People The choir of the Mateer Memorial CSI Church, one of the oldest in the city, is busy practising for the Christmas season
The ambience is both soulful and spirited on a balmy December evening inside the Mateer Memorial CSI Church at LMS junction. As the opening notes flow from the piano, the choir bursts into a popular hymn ‘Who’s the Baby?’ Ebenezer Dev, one of the choristers who has stepped in for choirmaster Premchand Johnson for the evening, seems unhappy with the attempt. He asks the choir to “put in more energy” into the number and start from the beginning. A couple of false starts later, the choir falls into the groove and the rehearsals progress smoothly. The choir, which is one of the oldest and leading choirs in the city, is getting ready for the Christmas season.
This choir with over 100 choristers is more than a century old; it was started in 1906 when the church was dedicated and has a rich legacy. Mrs. H.T. Wills, wife of a British missionary Harold T. Wills, was the first to lead the choir. “She donated the first organ for the choir and was a pioneer of sorts,” says D. Devakumar, one of the senior organists in the choir. Mrs. Wills stepped down in 1912 and since then the choir has had some big names in church music as choir master/choir leader. “One of the more famous choirmasters was J. John, grandson of Mosa Walsalam Sastriar (a poet, composer and preacher),” Devakumar adds.
The church – popularly known as the LMS church – has services in English, Malayalam and Tamil and the choir is trained for the same, though not all the members sing at every service. “There are hymns to mark specific occasions such as weddings, ordinations, funerals, national days, births… even hymns to pray for rain, for a good education, and so on,” says Premchand. The church has a fairly large junior choir as well.
The members share a special bond with the choir. Says Dr. Ebenezer, a neurosurgeon: “The choir has been a constant in the church since I can remember.” He joined the choir in 1963 but left it a few years later to take up an overseas assignment. When he returned two years ago he was welcomed with open arms. He now trains the choir for special events, such as the upcoming carol programmes.
“There was a time when the choir used to teach other choirs,” he says. Also, it was often invited by the All India Radio to present devotionals.
“We do take up traditional songs such as ‘Silent night…’ at Christmas events, along with contemporary songs, both in Malayalam and English. There are also songs based around Carnatic ragas,” says Dr. Ebenezer.
Apart from the piano, the choir is accompanied by the guitar and the violin for carols. “There was a time when we used the mandolin as well,” Dr. Ebenezer adds. Poovi Thanka Kumari J., a retired associate professor in French, is a chorister who looks forward to the special concerts. “Although I am not a member of the church’s regular choir, I join them to play the piano during special events. A choir always has its limitations. Most of the members would not have been trained professionally. Also, most of them hardly get enough time to practice together. Still, they are doing a good job,” she says.
Women outnumber men in the choir. “It is not easy to get people sing in choir, which follows harmony singing. In fact, the number of people joining choir groups is dwindling,” says Premchand.
But once Christmas is in the air, all the choirs in the city tune in to the sprit of the season and the music begins…
Catch the choir’s performance at Mateer Memorial CSI Church on December 16 at 6 p.m.