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Of choirs and carols

Veenu Sandhu & Gargi Gupta  |  New Delhi 

What’s Christmas without carols? Tradition still holds sway, but choral groups are now experimenting with classic and contemporary versions of old favourites.

It’s that time of the year when the music of carols fills the air. All over the world people celebrate Christmas, and here too, from Shillong to Secunderabad, choral groups enchant listeners with heartwarming melodies that are both timeless and contemporary. This year, 16 of Shillong’s most loved voices have travelled over 2,000 kilometres to enthrall the people of Delhi with their caroling.

On Thursday, they performed at Roosevelt House, the official residence of the US Ambassador, and yesterday, the 16-member Shillong Chamber Choir, who performed for Barack and Michelle Obama during their India visit, sang at a mall (South Delhi’s Select City Walk) for the first time ever. While the choir has been coming to Delhi for the last five years during the festive season, this is the first time they are not in Shillong on Christmas day. “We just couldn’t get bookings on the flight back home,” says Neil Nongkynrih, the choir’s founder-director and conductor. “But this has given us a chance to reach out to more people in the city,” he adds.

Sounds of music
Delhi is not new to choirs and carols. The capital has an active choir circuit. The Delhi Christian Chorus (DCC), formed in 1965, is the oldest, and sings only carols and gospel music — a wide range encompassing everything from Mozart and Bach to old favourites and even some Hindi songs. Directed by Royall S. McLaren, the DCC puts up three concerts every year — two in the nativity season and one during Easter/Lent.

The other prominent choir in Delhi, the Capital City Minstrels (CCM), was formed in 1994 by Zohra Shaw, a fellow of the Trinity College of Music. Sudesh Puri, a member, describes it as a “group comprising people from all walks of life who have come together purely for the love of music”. At least half of these are foreigners, diplomats or senior executives in MNCs. In fact it’s an expat— Gabriella Boda-Rechner, a pianist and music teacher who has directed choral groups all over Europe — who gave the CCM a huge boost in the last few years. She not only energised the CCM but also helped set up the Mozart Children’s Choir, among whose members are underprivileged children, and the Delhi Chamber Choir. Currently, too, CCM is led by two expats, Fiona Hedger-Gourlay and Nadya Balyan. There is, of course, a dedicated band of locals such as Usha Shrivastava, Estelle Desai, Suman Dubey, Maxwell Perreira and others, who have been the mainstay of the choir. And, happily, this band of Delhitiies wanting to sing in chorus is growing. “When we started out we were only 12; this year, we have a hundred members,” says Desai.

The young and the classical
Down south in Chennai a similar choral story is playing out. “In the last five years, we’ve seen a significant increase in the level of interest in and the quality of choir groups,” says longtime Chennai resident Susan Thomas who is also a member of the St Thomas Orthodox Cathedral Choir, one of Chennai’s oldest choirs. Founded by composer A R Rahman’s piano teacher, Jacob John, the choir sings carols in Malayalam. Not an easy task, considering that there’s no history of Indian music in traditional carols. So, every year, the choir goes to the drawing board and writes down two new carols in Malayalam. “When we have enough, we bring out a CD,” says Thomas.

Other choir groups, too, try new innovations every year. Last week at the Christmas carol concert organised by the Madras Christian College Alumni Association, the 65-member children’s choir, Crochets ’n’ Quavers, performed the ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ with dandia sticks in their hands that added to the rhythm. Over 3,000 people turned up for the annual concert on the rainy December day. The youngest member of the Crochets ’n’ Quavers choir, which was set up two years ago, is three-and-a-half year old Tamanna. “She too was selected after an audition where she sang ‘Country Roads’ without going off key even once,” says the choir’s founder Jayanthi Prabhakar. She says more and more parents want their children to join choirs and are paying special attention to voice training. “An increasing number of people are going in for voice exams from the Royal School and the Trinity College of Music,” says Prabhakar who for the last 16 years has also been a member of the Octet Cantabile. Like the children’s choir, the Octet, too, innovates a lot with carols giving even the most traditional ones a classical or contemporary twist.

But the person who is credited with putting Chennai on the world’s music map is pianist, composer and conductor Handel Manuel. He was the first Indian conductor of the Madras Musical Association, an augmented choir founded in 1893 by European expatriates. Handel Manuel died in 1994, but his younger brother founded the Handel Manuel Chorus in his memory in 2003. The choir specialises in church music that goes back to the classical and the Baroque period

“One of the biggest draws in the city is ‘Carols by Candlelight’, an annual feature being organised by the Madras Musical Association for 50 years now,” says Prabhakar.

Carols with solar lamps

In Mumbai, however, candles have made way for solar lamps. Powai’s Holy Trinity Church choir, directed by Father Gavin Lopes, has the singers holding solar lanterns to send out a green message.

The Festival of Festive Music organised by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, has also seen choirs from across India performing an uplifting mix of carols, from the traditional to the new. The Bel Canto Choir from Pune, conducted by Fereida Havewala, added a fun element by singing ‘Santa Santa’ to the foot-tapping Abba number ‘Honey honey’.

In Bandra, traditional street-side carol singing continues, with the last Saturday before Christmas seeing carollers and revellers gathering for some community carol-singing. Churches all over the city, whether small and quaint or large and imposing, resonate with songs to the Lord and a triumphant cheer for the spirit of Christmas.

Oh Kolkata!
Up in the hills of north Bengal, too, the school choir of Dr Graham’s Homes, Kalimpong, and that of the St Paul’s School in Darjeeling are very active. The former has been performing a popular concert series called ‘Rising Stars in Concert’ every winter in Kolkata over the past 10 years or so. This month the boys performed at the famed Tollygunge Club and the race course grounds, enthralling a crowd that numbered nearly 4,500 with their rendition of carols and religious music as also songs from musicals, popular ditties and even Hindi numbers like Rahman’s ‘Ma Tujhe Salaam’.

But of local choirs in Kolkata, there aren’t many of note except, perhaps, the church choirs of which the most reputable is the St Paul’s Cathedral choir. The Tollygunge Trillers, as the 11-member Tolly Club choir calls itself, has been around for 10 years now. It’s a far cry from earlier when the city had a vibrant Western classical music scene. “The Clogs in the 1960s, for instance,” says Mike Robertson, former chairman of Dr Graham’s Homes, “used to specialise in light opera and had Amitabh Bachchan singing.” Sudeep Pande, choir master at the St Paul’s Darjeeling, speaks of the Calcutta Choral in the 1980s, directed by Digby Barrow, which fizzled out when the latter emigrated to Australia. Pande, who was assistant to Barrow, is now part of Kolkata Consult, a small group of singers who perform regularly, but not just sacred music.

Back in Delhi, little groups are also coming together to spread the joy. This evening, Rebecca M Ezung, a professional singer from Kohima, will be singing carols at The Grand in Vasant Kunj. Accompanying her on the guitar will be her younger brother, Chonchio. Two JNU students from Nagaland will also be part of the group. “This is the time for carols,” says Ezung, “and I know everybody present there will join in.”

(With inputs from Anamika Mukharji in Mumbai)

First Published: Sat, December 25 2010. 00:15 IST