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Choir, Chapter & Verse

CultureChoir, Chapter & Verse
Since Santa’s sleigh bells and their jingles are limited to fictional narratives and a few good stores, we’ve discovered the best sound for the season: the Christmas carol. Without any stating, Carols are universally accepted as part of the Christmas quiver along with baked goods, the red and green colors of wreathes and fairy lights, Santa hats and the celebrations of religious and pop kind. It’s a warm feeling to be present outside as the night grows cold with a few faces and instruments that bring to life the Christmas spirit.

In the national capital, the number of choirs performing for the masses may be few but they are not limited to just choirs from churches. There has been a welcoming response from the population of the city which equally desires to evoke the essential feel of Christmas. Around the festive season people make it a point to put on their Sunday best and head collectively to their nearest venue hosting carol singing. The absorbing aspect is not simply the very act of carol singing but the inclusive nature of it all — people can sing along, clap to keep beats and even dance with someone who might just be present on the scene dressed as Santa. 

Guardian 20 looked into the very soul of Delhi to find some of the choirs that have worked hard all year round just so that we can find the snuggling joy of Christmas right in the season. It is only fair to begin with the recognition of the fact that choirs are indispensible and that gratitude is not what they expect; all they rather want to do is spread the love.

The Capital City Minstrels, which was started by Zora Shaw with only a small group of twelve members in 1994, is today one of the most sought-after choirs when it comes to Christmas carols. The choir today has above 80 members who come from different walks of life, some from the corporate sphere while others from colleges or ranks of striving artists. Reem Khokar, one of the choir members, talked to us about the efforts that went on in the background to produce the final performances which took place from 13-17 December at various venues, including a performance for the President of India and his guests. She says, “The winter season is from August to December with concerts in December. Our rehearsal schedule is once a week — Wednesdays from 6.30 p.m. to 8.30 p.m., and a couple of weekend rehearsals (around two in a season) where we rehearse for about four to five hours on Saturday and Sunday.”

The choir is in its 23rd year and has members from different nationalities — some of them Indian, German, British and Hungarian — being trained by Sharmila Livingston, the conductor and trainer here for this season. Khokar remarks, “Each has brought their own style of conducting and music selection, which has made us an extremely diverse and eclectic group with a vast repertoire — classical, gospel, pop and rock and Indian music arranged for a choir are just some of the many genres of music we perform.” It’s when you look past the veil of performance that a fresh insight is gained about how choirs really operate. To start with, they consider themselves a “family”.  And their training sessions to them are havens which offer respite from the daily grind. For performances, the Capital City Minstrels have travelled to many places, like Kashmir, Goa, Dehradun, Kasauli within India, and internationally, to Germany, Switzerland, Hungary and France.  Perhaps all this travelling together has also got something to do with the bonding between the members. 

The choir, as Reem Khokar brings to notice, is made of many elements, other than the voices. “We usually have a pianist for most of our performances and may add in a percussionist, a violin or cello, or a flute, clarinet depending on the arrangement,” Khokar says. “We do have an Executive Committee which works tirelessly behind the scenes. They are responsible for everything from managing the finances of the choir, marketing and publicity, music selection, to booking venues and event management.”

Another Delhi-based choir which has now been around for over a decade, the Mozart Choir of India, is composed of members coming from a far younger age group, that of eight to 14 years, who hail from various schools in Delhi. Georg Zehetner, Chargé ´d Affaires, Austrian Embassy, in a conversation with Guardian 20, says, “The Mozart Choir of India was initiated by the efforts of the sitar legend, the late Pundit Ravi Shankar.”

There are 32 choristers at the moment in this collective, and new ones are always welcome for auditions provided they are under the age of 14. The free-of-cost training here is conducted weekly, and each of these choristers is, Zehetner’s words, “already enormous according to their voice classification — be it a soprano, mezzo soprano, tenors, counter tenors, baritone and bass. Vocal training has resulted in some of the best results among these choristers”. With such specialised training being conducted under Maestro Martina Ketterl, who herself is a trained conductor from Germany and Maestro Gerald Wirth, Artistic Director and President of the World renowned Vienna Boys Choir, you’d expect the going here to be tough. Surprisingly, the training sessions are conducted in an environment which is enjoyable, which is proven by the fact that the children train even during their exam seasons at school.

The Delhi Christian Chorus is an initiative started in 1965 by a group of enthusiastic singers, with members drawn from various leading churches of Delhi, according to Royall S. McLaren, who is the conductor and the trainer of the choir and has been a part of it for the entire stretch of its 50 years.

“About 10 groups have already been trained here, out of which some have gone on to work in Bollywood, on Broadway and have even joined the reputed Vienna Boys Choir”, says Georg Zehetner. Besides, they have performed in Mumbai, Rajasthan and Neemrana and Delhi. Internationally, they have performed in Vienna, Salzburg, Krems and Burgenland in Austria. Most recently, the Mozart Choir of India spread their high spirited energy of Christmas at a performance in Delhi’s Select City Walk.

On this list must be mentioned another Delhi-based choir which completed 50 years of performing in 2015. The Delhi Christian Chorus is an initiative started “in 1965 as a group of enthusiastic singers, with members drawn from various leading churches of Delhi”, according to Royall S. McLaren, who is the conductor and the trainer of the choir and has been a part of it for the entire stretch of its 50 years. He further adds, “The membership of the group is totally voluntary and singers come from various backgrounds, irrespective of their faith, spiritual leanings and cultural backgrounds. In these fifty years some 1,000 voices have been part of this group, coming from all corners of our beautiful land, as well as those representing continents like Africa, Australia, Europe, North and South America and Asia.”

To add to all this variety is the range of musical influences surging through the performances.  “We bring a repertoire of selections consisting of 1,500 different choral pieces, which include works of traditional, contemporary, modern, very modern, folk, spiritual and classical composers.” He also emphasized on the fact that the choir has never played a single song more than once, which means that the Delhi Christian Chorus has worked towards always keeping it fresh. They are also dedicated to the greater cause of charity as most of the money which is raised at the performance is used to give gifts to those in need — talk about being Santa.

Royall S. McLaren also shares his opinion on training the choir: “Since they are not professional musicians, it can be tough. It’s about achieving the perfect four-part harmony for which each sound has to be paid attention to. They also do not know how to read sheet music, so I have to teach that as well. You have to start from scratch always. That’s how you make it work.” The choir starts training four months before the Christmas season and the training sessions are held on Mondays. The Delhi Christian Chorus works with one aim only, “In the present World of total turmoil, chaos and hatred the group is committed to spreading the Christian message of universal love, peace and brotherhood,” concludes McLaren.

Delhi Christian Chorus.

The choir performed this year on 11 December at the Cathedral Church of Redemption in Delhi’s North Avenue. They do two Christmas carol performances every year.

For another pick, we found a new choir which came into being only last year due to a request which was made to the 32-year-old Dramatech Theatre Group by a five star hotel. The group already has a choir known as Tarannum, whose western wing, a sort of sub-group, which performs Christmas carols, was made last year. Ravi Raj Sagar, the organiser of the western wing of the Tarannum Choir says, “We pick about ten good western singers, all college students, for these performances. Several children also join in. Only a piano is used as main accompaniment. This year we have a beat boxer providing the percussion.” The choir consists of members who already possess years of training in Western or Indian music and are already part of popular choirs or church choirs.

The outfit is trained by Usha Srivastava, who is a well-known pianist and voice coach in Delhi. “The choir mostly sings traditional Christmas carols but to this we also add something more upbeat and pop, songs like Jingle Bell Rock.” The choir is in its nascent stage and is already growing into a reserve of effort and energy with the focus that the Dramatech Group is putting on it. The plan so far seems to be a performance every year on Christmas Eve at Hotel Claridges in New Delhi.

The Christmas season isn’t simply brought in by the cold, at least not in Delhi where the temperature drop isn’t satisfactory for winter bloomers. It is brought in by these small actions where people participate. In the making of meals and sharing them, the decorating, the dancing, the praying and the singing of Christmas carols people are able to unite in warm embraces and learn what the festival means. This year in Delhi, choirs have yet again had a hand in bringing the spirit of love to the city folk who long for a break from hardships.

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