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Giving Khasi language its due with an opera

Shillong Chamber Choir was founded by pianist Neil Nongkynrih in 2001.   | Photo Credit: Shillong Chamber Choir

It is an audacious idea: to present the Western opera, barely there on the Indian music scene, in a language that was in danger of extinction till recently.

It has been seven years since Khasi was taken off the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. But the language is still fighting to retain its place in the lives of the people of Meghalaya, losing out to the English mish-mash that youngsters laughingly call ‘Khalish’.

For Neil Nongkynrih, the pianist who founded the phenomenally talented Shillong Chamber Choir in 2001, getting Khasi heard beyond the hills of Meghalaya is an important part of his music mission. And it is from this twin interest that Sohlyngngem, an opera in Khasi, drawn from a Meghalayan tale that is part fable, part history, grew.

Three excerpts from Sohlyngngem, a three-and-a-half-hour majestic work due to premiere in about two years, were performed at the recent MTV India Music Summit. The excerpts featured a melange of Western classical music, folk tunes, and Indian classical interludes. You would never imagine that Khasi is entire continents away from the home of the Western opera.

Distraught love

‘Sohlyngngem’ has a melange of Western classical music, folk tunes, and Indian classical interludes.

‘Sohlyngngem’ has a melange of Western classical music, folk tunes, and Indian classical interludes.   | Photo Credit: Shillong Chamber Choir

“It is such a beautiful language, with gentle, soft vowels and even consonants that work perfectly for opera, like Italian does,” says Nongkynrih, 49, who cut short his career as a concert pianist in the U.K. to return to Shillong in 2001. “And it offers a good insight into a little corner of India that has been forgotten for a long time.”

Set in the 1860s, the opera revolves around the love story of Rynniaw, a young prince returning home from school in England. He falls in love with Sohlyngngem, a strong-willed youngster who works in the royal household. His mother, Mahdei, suitably evil and conniving for an opera, uses a magic potion to make him forget his love. His distraught lover wants to leap off a hillside and end it all but the gods decide otherwise — they turn her into a bird destined to wail eternally in the hills. That pretty much sums up your standard opera plot: valour, young love, pathos, envy, rage, villainy, and, not the least, opportunities for soul-stirring arias and choruses.

“It is the blueprint of an opera,” says Nongkynrih. “But I wanted to bring social elements into it as well.” The story brings in the complex issues surrounding the matrilineal system followed by the Khasi society. It is also an ode to Shillong, especially of the 19th century, when it was a hill town sought out by the powerful, rich and the famous. In the early 20th century, it was also a vacation home and creative bolthole for Tagore. And as tenor and presenter William Basaiawmoit joked, it offers the ideal setting for an opera: wet and gloomy.

Shillong Chamber Choir has always had a niche following among lovers of good music but its popularity soared after it won top honours in reality TV show India’s Got Talent in 2010. Today, it probably represents the best-known music talent from the Northeast, with a repertoire of songs drawn from every genre — Western classical to Bollywood, pop to indie, Abba to Handel to R.D. Burman.

For the masses

Why use a niche form like the opera to showcase Khasi? Precisely because it is considered niche, Nongkynrih says. Sohlyngngem has been a work in progress, with the some of the first compositions going back to 2004.

‘Sohlyngngem’, a three-and-a-half-hour majestic work, will premiere in about two years.

‘Sohlyngngem’, a three-and-a-half-hour majestic work, will premiere in about two years.   | Photo Credit: Shillong Chamber Choir

“Opera is caught in a world of snobbery, watched mostly by the rich and those who want to be seen watching it — much like going to Ascot. I want Sohlyngngem to be the opera for the ordinary man. So I have made music that’s accessible to the average viewer without making it average,” says Nongkynrih, who has also written the libretto for the opera.

Above all, the opera is a tribute to Khasi, a rich language that is slowly losing out to English, especially among the youth, says the composer.

The choir is an interesting collection of musicians, some classically trained and others, such as Ibarisha Lyngdoh, taught and closely mentored by Nongkynrih. The soprano who plays Sohlyngngem started learning with him as a 12-year-old in 2006 and has some of the most challenging solos in the opera.

But no matter what their background, the group is held together by its mentor’s firm resolve to stay simple and grounded.

“Uncle Neil believes in moving at an organic pace through music, he hates superficiality, and refuses to be rushed into anything,” says alto Rishila Jamir. “I was mesmerised by their warmth. Music is just their outer shell, being with them is like having life blown into a body.”

The choir is an informal group that runs more like a social movement. Every member owns it. Damon Lyndem and his family have been involved with the group since its earliest days. “The first time we gave a concert, at Pinewood Hotel in Shillong, we struggled to sell tickets. But soon, word spread of our music and we began to play to sold-out halls,” he recalls.

As the hugely popular choir courageously gears up for the full sweep of a grand opera, one thing remains unchanged. “Humility,” says Lyndem. “We don’t let success go to our head.”

The writer likes to explore the intersection between culture and society in her writings.

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Printable version | Jul 20, 2021 11:49:51 AM |

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