Updated: January 6, 2022 8:36:16 am
Neil Nongkynrih, the Shillong-based pianist, who turned a group of musicians from Shillong into a world-class, multi-genre choir, passed away in Mumbai on Wednesday evening. Nongkynrih, the founder, conductor, and mentor of Shillong Chamber Orchestra, was admitted to Reliance Hospital in Mumbai after a sudden ulcer rupture, which led to an emergency surgery.
But according to William Basaiawmoit, the band’s lead vocalist, the damage was too much and Nongkynrih could not be saved. He was 51. “We are still in deep shock and can’t get our heads around what’s happened,” he told The Indian Express.
Fondly addressed as Uncle Neil, Nongkynrih, along with the complete choir, was in Mumbai to record their upcoming “spiritual album”. “This album was Uncle Neil’s dream. The only thing I feel is that at least he could complete it,” said Basaiawmoit.
Nongkynrih grew up in Shillong and was introduced to the symphonies of Mozart and Beethoven by one of his grand aunts besides the understanding of basics of music that he received from his sister and jazz musician Pauline Nongkynrih. He then moved to London to study at the Trinity College and Guildhall School of Music. He worked for many years as a concert pianist in Europe before returning to India in 2001 and started a small school at his home to teach music. He founded the Shillong Chamber Choir the same year.
The Choir came under the spotlight after winning India’s Got Talent in 2010 post which they won the World Choir Games. The Choir was also chosen to perform at Rashtrapati Bhawan for former American President Barack Obama’s visit. What was interesting about the choir’s music was their diversity – they collaborated with philharmonic orchestras with as much ease as singing Ye Dosti from Sholay and collaboration with tabla wizard Ustad Zakir Hussain. For Obama, the choir had sung Deep River — an Afro-American hymn, thinking that he’d find the most resonance there. Nongkynrih was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in 2015.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi condoled the death of the pianist.
“Mr. Neil Nongkynrih was an outstanding mentor to the Shillong Chamber Choir, which enthralled audiences globally. I have also witnessed some of their superb performances. He left us too soon. His creativity will always be remembered. Condolences to his family and admirers. RIP,” PM Modi said in a tweet.
Meghalaya Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, condoled Nongkynrih demise and tweeted, “I am saddened beyond words by the sudden demise of Padma Shri Neil Nongkynrih, founder of the famous Shillong Chamber Choir. He was a mentor to the country’s finest choir that serenaded crowds wherever they performed. We have lost a gem today.”
In 2020, Nongkynrih created a breakthrough album titled Christmas Come Home and pushed the envelope by including hymns and carols in Urdu, Farsi, Aramaic, English and even Khasi, the mother tongue of most members of the choir. He was also writing an opera in Khasi titled Sohlyngngem, in an attempt to revive the dialect. He was also on the board of the Central Board of Film Certification since 2017.
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