Make way for the Soprano from Gurugram

Updated on Oct 22, 2016 07:19 PM IST

Did you know the first Indian to be part of 500-year-old Vienna Boys’ Choir is an intrepid 11-year-old from Gurugram?

The choir pitch is closest to the Soprano quality of voice, which Rishan Bhatnagar possesses
The choir pitch is closest to the Soprano quality of voice, which Rishan Bhatnagar possesses

He had never heard of yodelling in Bollywood or maverick genius Kishore Kumar’s demonstration of his repertoire in songs such as Zindagi ik safar hai suhana. But Rishan Bhatnagar’s impressive rendering of Austrian Yodeller won the boy from Gurugram a scholarship to one of the best-known choirs in the world. Bhatnagar, 11, is the only Indian to be part of the 500-year-old Vienna Boys’ Choir, that includes an ensemble of sopranos, trebles and altos based in the Austrian capital. The choir has been the cradle for the creativity of such iconic composers as Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, Schubert and Haydn.

For a few moments, forget the grandstanding and simply listen to the 11-year-old sing The Fledermaus Overture. The words ‘clarity’ and ‘class’ spring to your mind as his voice rises and falls, sounding like sharp droplets of water dropping on a wooden board, strung together by symphony. Neither is there a note out of place, nor a trace of nervousness.

His mother says Rishan’s love for music was apparent at a young age. The Bhatnagars used to play a lot of Mozart in the car. Also, while watching Tom and Jerry on television, he was transfixed whenever the guitars and harps began playing. “The first time I took Rishan to a classical concert, he said he enjoyed the classical music by closing his eyes and imagining Tom and Jerry running after each other. We attended a lot of musicals and concerts, just about anything that was playing the city,” says his mother, Shaheen Khokhar Bhatnagar.

Once he was initiated into western classical music, Rishan took to it like a natural. He could hold a tune at the age of one. “By the age of two, he was climbing onto the stage and joining live bands that were playing in restaurants where we ate and singing along,” says Shaheen.

“So, we decided to put him into a music academy for formal training in the piano and the fundamentals of western classical music,” she adds.

Lorraine F Aloysius, creative director and principal, Lorraine Music Academy, Gurugram, remembers the day Rishan’s mother approached her to take her son under her wings. “Rishan was just six. His mom said he would like to join our choir. My first reaction was to ask him to sing and he did that effortlessly. Rishan sang so confidently it appeared he was already a trained singer,” says his music teacher.

Having learnt the piano for more than two years, Rishan began participating in stage shows that the choir performed. “He could practise for hours on end if we were rehearsing for a performance,” recalls Aloysius. “He stood out as someone very comfortable on stage. With these shows, we nurtured his natural flair for singing a little and ultimately he joined the Mozart Children’s Choir in Delhi, where he was the youngest member at the age of eight,” she adds.

Rishan went on an Asian tour last year, performing in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Last year he spent his birthday in China and this year it was spent in Spain
Rishan went on an Asian tour last year, performing in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Last year he spent his birthday in China and this year it was spent in Spain

Most choir singers sing at a very high pitch, says Aloysius. Their voice is best trained between the ages of eight years to 14 years. The choir pitch is closest to the Soprano quality of voice, which Rishan possesses. When he went to the Vienna choir, the range expanded dramatically, but it stayed on the higher side in the Soprano range, she explains.

It was during a rehearsal for the Mozart Children’s Choir that young Rishan caught the eye of Vienna Boys Choir director Gerald Wirth. “He said he liked the way I was yodelling,” says Rishan, with a glint in his eye. “Then, he approached my parents and asked them whether they would like to send me to Vienna to join the choir.”

In pursuit of a passion

Rishan’s father, Ritesh Bhatnagar, marketing honcho with a dating website and mom Shaheen, a freelance writer, were initially reluctant to send him away at such a young age. But after a few weeks, in April 2015, they decided to let Rishan follow his heart. “My father played in the Ranji Trophy and I wanted to pursue the gentleman’s game as well. But then I had to suppress my ambition and follow the conventional school, engineering and MBA route. When it came to Rishan, we realised his passion lay in music and that he wanted to pursue it badly,” says Ritesh.

So, the then nine year old moved to Vienna to stay at the Augarten Palais, which houses the Vienna Boys’ Choir. For the past couple of years, he has been staying in Vienna away from his family. Initially, he missed his mother’s cooking, his father’s affection and younger sister’s tantrums. He had to learn German and it was difficult to begin with, but he picked it up in a few months. Today, Rishan doesn’t appear to be homesick, far from it. After all, how many 11-year-olds get to study in a school housed in a European palace, travel the world and have a lot of fun chasing their dreams? “We have classes in the palace. Plus, it has very big grounds where we can play football,” says the Lionel Messi fan.

Playing football for a few hours every evening is something young Rishan looks forward to. After four hours of school every morning, he does choir practice for two hours. Then it is back to four hours of classes after a lunch break. He has school for four hours again and then is free at six in the evening. “In my free time, I go out and play football and from eight to nine I pick up my phone and speak to my parents. At nine we are ready for bed again,” says Rishan, with a toothy smile.

Then there is the globetrotting which is part and parcel of being a member of a world renowned choir. Rishan went on an Asian tour last year, performing in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. Last year he spent his birthday in China and this year he will be in Spain. “He has performed in 20 Chinese cities and visited the Great Wall of China which even I haven’t done. But the best part of his trips, according to Rishan, was visiting the Universal Studios in Singapore,” says his mother Shaheen.

Apart from learning music, Rishan is gaining valuable life lessons, thanks to the exposure to global cultures that he is getting at the choir school. The 100 students at the choir, including local students and international ones, have been divided into four sections named after iconic composers Brucker, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert. “In the Haydn group, I have classmates from Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Poland and the US. Our choir master Jimmy Chang, who is from Hong Kong, treats all of us like individuals and since the medium of teaching is German, you cannot really make out where the person comes from,” says Rishan with the wisdom and maturity way beyond his age.

Most boy choirs stipulate that the members be aged between 9 and 13 years. Once his voice breaks, as is likely to happen when he enters his teens, young Rishan may decide whether to continue to study in Europe or return to Gurugram. But at the moment he is not thinking about it. “I love every moment which we get to spend in school and the travel to various countries,” he says with a giggle.

In 1740, Mozart’s mentor Joseph Haydn left home at six to learn music in Vienna. A few centuries later, in his own way, an Indian boy is following a similar trajectory. Will Rishan reach the heights that the school’s alumni attained? Now that is another story for another time.


Know your vocals

In choir singing, the soprano is the highest vocal range, above the alto, tenor, and bass. Classical solo singers, however, can display a number of vocal traits, including range, vocal timbre, vocal weight, vocal tessitura, vocal resonance, and vocal transition points.

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    Aasheesh Sharma works with the opinion team at Hindustan Times. Over the last 20 years, he has worked with a wire service, newspapers, magazines and television. His story on the longest train journey in India was included in an anthology on train writings in 2014.

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