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Meet the best ambassadors of India's North-East

Last updated on: February 21, 2013 14:21 IST

Meet the best ambassadors of India's North-East

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Archana Masih in Shillong

No, they are not politicians, bureaucrats or film stars, but a group of young singers who can stir the rusted chords of your soul with the power of their voice.

Ladies and gentlemen... the Shillong Chamber Choir...

Words: Archana Masih. Photographs/Video: Rajesh Karkera

As we walk into the warm and cosy basement with a crackling fireplace, we know this is no ordinary den, but a room packed with extraordinary talent. Where on an assortment of sofas and chairs, with a gleaming piano in one corner, sit some of India's best singing voices.

Young boys and girls, with voices so magical that they can stir the rusted chords of your soul with the power of their voice.

The members of the brilliant Shillong Chamber Choir live in a bungalow in the heart of the Meghalaya capital city. The fourteen-member group lives and rehearses together here, which is home to choir director Neil Nongkynrih, but has come to become their home as well.

"It is an open home, where everyone is welcome," says Damon Lyndem introducing us to some neighbourhood children playing in the garden. "There is a warmth here that does not exist elsewhere. The expression of oneness -- our motto is 'I need you, not you need me'."

Though all the choir members -- excepting two Nagaland natives -- belong to Shillong, they stay like a family, sharing in the household work, practising the violin, piano, cello or guitar, writing songs -- some also preparing for their board examinations.

There is no regimented time set aside for practice; maybe because talent and creativity do not flourish within the confines of a time table. It is fluid, some days are busy, others not so. Sometimes, they've finished writing a song at 3 in the morning, while those days of participating on India's Got Talent were crazily busy.

"Artists are slaves of inspiration, that's what Uncle Neil says," points out Keviseno Terhuja, one of the four altos, trying to explain their creative functioning.

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Image: The Shillong Chamber Choir shot to fame after winning India's Got Talent and have been on a song since...
Photographs: The Shillong Chamber Choir

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At one time Kabhi Aar, Kabhi Paar was the only Hindi song they knew

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Formed in 2001 by Neil Nongkynrih, a concert pianist who returned to Shillong after thirteen years in Europe, the choir performs around four concerts a month.

It has been invited to sing at Rashtrapati Bhavan in November 2010, for President Barack Obama during his visit to India, and on prominent television shows like Kaun Banega Crorepati.

The choir rose to fame after winning India's Got Talent, winning the hearts not only of the North-East, but of the rest of India as well.

Initially, reluctant to participate in the show because of their classical repertoire which they thought would not be appreciated by the masses, the group nearly missed the audition in Kolkata.

They finally made it to the audition where they sang Kabhi Aar, Kabhi Paar, the only Hindi song that the only Hindi-speaker in the group, Donna Myrthong, knew.

Since the others did not understand Hindi, they had decided they would look for a sign from Donna -- which was a movement of the head -- to know whether the judges said they had qualified or not.

"We never thought we would make it. Uncle Neil told us we did not need the fame or the money. Moreover, we could not imagine dancing to choreography on reality television. We didn't like us on TV when we saw ourselves for the first time," recalls Donna.

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Image: Members of the Shillong Chamber Choir stay in their director's bungalow in Shillong
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

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'We're proud that we brought pride to the people of the North-East'

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Though the show brought the choir such fame that they are now approached for autographs and has helped them get more concerts and invitations to perform, theirs has been a slow organic growth, choir members say.

"We were asked to sing for Obama even before India's Got Talent, that was huge," says Donna who loves to cook and brings us a pot of tea and delicious noodles.

"It also gave us tremendous pride that we brought so much pride to the people of the North-East. It really united the people of the North-East."

On their return after winning the India's Got Talent trophy, they recall there were 500 cars at Guwahati airport with fans who had come to welcome them.

"There is a lot of respect and adoration, but nothing else has changed after India's Got Talent, our lifestyle remains the same," says Damon.

If music heals, one can see that within the Shillong Chamber Choir.

A choir member says being in the choir has been a spiritual journey for him. "You wouldn't have recognised me if you saw me earlier, I had long hair, was in a heavy metal band and into drugs. I was involved in things that stole my youth," says the young man in a measured, calm voice.

His life changed after he joined the choir five years ago. "My life has totally changed now. I respect other human beings. Uncle Neil has taught me all this here," he continues, sitting in a large chair, surrounded by other choir members.

Another member adds that his story is very similar, more subtle perhaps. He started coming for music lessons from school, joined the choir in 2009 and calls Dorea Rangad, an alto, his teacher.

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Image: Choir members share noodles and tea in the cosy room with a fireplace.
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

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Their music unites people from diverse backgrounds

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Dorea, an only child, who says she is not a natural born singer, feels the fact that she is in the choir shows that anyone who is willing to work hard can be accepted.

"I came for piano lessons seven years ago and then Uncle Neil asked me to join. Having been an only child, this has given me the chance to live with others around me."

Among all the members of the choir, Ibarisha Lyngdoh, called 'Iba', is the youngest. The lead soloist, she is the only one who was auditioned to find a place in the choir.

"When I heard her voice, I remember tears came into my eyes. It was beautiful," remembers Damon who after spending ten years with the choir has moved into a managerial position with the group.

In their repertoire are now included popular Hindi film songs like Kal Ho Na Ho and Senorita -- a long way from the time when Kabhi Aar Kabhi Paar was the only Hindi song they could sing.

One of the concerts that remains closest to their hearts is when they performed in Patna to an audience that included professionals to rickshaw-wallahs. They did a folk opera and remember how everyone, regardless of what background, loved it and saw how music united diverse people that evening.

"There was a time when I was ambitious," says Rishilla Jamir, a graduate from New Delhi's St Stephen's College and an alto. "I knew I could sing but didn't know I could sing professionally. I met the choir when they were on a trip to Delhi and came to Shillong after completing my course. I feel that my foundations have grown stronger."

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Image: The Shillong Chamber Choir perform at the opening of a new season of Kaun Banega Crorepati
Photographs: The Shillong Chamber Choir

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Hear them doing what they do best : Sing!

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As the choir gains in popularity, the choir members who are stake-holders in the Shillong Chamber Choir say they don't want to commercialise things and want to continue as a close-knit family; drawn together by the fact that they are not here only for the singing -- but something more than just music.

"We like to search for the truth which brings value to life," says Damon, informing us that it is their first meeting with journalists without Uncle Neil, who was compelled to stay back in Mumbai on the doctor's advice.

The media-shy artist studied music at Trinity College, London, and has also been tutor to Grammy winner Philip Selway of the British rock group Radiohead.

In his native Shillong, the accomplished composer-conductor has created a musical institution that has already performed in Europe, the USA, South East Asia, and is expected to perform in Austria in the summer.

While in his home, as more logs are put into the fireplace and a cat lazily gets up from Dorea's lap, the group gets up to do what they do best -- sing.

It is magic!

Please click here and you can feel the magic too!


Image: Choir members say they feel like a family; Inset: Choir director-founder Neil Nongkynrih
Photographs: Rajesh Karkera/Rediff.com

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