning Board Aubrey Scott Lyngdoh, who led the team, said, “We were the first team ever to represent India in a World Choir Championship. Judging from that angle itself, our participation in the world championships is a matter of honour for not only Meghalaya, but the entire Northeast.”

The World Choir Championships — also known as Choir Olympics — brings together choir groups from all over the world, including some of the famous bands from Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and South America. The achievement has now placed the Shillong Chamber Choir as one of the leading choirs, not only in India but also in the international circuit. Though the championship is divided into three categories, the choir could compete in only one as the entire event was cancelled due to the outbreak of swine flu. Lyngdoh said, “We were expecting a gold medal at least in the gospel and general categories. But the silver medal is still a big inspiration for us as we were competing against the best choir groups of the world. This has raised our level to international standards.” The gold medal went to the former world champion Elfa from Indonesia. Lyngdoh feels that even though the choir failed to bag the gold, their impressive performance has elevated Shillong into international focus. “Now people from all across the world want to know more about the Shillong Chamber Choir,” he said, adding that a section of the audience rated the choir group’s performance to be very high. “We are now receiving a lot of enquiries as to who are the Khasis, Jaintias and the Garos,” he added.

Band manager of the Shillong Chamber Choir Bill Richmond, who was part of the entourage to South Korea, said that the group also performed in several other parts of Korea. “The choir group went with only 17 members and had to compete with groups consisting of more than 80 members. The choir later participated in several “friendship concerts” in and around Forbidden City, the main venue of the championships.” Reminiscing about the choir’s performances, Lyngdoh said, “The people really appreciated the choir. When rains threatened to halt one particular concert at an open-air venue, the organizers provided the audience with free raincoats so that they could stay and watch our performance.”

A way of life

Now let’s start from the beginning. The Shillong Chamber Choir was formed in 2001 by acclaimed concert pianist Neil Nongkynrih who wished to bring together some like-minded singers to produce a variety of music, rather than being limited to only one kind. The choir’s versatility reflects itself in the age of the members: while the youngest member is a 13-year old, the oldest is all of 27 years. The group’s debut performance saw 25 soloists assembling at Pinewood Hotel on January 14 and 15, 2001 for the first performance of a chamber choir in the city, and the same was a resounding success. There has been no looking back for the choir and its members since then. But along its journey, the Shillong Chamber Choir has stopped being only about music and rather, it has become a way of life.

A Khasi folk opera

Their repertoire now includes pieces from Handel, Bach, Gershwin, Mozart, Neil Nongkynrih’s compositions, Khasi folk songs as well as popular adaptations of Queen and ABBA. As Neil says, “We play all kinds of music; the sole criteria for selection of the music is its possession of positive vibrations, which uplifts one.” The group however won the silver medal for their performance of Sohlyngngem, a Khasi folk opera. Sohlyngngem tells the story of a girl who had to encounter a lot of hurdles in love. Struck with grief at having lost her lover, the girl finally turns into a bird (Sohlyngngem). “It was a great privilege to showcase music written in Khasi, which is now considered one of the dying languages of the world. Winning the silver medal was simply out of the world,” says Neil. Sohlyngngem dwells a lot on contemporary socio-political events in Khasi society, touching on quite a few areas of humane interest, like multi-culturism, hypocrisy, alcoholism, cruelty to animals, the unusual role of the maternal uncle in a matrilineal society, lost love and the like. In the words of the composer, “My obsession with Sohlyngngem perhaps has a lot to do with my desire to promote Khasi folklore through different forms of expression. The folk opera has been made in such a way that it appeals to the young generation and keeps them close to their culture. The opera itself is based on a very dark subject that is interspersed with dark comedy.”

And Neil’s attempt to promote Khasi folklore in the form of an opera is an idea exclusive in itself. Whoever thought that the bunch of young singers would ever be able to reflect the varied emotional undertones of the subject of the folklore through just their voices? “The voice of north-easterners, especially of the Khasis, has elements of a certain kind of sorrow in it, an unique emotional appeal. It perfectly complements the Khasi folktales which are mostly tragic in nature.”

Home School:

The story of the Shillong Chamber Choir is closely linked to that of its founder Neil Nongkynrih, who left for England to learn music much against the wishes of his father. Once in England, Neil learnt from the best and made his mark as a successful concert pianist but fate had other plans in store for him. After numerous shows as a concert pianist in Britain, he felt his music was getting “elitist and commercial.” He tells me, “I came home only once in the 13 years I had been away. I was doing well professionally and a glittering career awaited me, but I felt ashamed with my own life. Doctors said I was stressed out, I needed rest and what better place could be there for that than home? I had come here for just a short vacation but once I came, I felt that I was needed here. That’s a great thing you know – the feeling that you’re needed.”

Once in Shillong, Neil, a man who is always in search for something new, finally found a purpose: start his own choir group, that is. The beginning was difficult for it was hard to find members. “I was frustrated with people who would come to the choir for short intervals and then go back to join their schools, colleges and places of work. I decided to take a risk and start my own school where I would teach them music as well as their regular courses of study.” Accordingly, Neil started his ‘home school’ in 2002 with his first student Ibarisha Lyngdoh. All of 16 years, Ibarisha is the “mascot of the home school”, having been gifted with an amazing voice. The young talent can sing in Khasi, Hindi, Asomiya, English, French, German, Italian and Latin. “Such is the potential of this girl that she gave a solo recital in Switzerland at the age of 13,” says Nongkynrih with pride.

A place to blossom

“I am very concerned about the present educational scenario in our country that prevents children from being their true selves. I don’t want my school to be labelled in any way for it is different. I just want my school to be a place where children can blossom and be their true selves,” says Neil, when I question him about his home school. So does his belief have its roots in his own school days? “Yes, I did not enjoy studies and my school,” says Neil, “I guess that’s why I used to spend most of my time playing the piano to escape the drudgery of studies.”

Each of Neil’s students has a story to tell; each different from the other. “Initially, I felt like taking only musically-gifted children but after sometime, I felt that was being too elitist,” says Neil. Most of the students come from troubled families or suffer from some sort of mental disability. Some parents just come and hand over their child so that they turn into a “good human being”. “These children now stay with me. The school is about living together and enjoying music. For me, music is a means to participate in the society.”

Though he claims that he is no social activist, Neil has proved with his home school that music is also a way to reconnect with life. One of his lead singers, Johanan Lyngdoh, is a 19-year-old former drug addict whose family had given up on him and left him at Neil’s house one day. The music and “Uncle Neil’s” ministrations brought him back from the brink. Similar is the story of another young girl Mika Phanbuh, who has been diagnosed by doctors as suffering from Down’s Syndrome – an illness which prevents one from leading a normal life. Thanks to the music and care in Neil’s home school, Mika can now sing, play the piano and even read music! “For me, Mika is as much a star as Ibarisha is. If she had been left to your ordinary system, she would have spent the rest of her life in a mental facility.” I remember watching in absolute amazement as Mika cuddled up with her mentor, her Uncle Neil, who then told me, “We are planning to make a little album where Mika will play the piano with the Shillong Chamber Orchestra backing her.”

Jessica Shaw Lyngdoh, another talented member of the choir, tells me, “The education that is imparted here is life changing. It’s not all about singing, but it’s about evolving spiritually. One of the most important lessons Uncle Neil taught me was to lead by example. He is more than just a teacher; he is more of a father figure to me.”

God is the source of all healing

“Sometimes, I feel I am unrighteous in giving too much credit to music. Healing power comes from God who gives us all different skills; music is just one of them. The ultimate source of all healing is God,” says Neil, slipping into a retrospective sort of mode, when questioned about the relevance and healing power of today’s music. He continued, “You know, 85 per cent of the music today does not heal. We talk about rock and metal being a bad influence on our youngsters, but so are love songs. If we look at it, love songs have done more damage than any other musical genre.”

It is a fact that today’s youngsters, as can be seen in our very own Northeast India, are more into rock and pop music than any other genre. Neil, however, is still confident about the reach and relevance of Classical music. “Although people like me will never be popular, I feel my work will have much greater impact in the future than it has now. I don’t think even Mozart or Bach were aware that their music would be played this often.”

Besides its relevance in contemporary world, Neil is more concerned about his music being a journey in spirituality, towards the truth. “I have spent my life in the quest of truth. Truth is not always wonderful; at times it is not to everybody’s liking. But the truth is part of god’s laws of nature. My music, as well as my life, is governed by this very law. I would never ever want to know that my life here on earth was overrated, which sadly is the story of most popular artistes nowadays.”

The journey continues

Besides planning future concerts in several parts of the world, Neil Nongkynrih is also working on his next Khasi opera – an epic of hope which is based on the life of St Mary Magdalene. “St Magdalene is a name that has been much abused, but she still remains a symbolic hope for humanity. She is an inspirational saint; she is an example for those who lost hope, for those who think that there is no more time to change and for those who wants to correct what is wrong. I have crafted the story from the point of a woman – a sinner without any hope – who finally meets the dawn of her life.”

Even after having tasted international success, the members of the Shillong Chamber Choir remain committed in their pursuit of the truth. In the words of its founder, “The choir is not about people who just want to reach higher grounds; it’s made up of people who are really committed to their music. Earlier the story was different but for the members of the choir now, music is just the means towards the truth and not the ultimate goal.”

The journey continues…


About Aiyushman Dutta

Who am I? Yet to find the answer. For the time being, u can call me a writer, maybe a journalist and a music entrepreneur or an errand boy! Whatever suits your fancy!

Posted on January 15, 2010, in Taking NE sounds to the world and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. hi niel,God bless you for such a lovely work you are doing.and may god stregnthen you to continue with this great commission that you have ,,and yes HE is the regards to the very talented choir and well being partial but ibarisha is really really gifted.god bless you

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