Concert pianist Neil Nongkynrih’s first rendezvous with opera – Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten at London’s English National Opera House, in 1990 – was unfulfilling. In fact, he hated it. ‘The first time it did not hit me – didn’t sound profound to me. But gradually I grew to love it,’ smiles Nongkynrih, who grew up in Meghalaya but studied music at Guildhall School of Music and Trinity College in Britain. He has since come to renown as a concert pianist and versatile teacher, working on an eclectic range of music including piano. One of his pupils – the English musician Philip Selway, best known as the drummer for the rock group Radiohead – has won the US Grammy Award multiple times.
Nongkynrih’s first public piano performance in the UK was in the presence of British royalty, which inevitably led to additional European recitals. But his inquietude eventually brought him back to his roots in the Indian Northeast. There, he branched out into composing, writing music for both opera and choir. In 2001, he took a sabbatical, coming back to his hometown of Shillong after 13 years in London. There, suddenly, he realised his sojourn in England was over: It was time to give back to his own society.
He set up the Shillong Chamber Choir in 2001. (He is also the artistic director and guest conductor of the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, considered one of the finest in the world.) The choir has a unique repertoire that includes such Western standards as Handel, Bach and Gershwin, and has proven able to enthral audiences in Vienna, London, Geneva, Poland, China and elsewhere. The singers have been trained for musicals, and have sung in German, Italian, Chinese and French, as well as Malayalam and Bengali. Their latest accolade was a silver medal in the folklore category at the World Choir Championships in July 2009 in South Africa. There, the choir won for an opera composed and directed by Nongkynrih, which revolves around an ancient Khasi folktale, ‘Sohlyngngem’, a traditional love story about a girl who turns into a bird. Set in modern times, the opera subtly interweaves political and social undercurrents (such as the matrilineal system of Khasi society and its clashes with modern-day Christian doctrines), community life, universal human feelings such as unrequited love, and even globalisation.
It was in a moment of creative stasis, Nongkynrih says, that he first decided to experiment with opera in his mother tongue, Khasi, which he laments is one of India’s ‘dying languages’. Today, less than 900,000 people are estimated to speak Khasi, nearly all of whom live in Meghalaya, while the convent-educated youths of Shillong would rather speak in English. Further, with the media boom, it is the glut of Western culture that today inevitably enthuses the youth. As such, Nongkynrih says he is now planning to focus more extensively on opera in local languages, including one in Hindi that he hopes can be a commercial success.
In part, he is helped by the fact that music, particularly Western music, plays an inordinately significant part in the lives of the people of Shillong. Indeed, this passion for Western music is both a legacy of the colonial past and due to the influence of Christian missionaries, with many in Shillong having grown up seeing their parents and grandparents strumming guitars to tunes of the Beatles and Elvis Presley. While much of the younger generation knows little today about traditional Khasi music, some musicians from Shillong are currently trying to revive these musical traditions. For instance, rock bands such as Summersalt, the members of which call their music ‘indigenous experimental rock’, are using both ethnic and modern musical instruments. Kit Shangpliang of the band says, ‘A group of like-minded musicians like us are trying to carve our own identity and revive our culture. It is a small group getting bigger. We are trying to package our music in such a way that the youngsters can easily digest it.’
Despite the local thirst for Western music, however, opera remains largely indigestible for much of India today. ‘I have not come across any other opera composer in India so far,’ Nongkynrih says. As an art form, opera is yet to establish a foothold in India, though it is being performed irregularly by groups such as the Delhi Opera Ensemble and the Neemrana Music Foundation in Delhi and Mumbai. These groups face significant constraints in staging expensive operas, however, as sponsors who lack familiarity with the art form are not keen to invest. Sometimes, foreign embassies host opera groups from their own countries for elite Indian audiences. But Nongkynrih says, ‘I am not going to Europe – Europe has to come to me. The world is changing now. The West is coming to India.’
Nongkynrih applies this syncretic vision to himself, as well. For instance, while he derides the fact that middle class’s tendencies to speak in ‘Kha-lish’, a blend of Khasi and English, he says that he still chooses the piano over a traditional Khasi musical instrument. ‘We have to take the best of the West,’ he says. ‘This instrument has evolved over hundreds of years as an ultimate sophisticated musical instrument. It is a question of using the best equipment to express yourself.’
As a musician, Nongkynrih started very young. As a child prodigy, he began to play the piano by his third birthday, with his sister as his first mentor. But many people found his phenomenal ability strange. ‘I was bit of a freak,’ he says. ‘I was like a circus – people used to come and see me perform.’ Indeed, the precocious young Neil soon began to use this popularity to his advantage. One time, as guests gathered around, he refused to play until the crowd sent a hat around to take up a collection.
Today, his choir is medley of people – from a young boy who was a former coolie, to the granddaughter of former President R Venkataraman. One boy was into drugs until his parents caught him; Nongkynrih says there is now a marked change in him, and he sings enthusiastically in the opera. The choir has also opened up Nongkynrih’s home to children with special needs and those from underprivileged backgrounds. Little Home School, an alternative-education centre with music therapy, keeps him busy. ‘I teach them to respect each other by what they do in their lives, and not due to the kind of ‘spoon’ one is born with,’ he said. ‘What you do with that spoon is what is important.’
Nongkynrih calls himself a hard taskmaster. But ‘we have lot of fun together,’ says the bachelor, who considers his choir his family. His home is both his workstation and his cocoon, and he says he finds concerts to be cold and impersonal. Indeed, he says that music for him appeals to the spirit rather than to reason, and that good music can thus change people’s lives. If he could be like anyone, he says, it would be his old tailor, who led a sequestered and contented life. ‘If ever I would live to be that old, I would like to lead a life of dignity like him,’ he says.
Meanwhile, he loves being in Shillong, where he says he can enjoy life in all of its simplicity. ‘I have proved that I have achieved much more without being in Delhi or Mumbai,’ he says. ‘For me, success is not winning a Grammy, but rather has to do with quality of life. We have to understand what we are here for.’
~Teresa Rehman is a journalist based in Northeast India. She can be reached at www.teresarehman.net.