A stylish choir from Shillong has finally found the national audience they deserve, says Nishita Jha
IN SHILLONG, concert pianist Neil Nongkynrih is known as the man with the golden touch. Not for the beautiful notes he produces, (in the rock capital of India, there is a gifted musician at every bend), but for his other, more extraordinary gift — coaxing music out of people. As Neil’s ‘family’, the Shillong Chamber Choir, won that extraordinary salad-bowl of a talent hunt, India’s Got Talent Khoj 2this Saturday, there was a sense of satisfaction that accompanied the euphoria in Shillong. There might be more gifted musicians around, but there was no one who did what Neil did. The Choir beat martial artists Veer Khalsa in the final.
Once a rebellious teenager, Nongkynrih fought with his father to train as a concert pianist in England. Eventually tired of the ‘commercial and elitist’ professional music scene there, he returned only to find himself acquainted with a new kind of unrest in the green valley — the youth in Shillong was angry and turning to substance abuse at an unprecedented rate. Realising the symptoms of a troubled soul, he decided to offer Shillong the only gift he had ever known — music. “I just wanted some people to make music with me. It wasn’t for them, or for me… it was just for music,” he smiles. As word began to spread, troubled parents would drop their children at his doorstep — a recovering drug addict, a young girl with Down’s syndrome — they all became part of Neil’s ‘family’.
Their recent victory isn’t their first brush with fame. The Shillong Chamber Choir has performed in various parts of the world, and even won a silver at the World Choir Championship in South Korea last year. “But India’s Got Talent was special. We came to Mumbai for the show because someone said it would be a great platform to spread our music. We ended up staying because it just felt like our family had grown bigger.” The members of the Chamber Choir (a 14-member set ranging from age 13 to 29) missed home, but thoroughly enjoyed living in the ‘artist commune’ — complete with break dancers, painters, martial artists and pole-climbers. Actor Kirron Kher, part of the show’s celebrity panel, says, “Every time they sang, I got goosebumps. The force of their music lies in the energies that Neil channelled into something beautiful. You can feel their youth, wisdom and innocence come through.”
Accustomed to singing operas in various languages, the group had a moment of panic when they chose to sing Hindi classics “Ajeeb Daastan Hai Yeh” and “Yeh Dosti” from Sholay at the show’s finale. “I heard the song for the first time the night before the show. We practised till 4 am. I just knew it was the right song,” Neil laughs. The resounding victory has convinced him more than ever that this is not the last old Hindi film song the Choir will ‘reinvent’. But for now, it’s back to Shillong, where the hills are alive with the sound of their music.