Utpal Borpujari

September 29, 2008

A choir from the abode of clouds

A documentary introduces viewers to the Shillong Chamber Choir and the man behind it, writes


Utpal Borpujari

For somebody who has written scripts for Hindi films like Darmiyaan, Shararat, Rules – Pyar ka Superhit Formula, Khosla Ka Ghosla and under-production Oye Lucky Lucky Oye , , it was quite a change for Urmi Juvekar when she got down to make a film on a choir from Northeastern India, looking not only at its specialised music but also bring out to the outside world a story unknown.

It was even tougher a task for Juvekar as she had no idea about choir music, let alone the struggles of this particular group led by Neil Nongkynrih from music-crazy Meghalaya’s capital Shillong. Quite naturally, the simply-titled The Shillong Chamber Choir, made  by Juvekar for the Ministry of External Affairs of Government of India, is a journey of exploration for not only for its viewers but also has been so for its director.

Nongkynrih is almost a legend in that part of the world, having been a professional Western music practioner in Britain for a long period before moving back home to Shillong to raise this group by getting together musically-talented children under his tutelage almost with a missionary zeal. It has been a tough journey for the musician who has had to fight regular cash crunch to develop the choir to its present stage, when it regularly performs to great acclaim outside and within India, singing English and Khasi pieces as well Western classical composition.     

Now, Neil and his group’s story is set to reach across to more parts of the world through Juvekar’s film, that is one of the several the Ministry’s Public Diplomacy Division has commissioned on the Northeast to bring the politically-charged region closer to the outside world. An alumni of the Guildhall School of Music and Trinity College in London, Nongkynrih also had training under eminent pianists Phillip Fowke of Britain and Katrina Wolpe of Vienna, but it is the story of his setting up the Choir in Shillong that forms the backbone of the documentary.

And quite rightly so, as what Nongkynrih is doing is far beyond the ordinary. He scours the pretty hills of Meghalaya for musically-gifted children, and takes them under his wing full time, training them in music as also educating them and providing them even a home if they are from socially-disadvantaged groups. The documentary brings out the musical talent of the children in the Choir and to some extent its mentor’s dedication to train them in the face of monetary and other adversities. But in parts, in looks like a work in a hurry as it stops short of giving much clue into the backgrounds of the children despite cursorily mentioning it, or how they divide their time between their training and respective families.

Juvekar admits to these shortfalls but says she had to focus more on the musical aspect of the group given the limit of the film’s length. “It is a kind of an introduction to the Choir, and viewers can definitely find out more about them, if they want to,” she says. The director researched for the film for about ten days and shot it in about 15 days spread over five months. Quite evidently, quite a few interesting aspects about the Choir are not part of the film, including some more details about the prodigious 13-year-old soprano Ibarisha Lyngdoh who can sing in Khasi, Hindi, Assamese English, French, German, Italian and Latin. 

But Juvekar has managed to bring out the overall musical mood of her subject, starting from the very first shot in which a few young girls practice their singing even as they go on doing their daily chores. In fact, it is the natural musical orientation of the Khasis that impressed Juvekar the most during the making of the film, apart from the discipline of the children in the Choir who are single-mindedly devoted to music. “It was a real education for me. We know so little about the passion for music in Meghalaya. Everyone sings so well in Shillong. During our shooting, neighbours would join in with the children. Here is a state that is so musically oriented,” she reminisces about a region which has the local legend Low Majaw celebrating Bob Dylan’s birthday every May 24 since last several decades. 

“What is great about Neil is that he left a high-profile career in London, to give vent to what he always wanted to do, and despite the uncertainties of finances, he has taken several children from underprivileged families on board as they are musically talented. Tell me, how many people would do that in today’s day and age?” she says.

(An abridged version was published in Sakaal Times, www.sakaaltimes.com, 05-09-2008)

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