Anusha Parthasarathy tracks the origins and growth of the Madras Youth Choir, the oldest Indian choral music group

Over the last 42 years, a motley group of people have met every Sunday and practised their singing, ‘come rain or sun’. Together, they have kept alive the spirit of the oldest Indian choral music group, the Madras Youth Choir.

“It’s not a choir in the literal sense,” says D. Ramachandran, secretary. He joined the group a few months after its inception and has been its secretary since 1974. “This is a new genre where you combine Indian classical music with western techniques such as chord singing, harmony and so on.”

The first among such groups was the Indian People’s Theatre Association, which was active in the pre-Independence and post-Independence days and had the likes of Pandit Ravishankar, Bijon Bhattacharya, Utpal Dutt and Jyotirindra Moitra. “They sang songs on national integration, secularism, human values, rights, lullabies and folk numbers,” reminisces Ramachandran, “And they performed on stage and street corners. M.B. Srinivasan, who was among the pioneers of Indian choral music along with Vasanthi Devi, then Vice Chancellor of Manonmaniam University, K.S. Subramanian, and Zahida Srinivasan began a youth choral group for a programme on the All India Radio.”

This choral group, called Bharathi Ilangnar Isai Kuzhu, was formed in 1971 and its radio show, Ilaya Bharatham, was well received. “M.B. Srinivasan was the composer-director and trained people to sing songs on peace, love and patriotism. He took the songs of national poets such as Subramanya Bharathi, Sir Muhammed Iqbal, Daasaradhi Krishnamacharyulu and set them to music. He then choralised the compositions, which became popular among the public, especially the youth,” he adds.

In order to spread the movement, the group concentrated on folk and secular songs. “He collected lyrics from 14 languages and composed and trained the group to sing them. This made the AIR establish regional AIR choral groups in Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. And here, Srinivasan was made the director,” says Ramachandran. The choir travelled to rural areas of Tamil Nadu and Kerala and trained children and youth groups there.

Between 1974 and 1981, Srinivasan composed about 165 pieces for AIR. “Soon, the group, the Madras Youth Choir (MYC) now, was also recognised by the NCERT to give training to school children. So, they helped schools establish groups, teach and train them in voice culture. A lot of the schools we were associated with still carry on the tradition.”

M.B. Srinivasan received the FIE Award for Creative Excellence in Choral Music in 1976 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1987 for his contribution to choral singing and mass singing. The MYC continues to train students and even conducts workshops and annual competitions in choral music. “We have been receiving grants from the Sangeet Natak Akademi for 20 years now,” says Ramachandran. K.S. Subramanian is now the president of the choir, after Srinivasan passed away in 1988.

The MYC initially began with 30 passionate singers, who came from various walks of life. Now, the group has 26 committed members who assemble every Sunday to rehearse. “People keep changing because this is not their profession, only passion,” he says. “They move away, change jobs and so we have to induct new members. Currently we have 12 men and 14 women and we practise between 3.30 p.m. and 6 p.m. at Children’s Garden School, whether it rains or shines.”

While the group is accompanied by a tabla and harmonium, the stress is on the vocals. “It’s not just group singing and we don’t usually sing cinema songs. We mostly perform Srinivasan’s compositions and also of other composers.”

MYC and its sister group in Kerala, MBS Youth Choir (named after Srinivasan) work together to keep Indian choral music alive. “We still have three of our founding members on board. Our love for singing, passion for music and our commitment to spread this form are the driving force.”

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