RIP Neil: Tributes pour in for Shillong Chamber Choir founder

Neil Nongkynrih passed away on January 5, at the age of 51. A western classical pianist, he set up the popular Shillong Chamber Choir, in 2001, and has now left behind a rich legacy that will be “cherished for a lifetime”.
Neil Nongkynrih passed away in Mumbai, on January 5.
Neil Nongkynrih passed away in Mumbai, on January 5.
Published on Jan 06, 2022 05:35 PM IST
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BySiddhi Jain, New Delhi

The founder and music director of Shillong Chamber Choir, Neil Nongkynrih, passed away on Wednesday evening in Mumbai, leaving behind a memorable legacy. According to a statement from the choir’s members and management, the Padma Shri recipient died at 51, because of “septicaemia due to perforation peritonitis”.

The multi-genre choir, set up by him in 2001, shot to fame after winning India’s Got Talent in 2010. They also performed at the Rashtrapati Bhavan for then US President Barak Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, during their India visit.

Nongkynrih, who was a Western classical pianist in London (UK) for 13 years, came back to Shillong, Meghalaya, in 2001. William Richmond Basaiawmoit, the choir’s lead singer, who joined the group in 2018, says, “It’s going to take us a long time, maybe a lifetime, to understand what he had done for us. These years with him have been life-changing. I can say that I am what I am because of the love he showed. He had tremendous love for his fellow human beings, which I’ve not seen in people. When he took us on, we were just young men and women. It’s been a journey where he single-handedly brought up all of us, and not just musically. Musically doing so was the easy part, but it was as human beings and men and women of character and a strong moral foundation, which he never compromised on. Those principles are something we’d carry on for the rest of our lives.”

Calling him “a prodigy, an absolute musical genius”, Basaiawmoit adds, “When he came back to Shillong, he was already seasoned and recognised, and getting into the circuit of being a concert pianist. To come back to Shillong, he left everything. He saw the immense talent, especially in singing and music, in Shillong and would always say, ‘I have come to replace the sound of guns with the sound of music’. Since that was the time when Shillong was going through tremendous insurgency issues.”

Mentioning about the opera project, which Nongkynrih had been creating since a few years, Basaiawmoit says, “This opera is one of the biggest art showcases for anyone to undertake. He wanted to create a mighty opera and bring an element of our Khasi folklore into it. So for the first time in history of the world, he started writing opera in Khasi. With much pain in the heart, I call it an unfinished opera. He finished a tremendous amount of it, and it was to start doing the rounds when the pandemic hit... This was his biggest contribution. And he brought the name of the Northeast closer to the rest of India. He did that with so much class and dignity. Even to have the name Shillong in the choir’s name itself spoke volumes about him.”

The choir is in Mumbai for creating a spiritual album in Khasi, English and Hindi, and will fly back to Shillong for the funeral.

After the new of his death broke, tributes began pouring in. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Mr. Neil Nongkynrih was an outstanding mentor to the Shillong Chamber Choir, which enthralled audiences globally. I have also witnessed some of their superb performances.He left us too soon. His creativity will always be remembered. Condolences to his family and admirers. RIP.”

Actor-filmmaker Farhan Akhtar wrote, “Saddened to learn that Neil Nongkynrih is no longer with us. His passion for music and dedication to the Shillong Chamber Choir, which he founded, was inspiring. You will be missed sir. RIP. “

Author tweets @siddhijainn

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