I am a Nongkynrih, but I am not a nongkynrih (wanderer in Khasi language),” he insists. But the world doesn’t want him to do what he loves most — be rooted to his home down (poh) the pine trees. Just as well; there aren’t many ksehs (pine trees) left at Pohkseh, the golden address for professional choir music in India.
Neil Nongkynrih feels uprooted every time he goes out of hometown Shillong for a performance. The 40-year-old conductor of Shillong Chamber Choir hates physical travel. But you can’t afford to not be a nongkynrih when you lead the most expensive choir in India. And one that won three gold medals in as many categories at the 6th World Choir Games or Choir Olympics that concluded in Shanghai this week.
Meghalaya capital Shillong has often been synonymous with western music. The influence of Christianity ensured a sizeable following for choirs. “For most people here, choir equalled church music, something to be heard for free and from the pews,” says Nongkynrih. Forming the Shillong Chamber Choir in January 2001 was thus a challenge. “It was a difficult path for a reluctant wanderer to walk on, but attitudes about choir are changing,” he adds.
Nongkynrih and Shillong Chamber Choir began their musical journey playing pieces from Handel, Bach, Gershwin, Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Their popularity graph grew after they added Khasi folk songs, contemporary music and Neil’s compositions. “We play all kinds of music; the sole criterion for selecting music is its positive vibrations,” he says. The group, though, came of age after coming up with Sohlyngngem, the first Khasi folk opera. “It was a love story with shades of dark comedy borne out of my desire to promote Khasi folklore.”
So where did it all start for the youngest of five siblings? Neil’s father and ex-minister A.H. Scott Lyngdoh, 81, attributes it to the home environment. “We let him be what he wanted to be, and we helped him pursue what he loved,” he says. “Of course, his elder sister Pauline has been a huge influence.” But Lyngdoh asserts Neil is a self-made man, and it was his own decision to pursue the piano at Guildhall School of Music and Trinity College in London.
Neil left a high-profile career in London to make western classical music “less elitist”. To mean business, he took several children from underprivileged families on board as they were musically talented. Most in his 16-member choir are under 20 years, the youngest being cellists Ryan and Adiel, both 15. Shillong Chamber Choir has also been kind of a rehab for the likes of lead singer Johanan Lyngdoh (20), a former drug addict, and Mika Phanbuh (17), who has overcome Down’s Syndrome to sing, play the piano and read music.
Neil’s house — a green-roofed cottage named Tovya — is also a school besides being home for all his choir members. He teaches English to them while his father teaches them political science. “I call it ‘home school’, because I want my school to be a place where children can blossom and be their true selves,” says Neil, who did not enjoy studies and the school he went to. “Maybe I used to spend my time playing the piano to escape the drudgery of studies.”
Neil now wants to escape from whoever comes seeking a performance from the Shillong Chamber Choir. “I get caught because I hate moving from home,” he says. His mind, though, keeps “traveling musically” — on a “horse-drawn cart” rather than a “supersonic” mode of transport. “I am very slow and steady. I take a lot of time to get something done; my Khasi opera, for instance, took six years unlike my fast-paced idol Mozart,” he says. As they say, slow and steady wins the race. And a hat-trick of gold medals at Choir Olympics.