The Shillong Chamber Choir played to a packed-to-capacity Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai on Thursday. The performance was one of the best we’ve checked out in 2011.
On Thursday, April 7, the Shillong Chamber Choir played to a packed-to-capacity Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai. The oddly-titled show (The Shillong Date – A Date Down Memory Lane) began at 8.30pm – an hour past the scheduled time, accommodating 90% of the audience who’d arrived just in time.
The two hours that followed were an orchestral journey through Glee clubs and Bollywood-flavoured Disney music into dark, trembling opera pieces. The choir, arranged into four rows and clad in white suits and white dress-shoes, opened with three minutes of intertwining harmonies sprinkled with all the magic of Disney. With an introduction that could’ve easily soundtracked a pivotal moment of Beauty and the Beast, the beauty of their voices was in stark contrast to the tacky stage design. An awkward arrangement of four tentacular, faux-opera-house arms enclosed the choir from the sides. Behind them was a psychedelic display of the strangest choice of visuals – neon eye-torturing plasma bubbles, and what appeared to be an x-ray traveling up the inside of vertebrae.
After a succinct (not) introduction by emcee ‘Musicman’ Mihir Joshi, the choir performed a cheerful selection of Queen numbers – ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘Somebody to Love’, accompanied by composer Neil Nongkynrih on the piano, Warren Mendonsa on guitars (welcomed by a section of the audience shouting “Zero!”), the smilingly talented Ustad Vasi Ahmed Khan on tabla, Sanjay Maroo on drums, and fronted by William Basaiawmoit – making for an experience entirely reminiscent of an episode of Glee.
The choir went on to play a set of complicatedly harmonized mashups, beginning with a mix of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ and ‘Kal Ho Na Ho’ tinted with glass-shattering high notes, led by 18 year-old prodigal soprano Iba (Ibarisha Lyngdoh), inspiring the first of three standing ovations that night. Nongkynrih explained the choice of songs, “Both songs involve either the boy or girl dying, so it made sense.” ‘Musicman’ Mihir would appear on stage between songs and make contrived, ostentatious attempts to stay relevant (“The Shillong Chamber Choir are now going to sing some loud energetic songs! Our country has so much to celebrate right now, let’s hear it for our boys in blue!”). He overzealously tried to engage the audience by taking off from the choir and asking the crowd to sing along, until he was unceremoniously booed off stage by audience members.
After the initial burst of energy, the choir performed a mellow ode to mothers, half in English and half tiptoeing around Hindi. They followed this with the song they performed for Obama – a mashup of ‘Ajeeb Daastan Hai Yeh’ and ‘Yeh Dosti Hum Nahi Todenge’, along with forced-but-cute ’60s-backup-singer-esque dance moves. After an aggressive Khasi folk opera, seemingly themed around battle cries and an eventual triumph, there was a short intermission.
The unquestionable highlight of the evening was an incredible seven minutes titled ‘The Great Indian Train Journey’ – a complete simulation of a train journey replete with hawkers and eunuchs, and as Nongkynrih stated – “The only thing we can’t impersonate is the smell.” With the front row of the choir simulating train-chugging sounds, the back row layered on a chant of “Chai”, shortly after which the next row chimed in with “Samosa”, and they slowly covered the entire spectrum of train-cuisine from chai/coffee to bread omelette to veg cutlets, to mishti doi. After a chorus of clapping eunuchs, the train journey plummetted into the chaos of the destination, amidst railway announcements and the bustle of fellow passengers.
They announced the next piece was one of the most difficult opera pieces to vocally perform, a segment of German opera The Magic Flute, composed by Mozart. This was Iba’s moment to shine – as she filled the auditorium with her awe-inspiring soprano vocals, each bird-like note soaring higher than the previous, rising above anyone’s estimation of the range of a human voice. Another well-deserved standing ovation followed, and led into a pleasant standard-choir-favorite with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. With ‘What A Wonderful World’ and a saucy rendition of ‘Hit The Road Jack’, followed by an instrumentalists jam including a machine-gun drum solo by Sanjay Maroo – who will best be remembered for his experiments with the truth, the evening drew to a close – finishing with an operatic Tamil version of the song ‘Choti Si Asha’ from 1992 film Roja, and waves of thunderous applause.