Neil Nongkynrih shot to national fame after his creation, the Shillong Chamber Choir, won the famous reality show India’s Got Talent. From then on, Neil and the Choir were invited to some of the most happening events across the country where they wowed the audience with their unique style and endeared themselves to music maestros, including A. R. Rahman who visited them in Shillong.
When the world regales the music virtuoso for his creative genius they usually don’t see what’s behind the glamour and glitz of the Shillong Chamber Choir’s stage performances. It’s a daunting task to keep a dozen young folks under one roof and train them not just in music but also in ethics, grooming, and discipline. In a universe that’s increasingly turning against the idea of prayer and spirituality, the world should know that the Choir turns to God several times a day and that is perhaps what keeps the fire in their souls burning.
I have known Neil since he was a young, mischievous lad of 12 years who found school boring as I guess many young teenagers even now do. That friendship lasted over the decades although I am at least a decade older. Neil said school cramped his creativity and he was not interested in anything else but music. Thankfully, at 18 years in 1988, he managed a sponsorship from music aficionados in the United Kingdom and moved there to study music at Trinity College and Guildhall School of Music, London. While in London, Neil performed as a concert pianist at many events. He was soon recognised for his unique musical talent and started teaching music in Oxfordshire. Many of his pupils still keep in touch. One of them, Philip Selway, is now a member of the famous British musical band Radiohead.
Meghalaya has lost a legend this January, but legends live in the minds and hearts of people and continue to inspire well beyond their lifetime.
Setting up Shillong Chamber Choir
Neil Nongkynrih, who was at heart a compassionate musician, began to question if his life in the UK was worth it and if he could return home to teach young people from his community. That was what brought Neil to Shillong in 2001. He began by teaching piano to young people, and then with like-minded friends like Christine Iralu, another pianist of repute, he founded the now-famous Shillong Chamber Choir.
The word ‘Choir’ is often misleading. People associate it with church music. But Neil was such a versatile genius that he could quickly and seamlessly make the Choir switch from classical to pop medley to Bollywood, and that is the USP of the Shillong Chamber Choir. Of course, many purists did not take kindly to that, but Neil never allowed opinions to influence his thinking. He was clear in his mind about what the audience would like and he would present that. Neil was acutely conscious that the Choir were a group of performers and that they would have to win the hearts of the audience anywhere they performed. Hence, each performance was carefully choreographed to near perfection. Neil’s repertoire of songs was phenomenal and rarely does an Indian musician get an international orchestra to accompany him, but Neil did that when he brought the Vienna Chamber Orchestra to perform with the Shillong Chamber Choir in Delhi and Shillong.
Neil Nongkynrih and the Choir were composing the music for Meghalaya’s 50th year, but without him to lead the Choir and inspire it, the journey will now be almost a painful one.
Speaking to William Basaiawmoit, who is the lead singer of the Choir, one gets the sense that Neil has built them up to be rock solid in their faith.
“We believe God’s time is the best time and God has taken Uncle Neil in His time. We must pull ourselves together and take his life’s mission forward,” William told me.
In fact, Neil, who was paranoid about flying, had trained the Choir to perform independently without his physical presence. And they did that on several occasions.
Leaders lead by example
As I wrote in The Shillong Times, it’s not been an easy journey for the Shillong Chamber Choir. Discipline, hard work, rigour and mental and emotional strength are all invested in producing good music. It may look easy to the audience, but the sleepless nights and rigorous practice over weeks and months is what people don’t see. Being part of the Choir is also about learning team spirit.
Neil Nongkynrih trained his team to pursue a selfless life and to give their best. This sort of grooming is what will stand the Choir in good stead in the days to come. In fact, the Shillong Chamber Choir represents the best leadership model – it’s the model of servant-leadership, which is biblical. Leaders don’t command others to do what they don’t do themselves. Leaders lead by example. Neil Nongkynrih did that and made everything look easy. But only those who know the journey of the Choir would know the rough edges. It is this journey that must be documented for posterity.
I recall the very first public performance of the Choir in 2001 at Shillong’s Hotel Pinewood. No sooner had Neil’s light fingers landed on the piano keys, there was a hushed silence. And then when the duet Phantom of the Opera was belted by two soloists, the audience was spellbound. Such moments are difficult to replicate. Neil had that subtle touch of British discipline and perfection, having imbibed it during his stay in England.
Neil performed for prime ministers, presidents, ambassadors and corporate honchos and royalty across countries and left an indelible imprint in every heart. So taken were they by Neil’s simplicity and candour that they would offer to take him and the Choir for a holiday on a private jet. But Neil never got carried away by the glamour of stardom. He remained rooted to his soil and his people.
Those who know Neil intimately also know that he fed and clothed many destitute people since the pandemic hit the country and Meghalaya in 2020, as I wrote earlier. He first started the Uncle’s Ark home delivery service, and the Choir members who could no longer travel to perform at different venues across India and the world reinvented themselves into smart business entrepreneurs knowing where to source products from. Some baked savouries and pastries, others packed and sent off stuff through young delivery boys who found employment in those dark days. Uncle’s Ark’s products were a class apart and this service continues. That is Neil’s forte; to keep reinventing himself and the Choir so much so they can sing in different languages and genres.
Neil had a very soft spot for the poor, and employed some young people he helped rescue from the coal mines of Jaintia Hills. On his birthday last year, Neil treated them to a grand party. That was Neil, at home with dignitaries and mine workers.
Au revoir, Neil
This time, the Shillong Chamber Choir was in Mumbai to complete their Gospel album, which was Neil’s last big project and one that he was in a hurry to complete. But there is that one song that Neil wanted recorded — his much-loved composition, “The Great Indian Train Journey.” The day the recording was done, an excited Neil called up to say, “You must watch this video but there’s a surprise waiting for you.” When prodded further, Neil confided sheepishly that he danced in the video. “Some people who were watching me said, ‘Sir are you a film star?’” And he guffawed in the typical Neil style — like an excited kid than the debonair director of a world-famous choir. That video will be a prized possession of those who value Neil’s versatility and genius.
When news arrived on the night of 4 January that Neil was going in for a difficult operation at the Kokilaben Hospital in Mumbai, many prayed fervently for his healing, but God had other plans for this 51-year-old man who lived a completely selfless life – he lived for others and was happiest when others were happy.
Neil was born to conquer hearts and that’s what he keeps doing. Alas that single aspiration of his to make an opera based on the Khasi folklore, ‘Ka Sohlynngem’, remains an unfinished project, but knowing Neil he must have left that for the Choir members to work on.
Au revoir Neil, you will be deeply missed. That mischievous smile of the 10-year-old with dimples who found school a boring place because his heart yearned for the freedom to create music will remain etched in our memories.
The author is a journalist and editor of The Shillong Times. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)