Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, was in the limelight last year when a musical band — Shillong Chamber Choir — struck popular imagination and won the reality show “India’s Got Talent — Khoj 2”. They sang with aplomb Bollywood numbers which easily slipped into western tunes and re-surfaced effortlessly in their Hindi avatar — one after another, like waves in the sea.
An established band even before the title-winning television performance, the choir has been performing each year at the president’s house in New Delhi during Christmas. Attention on them turned sharper when they were invited to perform for the visiting US president and the first lady.
A band of 18 youthful faces (most of them related to each other), they play music which, in their words, is ‘eclectic, youthful and crossover’. The choir tends to mix and meet the east with the west as tunes of Bach, Mozart and Handel suddenly snuggle into local Khasi folk tunes and re-appear dew-fresh in Bollywood numbers.
Neil Nongkynrih, 41, is the man behind the band. The group has been around for nearly a decade now and it hopes to walk, talk and sing together till the music lasts.
Damon Lyndem, the media manager of the band, is also musical but does not form the core group of singers. “I play the piano, but when my Guruji plays it, I can’t,” he says with a smile. And I proceed to meet ‘Guruji’ himself in the tongue twisting address — Pohkseh, Nongthymmai — a tree-covered house nestling in one side of the hill city — indifferent to the name and fame outside.
Once in Shillong, the taxi goes up and down with the city slopes and reaches a locality with difficult-to-pronounce titles on houses and shops. Let us read — ME BAN PYNDAPLIN (a collection of varieties of gift items) and MTRE THMA HANGR DE SHA & JA (Mr Thama Rice and Tea Stall). The Khasi language is literally Greek to the rest of India.
Neil Nongkynrih, the conductor and the philosopher behind the Shillong Chamber Choir group, stays in Pohkseh (kseh means pine tree and ha-poh means inside, so I am told by Damon). Once ushered into the house, the master walks in leisurely.
For a high-brow opera musician, Neil is a picture in contrast. Casually dressed in kurta pyjama, the pianist is chewing saada paan with a perfection witnessed only in the buzzing streets of UP and Bihar! He helps me with one.
You are seen as an anglicised group? I ask him even after seeing the band master in an altogether different light. And he reels off.
“I speak Khasi better than most who live here. Though I have lived in the west for a long time, I am anti-west. I eat paan and wear kurta-pyjama. I eat paan in concerts and my people say, ‘Neil what are you doing?’ I am proud to be an Indian,” he says.
He unintentionally breaks the stereotype image of the North-East — ‘guitar playing-westernised-eat-drink-and-merry-stock.’
Why is there a disconnect between celebrity classical musicians, concert players and the common people ?
“You know, I belong to the opera which is elitist with a lot of snobbery attached (well-heeled audience). And I am doing just the opposite. I am doing it in Khasi tribal language. I did opera in Patna in Hindi while everybody else is doing it in French and English.” Well, he seems to have sealed the issue.
On another musical plane, he has taken Khasi tribal folk tunes and made them into classical pieces. His opera is based on Khasi folk tale ‘Sohlyngen’ (girl who becomes a bird) like that of Mozart’s magic flute. “It is the same thing — fancy tale put to music,” Neil makes one understand.
The music maestro is stocky and as fair as a European could be. “ Some take me for a Kashmiri,” he jokes. The other band members — children — are roaming around busily with their daily chores.
Coming to performances, Neil recollects they had done a Christmas concert in Bangalore in 2004 before 1,20,000 people at the Cathedral School Grounds. His eldest sister Pauline, who is into jazz and piano, had formed the Bangalore Chamber Choir when she lived in Bangalore. His another sister Christine is a singer. The band is holding three concerts in Bangalore, Chennai and Cochin in February. In January, they would tour Mumbai, Delhi and Siliguri.
In a way, it was the return of the prodigal son from London which made the Shillong Band Choir happen. “I have lived a majority of my life in London where I had my musical training. Once I came home, for the first time in 14 years for a long holiday, I never returned back.” The musical group was born with Neil taking charge of the boys and girls in the city.
“They all live in this house. It is a rigorous life for them — rise early in the morning, have regular practice sessions, perform even if one is not well, and no parties or socialisation,” the conductor makes it clear. “It is like in the gurukul tradition,” he drives home his point.
While Neil is 41, the other members in his group are in the 16 to 30 year age group. His father, A S Scot Lyngdoh, is a former Meghalaya finance minister and currently a spokesman for the Congress Party. He drops in, shakes hands and moves out.
Besides music, it is painting which interests him. A number of abstract paintings are hung on the wall. In his own words, he is the ideologue of pop art as well as that of the abstract.
“My music is not conventional. It is a mixed collage of different tunes and melodies. Like the Hindi number Yeh dosti hum nahin... then background music goes dum dum then Barry Manilow’s number Can’t smile without you... plays.”
Did you inherit your talent for music or cultivated it? “Anything to do with the elements of arts has to be hereditary. I do not know whether my parents can sing, but all three siblings, including my two elder sisters, are into music.”
“They say genius is 99 per cent perspiration and one per cent talent. I don’t know. I have the usual Mozart story. I started at two-and-a-half years of age and played the piano. Mozart’s is the same story. Zubin Mehta also did the same,” he says.
But Neil had a piano at home and many similarly talented may not have bloomed like him for want of a piano at home. He readily agrees.
Shillong is described as the rock capital of India. How does he feel about staying there? “Shillong has musical scene, a lot of talent, but no musical farmers like me who can water and do the right trimming,” he says.
Several musical bands have split on account of differences? “Not even four members of a band can stay together like it happened in the case of Beatles and Abba. In our case, it has been 18 members altogether. Musical bands break down on account of ego clashes.
Once the bands become famous, it starts touching on egos. In the Shillong Chamber Choir, all the members have to work with humility. The task at hand is more important than fame. Things were not always easy. We had to stay in Aurobindo Ashram in Delhi as we could not afford a hotel. But we enjoyed the dormitory and slept on the floor. And five days later, we shifted to the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Presidents Abdul Kalam and Pratibha Patil have been very kind,” he shares.
The band has performed before Congress President Sonia Gandhi who ‘genuinely’ appreciated the music of the choir. “The next day, Rahul Gandhi called us for a similar performance,” says Neil who has studied with Rahul in St. Columbus School in Delhi.
Did the group feel nervous performing before the Obamas? Neil brings another saada paan for me and dismisses the categories of high and mighty. “If I were to perform for you, it would be the same like doing it before President Obama,” he says.
He gives a shout and boys and girls quickly gather around a piano in a small room in the backyard of the house. The master is on the keyboard. As I move in there, the music starts and the melody floats…
Ajeeb dastan hai ye, kahan shuru kahan khatam…” Kabhi aar, kabhi paar laga teere nazar… then the western melody and Ye Dosti... Bollywood numbers of yesteryears flow like sweet tidal waves touching your heart and head from the feet. The band is to play elsewhere in the city with Mumbai actress Kiron Kher who judged their performance on the television show, waiting for them.
An unmindful Neil moves on with another set of musical tunes. He is still chewing paan — a quintessential Indian feel in Shillong.