The Shillong Chamber Choir are doing their very best to hide just how much they want to get back home. Out of the glitzy silk jackets and gauzy saris they’ve worn on stage for television reality show India’s Got Talent Khoj 2—which they’ve just won by a thumping margin—they are just exhausted young men and women, wilting a little in the afternoon heat. They are being lauded, feted, and asked to describe how they feel by each journalist who meets them—and there have been many. It’s been a television season’s worth of drama, emotion and hard work.
When they assemble to sing, the transformation from unremarkable young people to bona-fide superstars is so complete that it’s easy to understand what the country’s voters were thinking when they powered them through to the title.
“It’s been so hectic,” says Jessica Lyngdoh, 23, one of the choir’s sopranos. “But we won.”
“Oh, is that all you came for? To sing and win?” asks Neil Nongkynrih, choir director—who also describes himself as “manager, and father figure, and everything”—rhetorically.
“No, but it was the cherry on the top,” Lyngdoh demurs. It’s not the effect of sleeping at 5am or snatching meals just as the hotel buffet shuts down. They had no idea they would win at all. They didn’t even want to be here. “They called us to the screening rounds in Guwahati,” Nongkynrih says. “I said no—I was preparing for China at the time.” He is talking about their appearances at the World Choir Games in Shaoxing, a somewhat more likely stage for this group of 13—its boutique size more suited to a glee club than a classical choir—than a raucous reality show.
Clincher: The Shillong Chamber Choir’s final act of Yeh Dosti from Sholay
The competition in China was in July. The Shillong Chamber Choir went up against groups from all over the world, some of them 50- and 60-strong, and won three gold medals, one for each category in which they appeared. They returned, and the TV guys were calling again. “They said, ‘Let India hear what you are doing, come to the Kolkata round,’” says Nongkynrih. “We were suspicious and apprehensive at first, we thought we’d be used—typical Bollywood story—but it turned out everyone was very nice. So we came, because I wanted the choir to have a chance at performing at this scale. But no, we had no thought of winning.”
Winning does not figure in the Nongkynrih scheme of things, he says. Honesty and integrity, character, devotion—these are more important than even music. “When you see the choir, and you wonder, ‘Why did they make me feel like weeping? Why do they give me goosebumps?’, this is what you are hearing,” Nongkynrih says. Since he is the founder and the moving spirit of the Shillong Chamber Choir, the choristers follow his lead in matters of the soul.
They have been together for over four years—although Nongkynrih began the choir itself in 2001, with a different group of singers—and have travelled around the world, performing and collecting the odd medal, but the choir is not a school that inculcates competitive spirit. That would be beside the point.
They are a motley collection of individuals, aged between 16 (Ryan Lamin, bass) and 29 (Donna Marthong, alto, and a former L’Oréal model), most of whom live together under the supervision of “Uncle Neil” (also Neil Sir, or Mr Neil, depending on who’s asking). They spend their days rehearsing, learning and teaching music.
Thanks to an arrangement that allows them to home-study, they go to college twice a year for exams. Performing in historic halls in Europe, China and Korea is an education all on its own.
On India’s Got Talent, they’ve showcased a mere fraction of their traditional range, but singing Bollywood numbers was a major amendment to their usual style. Coming as they do from a town big on choral music but largely bemused by Hindi film songs (“It’s only the old people who liked it! Well, before our win.”), they haven’t just opened a window on Meghalaya to Hindi-speaking India, but also achieved the reverse.
Mumbai has been a learning experience too. “I didn’t think I would meet nice people here,” says Riewbankit Lyndem, 19, bass. “But I’ve met so many from all over the country, and they have all been so...good!” He sounds surprised.
They’ve loved interacting with their competitors. They first sang their semi-final hit, Yeh Dosti, backstage with the Sai Sufi Pariwar from Delhi. Before the final, Rajasthani drag artiste Queen Harish called to tell them he was praying for their victory. Now, on their last evening before they return to Shillong, they have been invited to the home of India’s Got Talent judge Kirron Kher.
Kher, one of their staunchest champions, is celebrating their introduction to showbiz over tea in the company of her friend Pamela Chopra, wife of producer-director Yash Chopra and a musician of no mean gift herself. “It’s almost genius,” Pamela exclaims to Nongkynrih. “Such a rich sound, and so much discipline. How do you pick these singers?”
Nongkynrih is circumspect about their stories. The choir is essentially a self-teaching and mutual support group. Some of the children drift into the choir’s house from harder, more precarious lives. They keep praying—and, of course, playing music. It’s a tight ship.
“There’s a standard of professionalism that set them apart,” Kher says of their performances on the show. “It was a standard you don’t see often on reality shows. They weren’t the most flamboyant act on India’s Got Talent, unlike the more physical performers. It’s wonderful to know that India voted for them in spite of that. I used the Hindi word sabhya on air to describe you,” she says to them. “It means ‘cultured’. You’re all very cultured.”
If there is an air of dutifulness in the way they assemble in her living room to reprise their greatest hits off the show, it vanishes the moment they begin to sing. The Shillong Chamber Choir are astonishing. Their rendition of a piece from Nongkynrih’s Khasi-language opera Sohlyngngem is like hearing a rousing Verdi chorus in an atrium. “Like Beijing opera meets Italian!” Kher says.
The choir’s repertoire, which ranges from classical music to reworks of Queen hits, has expanded to include Bollywood numbers this year. But their choral-style revamps of Hindi film classics such as Kabhi aar kabhi paar and Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh are no bloodless Gregorian chant-like affairs. The pure, sweet voice of soloist Ibarisha Lyngdoh, 17, a soprano if there ever was one, leads them through the performance, as their versatility encompasses a sound that is deep and varied enough to suggest a choir of many more numbers. The words are unfamiliar to them, but that doesn’t stop them from entering into the arrangements with gusto. By the end of their reworking of Sholay’s buddy classic, Yeh Dosti, their audience is both moved and delighted. In their rendition, the boisterous, bromance-ish vibe of the original shifts into sublime harmony, almost wistful as they sing about the wish to live and die together.
They don’t have time to do much more than quaff their tea before they speed off to a television interview. In the car, everyone is trying to catch naps. Mumbai has taught them about traffic too. It’s a new perspective on life—outside, after, beyond everything they’ve already achieved.
“I never thought I’d like Bollywood,” says ex-metalhead and recent classical music enthusiast Johanan Lyngdoh, 21, tenor. “But there’s just something about the arrangements that makes me love it now—Uncle Neil makes it so grand, so complicated. Before, it sounded,” he stumbles over the word, “cheap to my ears. Now it doesn’t.”
“I chose classical music because it’s about joy,” Jessica Lyngdoh tells me, as the others fall asleep in bumper-to-bumper dinner-time traffic. “There’s some music that just makes you want to die—especially when you’re at an age where everything is about emotion and feeling. But this music makes you want to live.”
Watching them come alive on television as their voices glided delicately over songs about the deathless love of friends, their Bollywood-savant audiences across the country probably felt the same way—as much, perhaps, as do the denizens of Rashtrapati Bhawan, the aficionados in St James’ Church, London, or the audiences waiting back home, in the concert halls of Shillong.
Here’s where they’re headed
Egypt, followed by Israel
Rashtrapati Bhawan, for the President’s annual Christmas concert
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