Later this month, the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, located at the Potomac River adjacent to the Watergate Complex in Washington DC, will reverberate with a plethora of famed Indian poetry in the form of choral music created by Chennai-based Madras Youth Choir.
The choir, founded in 1971 by well-known composer MB Sreenivasan — known as one of the pioneers of choral music in India and as the founding father of the Cine Musicians’ Union in Madras and a well-known name in the world of Tamil and Malayalam film music — in all these years has never travelled outside of India for a performance. In the US, the choir will present Carnatic and Hindustani classical music along with folk tunes while adapting to a variety of western harmonic arrangements.
It is now also among18 choirs chosen from 14 countries to be a part of Serenade 2017, an international choral festival that’s being organised in celebration of John F Kennedy’s birth centenary. One of the choir’s performances will also take place at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Baltimore.
“This festival is a significant opportunity for us to showcase Indian choral music on a world stage. Every piece that will be performed by us, ranges from simple harmonies to complex choral arrangements,” says Ram Bhadral, the secretary of the choir, who also occupies the middle tenor position during the performances.
He spends all his Sundays rehearsing with the other sopranos, altos and bass tenors to perfect compositions by iconic poets from India including Rabindranath Tagore and writer and poet Subramania Bharati among others, which have been set to Sreenivasan’s tunes. Some of them are also based on composer Kanu Ghosh’s tunes. The choir sings in 10 Indian languages including Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi and Bengali among others. It was at one of those rehearsals at Children’s Garden School in Chennai’s Mylapore that Neeta Helms, President of Classical Movements, a US-based concert tour company for world class orchestras and choirs, visited them.
“She was searching for a choir and was intrigued by and interested in our unique combination of Indian music with western techniques,” says D Ramachandran, a member of the choir. The invitation from Helms came in almost immediately. At the festival, the choir will present 20 songs in various languages including a harmony called Mazhai (Rain). The concluding piece at their Kennedy Center concert will be Martin Luther King’s We shall overcome.