CHATLINE: A long history, a rich repertoire, 80 singers. DIVYA KUMAR chronicles the achievements of the 117-year-old choir of the Madras Musical Association

They've sung before the Pope and at the Pantheon in Rome; they've sung at the Coventry Cathedral in England and on the BBC Radio; they sang at the Sydney Opera House ahead of the 2000 Olympics, and come 2012, they'll be part of the pre-Olympics cultural celebrations once again, this time at the Alexandra Palace on the outskirts of London, on the banks of the Thames.

We're talking, of course, about Chennai's own choir-that-could, the 117-year-old, 80-voice Madras Musical Association choir. Formed in 1893, by a group of Europeans who came together often to sing, the choir has never been disbanded or defunct, though there was a brief lull in the late 1980s, says Dr. Ravi Santosham, president of MMA for the last 20 years.

“From about 1985 to 1990, the support we had from the consulates fell away, there was hardly any activity, and we lost a lot of voices — we thought there wouldn't be an MMA choir anymore,” he says. “But a handful of us continued to meet once a week, we started having membership drives, and we've just gone from strength to strength since then.”

That would be an understatement. Composed of 80 Chennai-ites from various walks of life (high school and college students, IT professionals and engineers, doctors and nurses, playback singers and homemakers… the list is endless), the choir today is the largest it has ever been, in terms of size, and perhaps the most accomplished, holding its own with choirs across the world.

“At least 75 per cent of our repertoire today is of international standard — these are not simple compositions,” says MMA's current conductor, Augustine Paul (he follows in the illustrious footsteps of the late Handel Manuel, the first Indian to pick up the baton, and Dr. Samuel Grubb, conductor for 18 years). “We are an amateur choir, yet we do pieces performed by paid, professional choirs at the Albert Hall or Carnegie Hall.”

No wonder then that the choir received an invitation from the International Church Music Festival to perform in England in 1998 — its first such international invitation. “I got an email asking if the MMA would be interested in performing at the Coventry Cathedral for a massed music concert,” recalls Santosham. “I couldn't believe it and neither could the choir!”

But perform they did — the only choir from Asia to do so — and they impressed acclaimed conductor Sir David Wilcox so much that they were invited back in 2000, and again for the 25th anniversary celebrations of the festival in Rome in 2009 (where they did a one-minute performance before the Pope).

Along the way, they were invited by World Voices Australia (“maybe they heard us performing on BBC Radio,” says Santosham) to be part of the cultural activities ahead of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. And now, the men of MMA are gearing up to be part of a 1000-voice all-male choir that will perform at the Alexandra Palace six days before the 2012 Olympics open in London.

“We'll be taking the ladies along too, because there will be a concert tour all over England for the participating choirs after the event,” says the president.

The choir, of course, also does two or three full concerts in Chennai every year, in addition to its well-known annual Christmas show, ‘Carols by Candlelight.' The remarkable thing is that all of this is accomplished with the choir meeting just once a week (on Monday evenings), for a two-hour rehearsal.

“We're now geared to do a concert with just three months preparation, with up to 80 per cent new music, which is very good by Indian standards,” says Paul.

“We have a blend of youngsters who bring tremendous energy, and seniors who have a thorough knowledge of the music,” he adds.

The rehearsals are intense but they're also a space for fun and friendship.

Husband and wife Revi and Lalitha Thomas, for instance, never miss a practice session and have missed just one concert in the two decades they've been part of MMA. “We love the music, of course, but also our fellowship with the other members — some of our closest friends are from the choir,” says Lalitha.

And Roshin Abraham, a 27-year-old psychologist, loves the fact that rehearsals are on a Monday: “It's the perfect way to beat the Monday blues,” she laughs. “There's a lot of energy and a lot of variety in the music we sing.”

Today, the choir's repertoire includes everything from Broadway musical numbers and jazz to ABBA and Michael Jackson, enabling the MMA to reach out to a wider audience. But the oratorios that were a staple of the past remain — both in its music library (“The MMA has one of the best Western classical music libraries in India, left behind by the British,” says Paul), and in its repertoire (the choir recently performed the immensely challenging ‘Israel in Egypt' for the first time in nearly a century).

An amalgam of the past and the present, the young and the old, the classical and the modern — that's MMA, a unique and integral part of Chennai's rich cultural tapestry.