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The Music Will Never Die: Remembering 'Uncle Neil', Founder Of Shillong Chamber Choir

Founder Of Shillong Chamber Choir and Padma Shri Neil Nongkynrih passed away on January 5 in Mumbai at the age of 51.

The Music Will Never Die: Remembering 'Uncle Neil', Founder Of Shillong Chamber Choir
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Neil Nongkynrih’s house in Shillong is a bungalow dating back to the early 1950s built by an American family. It’s called the Whispering Pines. Whenever he was in town, it buzzed with well-wishers who were feted with music and sumptuous food cooked by the choir members who also doubled up as culinary stars. I had seen that buzz and particularly loved one memorable wintry evening by the fireside. He regaled us with his musical tales and insisted that we help ourselves to all the food on the table. It was always a treat. Whenever he travelled, his hotel suite was no different. He made time for people who loved and wished him well. I feel privileged that I could be counted on as one of those who he loved.

But this love did not just happen. Sometime in mid-2000, the choir, which was formed in 2001, had come to Delhi for perhaps their debut performance. It was low key; just part of the routine activity at a cultural centre. I was with a daily and pleaded with my editor that we must cover them. That evening I listened in rapt attention to a young girl (Ibarisha Lyngdoh) with a sharp soprano voice singing “Mama”, a beautiful outpouring to a mother. I joined the audience as I wiped away my tears. I then quickly made my way backstage and introduced myself to the Shillong Chamber Choir. We have never looked back since then…

There was something about Neil that drew you to him. He had a genuine and unconditional love for people. His empathy for others was remarkable. The choir and its soulful songs are a reflection of his magnanimity and the kind of work and commitment he has done since he founded it in 2001. It grew organically over the years. “I never imagined that we would go this far. It has been a blessing,” he had told me.

It was in the basement of his parent's home that he first began. That is where he took to home-schooling his students who trickled in one by one. All of them joined at different times. All of them as difficult teenagers.

The youngest member, Ibarisha Lyngdoh, now 23, came to Neil when she was just 11 and a half. It was a rainy day, Neil would recount, when Iba's father, a man of very little means, turned up at his home and asked Neil to take care of his gifted daughter. Neil took it upon himself to work on Iba who is today one of the best sopranos in the country.

William Richmond, 33, came when he was 18 all because he had heard of Neil and wanted to be a musician under his tutelage. After 15 years of being with Neil, William now says, music is just a small part of the reason for being with the Choir. More than anything,he says, it is the relationship that Neil fostered among its members. The choir is family.

And so it is with Donna Marthong, 40, the senior-most member of the choir, who was all of 18 when she joined the Chamber Choir. Or Rishilla Jamir, 33, who at 19 came from Nagaland. 

Neil home-schooled the children initially at the basement of his parent's home where the young teenagers juggled music, practice, studies and chores. Later in 2012, he moved with the children to Whispering Pines, a sprawling campus where you would often spot him sweating it out at the badminton court. It had a vegetable and flower garden that he and the children nurtured.

The members led a regimented life under his supervision. “Music is not everything,” he would often say to me. “I want them to be good human beings. I do not want arrogance. Pride must never get into their heads”. So while they would be stars performing with the Vienna Chamber Orchestra or Manchester Chamber concerts, or singing for Barack Obama, once curtains were down and the encores had ended, it was back to their everyday mix of practice and chores.

There was a sense of urgency in the way he wanted members trained in a certain way. He was preparing them for life - a life, perhaps, without his physical presence.

Many of those who knew Neil would have felt the embrace of his healing prayers. When he was in Mumbai for his recordings, his guests came to experience his spirituality. He prayed for them, exhorting blessings for them. It was his way of expressing his deepest love for others.

The onset of the pandemic wasn’t easy for the Choir. All their shows were cancelled and it became clear that something needed to be done. He refused to use his many contacts for support. Instead, he along with the choir members changed their roles overnight. They set up something called Uncle’s Ark where they sourced fresh local produce, meats and started a catering venture. Even there, Neil was mindful of the needy. Proceeds of the sales went to those who were homeless and hungry. He and his team cooked for health workers. Every member had a department to take care of. Willian, for instance, learnt to cut meats almost like a butcher. Ibarisha took care of the Thai kitchen. Similarly, other members had their roles. By day, they were kitchen staff and by evening they were back to being musicians.

Neil was a creative genius, restless and bursting with ideas. It was during the lockdown that they built a studio within the compound. It was from this studio that they would do their digital shows. The music didn't stop.

It was also during this time that Neil thought of an album. He started to push to get it done. The choir couldn’t quite understand the urgency. Songs of Dawn is a three-album series – consisting of 11 songs in Hindi, 11 in English and 11 in Khasi. Neil was saying goodbye to the world, he was thanking those who had showered him with love.

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The king is gone but will never be forgotten. The Chamber Choir will carry forward Neil’s soulful legacy.

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