Mentor: Neil Nongkynrih
How did the Choir come in contact with him: He founded the Shillong Chamber Choir in 2001
How he has helped the choir members hone their skills: Nongkynrih is the teacher of the group. He teaches music to the choir members. He is also the spiritual guide of the group.
The chorus line is first off the blocks. It is not a part of the original song and doesn’t reveal it. All that changes a few seconds later when Ibarisha Lyngdoh hits a cut-glass ‘B’ note that lights up the ‘Yeh’ of ‘Yeh Dosti Hum Nahin Todenge’. Soon bass, tenors and the altos join in. The dry ruins of Khirkee, Delhi are now drenched in the high notes of this popular song. Schoolchildren using the ruins as a shortcut and the elderly watchmen of the site draw closer, hooked by — but unsure of — this harmonic experience.
Six months ago nobody in “mainstream India” knew of the 20-member Shillong Chamber Choir. They have been around since 2001 but they didn’t get popular until now. They won three gold medals at the World Choir Olympics in China in July 2010. They’ve performed for former Indian President Dr. Abdul Kalam as well as for the incumbent Pratibha Patil. But they hogged the spotlight in mainstream media only after winning first prize at the TV show, India’s Got Talent on Colors.
Since then, they’ve performed for US President Barack Obama when he visited India this year. They will have performed at a corporate gathering for the Mahindra Group in Malaysia by the time this story is published.
This was inspite of the fact that they are the most expensive choir group in the country. They charge Rs. 2 lakh to Rs. 3 lakh for a short performance. When they performed at the Homi Bhabha Auditorium in Mumbai, the total cost of the concert was Rs. 49 lakh. When they travel (all paid by the host), Nongkynrih, the mentor and head of the choir, travels first class while the others travel economy. “We only agree to be put up in 5-Stars,” says Nongkynrih.
I am in a basement that houses the Quarter Notes Studio in Malviya Nagar, Delhi, on a Wednesday morning, waiting for the Shillong Chamber Choir to arrive. ‘Oh Holy Night’ is playing on a CD. The 17-year-old Ibarisha Lyngdoh’s voice is plaintive enough to melt the snow in any heart. Gaurav Chintamani, who runs the studio, is putting the final touches to the 10 carols for the Choir’s holiday season album, Christmas Everyday.
The Choir was supposed to meet me an hour earlier. I am not complaining. I am intently listening to their album until they show up. Tenors, altos, falsettos, bass singers, sopranos, all of them sing to me. I like to think that I have a good ear for music but the variety of singers in the Choir astounds me. Suddenly, there’s the thud of footsteps as a swarm of people enter the studio. The 20-odd strong Choir is here. “Sorry, we are late,” says Damon Lyndem, 25, former bass singer for the band, and now their manager. “We were up until 5 a.m., praying.”
Wait a minute. Did I hear correctly? Praying? “Yes, we pray a lot,” says Neil Nongkynrih, choir director, pianist, founder, conductor, father figure, teacher, spokesperson and mentor to the motley group of teenagers and young adults that make up the Choir. An affable, short, portly man who smiles easily, Nongkynrih conducts the Choir on stage; And off of it. Everyone calls him Uncle Neil and his word is law.
Seated in a small chair in the lobby of the basement, Nongkynrih, a chronic consumer of paan, tries to explain the concept of the Choir. “We are a bunch of young, enthusiastic people who can sing in all genres — from classical to jazz.” That came in very handy when the Choir participated and won India’s Got Talent, a reality TV show on Colors (Colors is part of the Network 18-Viacom brand that publishes Forbes India) in October this year.
Since they can sing in all genres it wasn’t too hard for them to sing in a language they barely understand — Hindi — and songs that they haven’t heard often: ‘Yeh Dosti’ from Sholay and ‘Tu Hai Aashiqui’ from Jhankaar Beats. Their repertoire consisted of classical music, Khasi songs, spiritual songs and Carols before India’s Got Talent. Why, then, did they take such a big risk? “We knew that these songs would connect us to the audience like no other. Everyone in India knows these songs and they are easy to learn,” says Nongkynrih.
Fair enough, but can we go back to the praying? “We are a God-fearing group. We sing in one voice, we do a lot of meditation and praying. We are on the other end of the spectrum that ends with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. We don’t mind if people call us cheesy or corny,” says Nongkynrih.
Shillong Chamber Choir is a house that Nongkynrih has built, figuratively and literally. The Choir stays at Tovya, Nongkynrih’s maternal home in Shillong. The eight-bedroom house is located on the slope of the Pohkseh hill. The Choir shares the house with Nongkynrih’s parents, Elverial (mother) and Aubrey (father) and his two older brothers Peter and Walter. Tovya is Israeli for House of Peace. Peace huh? That must be hard to find in Tovya. “Not at all,” says Donna Marthong, 29, alto singer and the oldest member of the Choir after Nongkynrih. This current version of the Choir has been living together since 2005. How do they do it? Don’t they get on each others nerves? Who cooks for all of them? How does Nongkynrih provide for all of them? How do they manage school? Don’t they get bored of seeing each others faces all the time? Where does life on the road end and normal life begin?
The Shillong Chamber Choir was born in 2001 in Shillong, Meghalaya. Nongkynrih, 31 then, had come back to India after 13 years in the United Kingdom. A child prodigy at art and the piano, Nongkynrih studied music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and piano at Trinity College, London.
He had to come back to India after an operation of a benign tumour in his spine. He was still wondering what to do here when a Khasi lady he knew in the UK had to send her three kids to India because she couldn’t afford to raise them in London. He began home-schooling the two boys and a girl between ages three and six.
He was also teaching music and gathered together a bunch of kids with whom he formed the first version of the Choir. That team soon disbanded.
Soon he found students who wanted to stick around. Some of whom had found their calling in life. And some were searching for it.
There is Donna Marthong, part of the first version of the Choir but who left to seek normalcy in the outside world, and returned after a couple of years. Born to an African American father and a Khasi mother who met and fell in love in Kolkata, Marthong is perhaps the most easily recognisable member of the Choir.
“I always felt an empty feeling in my heart. I didn’t know what was missing,” she says. Soprano Jessica Lyngdoh, 23, used to be a party girl until she joined the Choir. “I had no purpose in life, no meaning. All I did for most of my teens was party,” she says, “I didn’t know it at that time but the Choir changed my life.”
Of course, not all of them are here because they are hunting for something spiritual. Ibarisha Lyngdoh joined the Choir when she was 12 in 2005. The Lyndem siblings — brothers Damon (25), Riewbankit (19), Banlam (23), Sandon (21) and sister Remame (27) are here because they love music. Kynsai Lyngdoh, 27, is a professor of life sciences at the Martin Luther King University in Shillong. He has taken a year off to tour with the Choir.
“You can compare our lives to that of a gurukul,” says Damon Lyndem. “You have to submit yourself to the teacher and trust him to do what’s right,” he says. And the trust in Nongkynrih has prompted families of all the members to hand over their wards into his care.
It is his charismatic personality that draws them into his vortex and makes them never want to leave. He is the reason Ibarisha Lyngdoh — she of the angelic voice — gave up an opportunity to study at the uber-prestigious Juilliard School in New York when she was 13. When she was 15, the Choir played with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra and the conductor of the Orchestra exhorted her to go to Vienna and study. She refused.
“If I went there I would have ended up as just another teenager. Here Uncle Neil teaches me about life, he teaches me how to be a good human being,” she says. She was awarded an associate degree from Trinity College when she was 15. An examiner from London flew to Shillong to grade her. She sang in German, French and English. The examiner gave her a distinction. Normally, one gets an associate degree in their mid-twenties.
With so many youngsters hanging out together, don’t their hormones go into overdrive? That’s where Nongkynrih’s conservativeness comes out. “I forbid romances. It’s too risky for us. If I find out that two people are even texting each other frequently, I step in immediately,” he says. Hmmm… and what about himself? Any room for Mrs. Nongkynrih? “I’ve come close. Thrice,” he sighs. “But you never know, 40 is when it may happen,” he says with more than a hint of mischief in his voice.
For now, Nongkynrih’s life revolves around the Choir. He makes sure everyone else is up by 5 a.m. for a walk in the hills. Breakfast is at 6:30 a.m. — tea, porridge, toast, eggs and French fries or parathas if the kids want it. Some choir practice follows after which they help their only maid prepare lunch: Rice, dal, salad, boiled vegetables, a bit of meat and fruit. After lunch they tune up their instruments for practice. For tea, Nongkynrih’s sister Christine who runs a bakery usually brings in all the stock that hasn’t been sold during the day: Chicken patties, cream buns and almond cakes.
They practice for four more hours. “Most of our practice also happens when we pray. And we pray a lot. One of us will start singing and the others pick up,” says Nongkynrih.
Such dedication and skills ensured them of victory in India’s Got Talent where they won Rs. 50 lakh. They haven’t received the money yet though. Europe and Asia are on the cards after Malaysia. India’s Got Talent has changed their lives in other ways as well.
Almost everyone I speak to refers to the rest of the country as mainstream India. “We can’t help it. We feel alienated. Indians have asked us if they need passports to come to Shillong. Some people don’t even know what Shillong is,” says Marthong. But now they are making an effort to understand the mainland. Travelling has expanded their outlook as well. Before the TV show, only Marthong and Kynsai Lyngdoh spoke and understood Hindi. Now all of them are learning the language. They count a show that they performed in Patna, Bihar as one of their best. Kynsai says, “We were amazed at the people over there. They were very nice and everyone on the streets stopped to hear us sing.”
At Khirkee the Choir is in full-flight as ‘Yeh Dosti’ nears climax the penny drops for the bystanders. Suddenly one of them says: “Arre yeh India’s Got Talent wala public hai!” Right! Mainstream India gets it. Finally!
(This story appears in the 31 December, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)