Perfect harmony

Striking a patriotic chord The Madras Youth Choir.  

As its 40th anniversary nears, the Madras Youth Choir releases its first CD

They sing Indian classical and light music, but with harmonies, counterpoint and chords. They have a repertoire of nearly 120 songs in 16 Indian languages (with the odd Russian and French number thrown in for good measure). And they've been at it — without a break — for the last 40 years.

The Madras Youth Choir, one of the oldest Indian choral groups in existence today, has been part of Chennai's music scene since 1971, performing, doing workshops and spreading the word on their special brand of music. Now, as their 40th anniversary draws near, the group will be releasing Pallupaaduvomey, their first CD, a recording of their performance at the Russian Cultural Centre last December.

“We've lacked funds until now to bring out CDs — we did bring out a cassette in 1989, but we didn't even have the money to make any copies!” says D. Ramachandran, secretary of MYC for the last 37 years. “We organised the performance with great difficulty last year and requested a company to record it for us.”

The beginnings

It all began in 1970, when Vasanthi Devi (along with K.S. Subramanian and the late Zahida Srinivasan) put together a group of school and college students for a patriotic music programme on All India Radio. What was meant to be a one-off performance ended up leading to the formation of the MYC under the aegis of the late M.B. Srinivasan, a pioneer of Indian choral music. “He introduced Western choral techniques into Carnatic and Hindustani classical and light musical tunes composed by him and set to the lyrics of nationalist poets — it had never been done before in Madras,” says Ramachandran.

AIR went on to form four such choral groups in Madras, Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta, with Srinivasan heading the one in Madras. Eventually, says Ramachandran, most of the members of the Madras AIR choir ended up joining MYC. “That included famous members such as Sudha Raghunathan, Rajkumar Bharathi, C.O. Anto and Udipi Gopalakrishnan,” he says. In the years that followed, the MYC performed at several choral music festivals in Delhi and all over India, creating a niche audience in the process, and even inspiring the formation of similar choirs in places such as Thiruvananthapuram. “This is very serious music — on patriotic themes, and with no instruments but for two harmoniums and two tablas for sruthi and taal — but we've always had a select listener base,” says Ramachandran. “Even when we're not performing, we meet to practise — rain or shine — every Sunday between 3.30 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. because this is complex music, technically.”

They also conduct regular workshops at schools and help children form choirs of their own. Today, the Madras Youth Choir may not be as young as it once was — half the members are above the age of 50 — but their enthusiasm for their unique music endures. “We're young at heart,” says Ramachandran with a laugh. “And we believe that as long as we sing together, no one really grows old!”