Tugging the heartstrings: the Shillong Chamber Choir


New Delhi : The film is about a choir in the quaint little town of Shillong in Meghalaya. A choir which specializes in Western Classical music – a genre that the director of the film had no clue about. Probably in her ignorance lay the secret of the unhindered flow of the story of a man who left a life of luxury to lead a few underprivileged kids on the path of music.

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“The Shillong Chamber Choir”, as the documentary film is titled, was given a resounding applause after its maiden screening in the capital Wednesday night. Told simply, in the voice of the choir’s pianist and leader, Neil Nongkynrih, the film is more than just a profile of the group.

“It’s a way of life… the Shillong Chamber Choir’s way of life,” Urmi Juvekar told IANS, after the film screening in Delhi.

“I am just not a music person. When Amit Dasgupta of the ministry of external affairs suggested that I take a look at this subject, I was a little hesitant. But a month later, I was more than happy that I did,” she said.

Constituting 16 children, the Shillong Chamber Choir is a choir of a different kind. Put together by Nongkynrih in 2002, the choir happened after he came back from London and was looking forward to doing something more meaningful.

“I spent 13 years in London, after graduating from the London School of Music, and was very happy there. But by the end of the 13th year, I got tired… I was no longer happy to perform in front of a thousand people. The entire scenario started appearing too elitist to me. That’s when I came back to Shillong,” Nongkynrih said in the narration.

What followed was him taking music tuitions at home. Still not satisfied, he then started teaching underprivileged and disabled kids. Not only he did not charge them anything or teaching musi, but also welcomed them to stay in his house.

A home to live in and a teacher whose passion seemed to have no boundaries, the children blossomed into fine singers. As the film’s clippings show, a 13-year-old’s voice, scaling the high and low notes with an ease not many ears are accustomed to, moved many an audience to tears.

“The choir has performed in Milan, Colombo and London, besides Bangalore, Mumbai, Guwahati and Delhi. They sing so beautifully, the purity in their voices is so touching that you can’t help get moved to tears after you hear them,” said Juvekar, who has written scripts for several feature films.

Although it’s Western Classical music that they specialize in, Hindi film songs sure have its impact on the kids as Bollywood numbers can often be heard being hummed from the kitchen, the bathroom and the corridors.

The entire process of making the film which was produced by the Public Diplomacy division of the ministry of external affairs, took Juvekar about 10 days to research and 15 more days to shoot.

One of the things which stood out in the film was the discipline of the children. They may be having a gala time playing with a street dog or jumping around their teacher one moment, but when it comes to rehearsals, no one needs any telling. It’s routine to practice for 10 minutes each day.

Also, the touch of pathos in the young voices is somewhat uncanny. According to Nongkynrih, this is typical of the Khasi (people who live in Meghalaya) voice.

“I don’t select children who can stay at my home, on the basis of their singing abilities. That would again be elitist. Some sing, some just live here. That’s the way it is,” Nongkynrih said.