The Shillong Experiment
How Padma Shri awardee Neil Herbert Nongkynrih made the Shillong Chamber Choir adept at Khasi opera as well as Hindi film music
For a person credited with adding a sizzling new layer to Meghalaya’s musical traditions, Neil Herbert Nongkynrih’s celebrations after winning the Padma Shri earlier this year were muted.
The founder of the Shillong Chamber Choir is not given to overt exultations, and the recognition by the government for his contribution to the arts is yet to sink in, 44-year-old Nongkynrih says. “I’m happy today because I’m at peace. Coming back to Shillong was a huge decision and I would question myself. But I don’t regret it,” says Nongkynrih.
To celebrate the Padma Shri, Nongkynrih ordered Chinese food to share with Assamese film-maker Jahnu Barua, who was awarded the Padma Bhushan and was a fellow boarder at Nongkynrih’s hotel in Delhi.
A winding road takes you to Nongkynrih’s Shillong home, Whispering Pines, which also doubles as the school for the choir. Piano strains drift into the spacious living room of the house, built along traditional Assamese lines. White-painted walls display framed memories of previous awards. A light breeze blows past stark white curtains to reveal a beautiful garden outside. Sitting on a leather sofa, Nongkynrih places a kwai (betel nut) in his mouth, and smiles warmly.
“After 13 years in Europe, life had become pretty monotonous,” he says. “A successful career awaited me as a (Western classical) concert pianist but I wanted something more out of life. I decided to come home and produce a choir with a difference.”
At 15, Nongkynrih won a piano student’s passage to London’s acclaimed conservatory Guildhall School of Music and Drama and the prestigious Trinity College, where he found Europe’s foremost pianists, Phillip Fowke and Katharina Wolpe, as teachers.
Back in Shillong, after having performed for British royalty and given recitals across Europe, Nongkynrih suddenly found himself armed with a purpose in life. “Away for 13 years, I felt ashamed with my own life. Doctors said I was stressed out and needed to rest. When I came to Shillong for a short vacation, I felt I was needed here. That’s a great thing, you know—the feeling that you’re needed.”
While he was ready as a teacher, students, though, weren’t as forthcoming. Nongkynrih’s frustration mounted at the high dropout rates of the few who came along, prioritizing their school and college education over that of a start-up choir. In 2002, Nongkynrih took a calculated risk by starting his “home school”, where music would be taught alongside regular courses of study.
His first student, Ibarisha Lyngdoh, now 22, is the “mascot of the home school”, says Nongkynrih. Gifted with an amazing voice, Lyngdoh can sing in Asomiya, English, French, German, Italian, Latin and Khasi. “She gave a solo recital in Switzerland at the age of 13. Such is her potential,” says Nongkynrih.
Lyndoh was followed by further enrolments. “Initially, I wanted only musically gifted children but soon felt that was being too elitist,” says Nongkynrih. Most students have come from troubled families or suffered some sort of mental turmoil. Some parents turned in their children for them to be a “good human being”. “These children now stay with me. I’m very concerned about the present education scenario in India that prevents children from being their true selves. My school is about living together and enjoying music. For me, music is a means to participate in the society.”
Jessica Shaw Lyngdoh, a member of the choir, finds the education at the school life-changing. “It’s not all about singing, but it’s about evolving spiritually. Among the most important lessons Uncle Neil taught me was to lead by example. He is more than just a teacher.”
When the choir gave its debut performance at Shillong’s Pinewood Hotel in January 2001, there were 25 musicians at hand to perform pieces from Handel, Bach, Gershwin, Mozart, Neil’s own compositions, Khasi folk songs and popular adaptations of Queen and ABBA—music with positive vibrations, as Nongkynrih describes their repertoire. Globally inclusive as their set list is, their performance of an opera in Khasi—a language rooted largely in Meghalaya—won the group a silver medal at 2009’s World Choir Championships in South Korea. Sohlyngngem, the Khasi opera, was essentially about a girl’s grief for her lost lover, but tied in contemporary Khasi socio-political events—widespread alcoholism, cruelty towards animals, the maternal uncle’s role in a matrilineal society, among others. While promoting local folklore through different forms of expression and showcasing music written in Khasi—“a dying language”—was part of Nongkynrih agenda, “the opera itself was based on a very dark subject interspersed with dark comedy,” he says. “The voice of North-Easterners, especially of the Khasi people, has elements of sorrow in it: (there is) a unique emotional appeal. It perfectly complements the Khasi folk tales which are mostly tragic in nature.”
As an empanelled entity with the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, the Shillong Chamber Choir has performed in Europe, the UK, Canada, the US, South Korea, West Asia and South-East Asia over the years, and before the US President Barack Obama at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in 2010. But much of India got to know—and love—them for their effervescent interpretation of Bollywood music when the choir participated in 2010’s edition of the TV show, India’s Got Talent, which they eventually won.
While many think the choir was the first group from Shillong to sing Bollywood songs in mainland India, Nongkynrih says it was Amit Paul—the Shillong-born runner-up in Season 3 of TV show Indian Idol—who pioneered it. The choir’s riveting reworking of Hindi film music, nevertheless, stood out against the cultural and socio-political environment in Shillong that has over the decades fed an anti-dkhar (outsiders) sentiment and a highly polarized Westernized culture.
Folklorist, poet, musician and head of the department of cultural and creative studies at North Eastern Hill University, Prof. Desmond Kharmawphlang, feels that Nongkynrih has struck the right chord by fusing old Hindi numbers with choir music. “It is a continuum, you see, as music can never be divided into two poles. One cannot deny that old Bollywood numbers were a big hit way back in the late 1970s,” he says.
Shillong was the capital of undivided Assam till the capital shifted to Dispur in 1972. With the state of Meghalaya also concurrently coming into being, a strong wave of discontentment amongst the Khasis against dkhars followed. It still occasionally flares up through sectarian strife in the hill state.
“What Neil has done is really commendable,” Kharmawphlang says. Similar views were echoed by retired Indian administrative service (IAS) officer Toki Blah: “Living in a place like Mawlai, which is known for the immense anti-dkhar sentiments of the people, I have found that his music has been highly appreciated. It just goes to show that music has no boundaries.”
“This choir is a combination of music and voices that gives goose-bumps to listeners and transports them to an ethereal world,” says journalist and Padma Shri awardee Patricia Mukhim, a founder-member of the choir. “They are perhaps the only choir in India that brings a synthesis between East and West and raises Bollywood numbers to a different level.”
That music for them floats above clannish concerns is apparent in the way Lyngdoh, the choir’s first student, describes their genre-defying approach. “If you attend our concerts, you will find that our foundation is classical music and we blend it with other genres. Our popular numbers include Barcelona, a mixture of opera and rock, which I perform with William Richmond Basaiewmoit, (a choir member); and medleys between Bollywood masala numbers like Yeh Dosti/Ajeeb Dastan; Kaisi Paheli Zindagani/Stand By Me, Kal Ho Na Ho, Manwa Lage and Bar Bar Dekho/’S Wonderful. We also perform Uncle Neil’s own compositions, some based on Hindustani classical music.”
“Most people never thought that a choir group can be fun, can dance on stage and can also make the audience dance along. Most people perceive us differently now,” says Donna Marthong, one of the teachers at the choir. “We never dreamt of performing Bollywood music but when the time came, we had to do it. Now we find that Bollywood music is also catchy.”
“In the beginning, we were quite content performing classical pieces and our Khasi folk operas in front of niche audiences in Shillong and Guwahati,” says Nongkynrih. Then came the call-up for India’s Got Talent; the need to fit 12 different voices into a song and careful selection of new material; fame that contravened man-made borders; the tiring demands of long journeys; culminating with the Padma Shri and a wider engagement with audiences.
“It all started with India’s Got Talent and once we started, I actually started enjoying the joy of revamping these songs and reaching out to more and more people,” Nongkynrih says.
First published in HT livemint. For more details, please write to me or firstname.lastname@example.org