Neil Nongkyinrih, a musician and friend who transcended the divisions of cultures
“I’m 16, then 17, even though I might look a bit older”: it was the quintessential, the irrepressible, the one and only, Neil Nongkynrih.
Our friendship dates back to the early 2000s in Colombo, when Neil and the Shillong Chamber Choir performed at the Indian High Commission. We stayed in touch. Subsequently, during my mandate as Ambassador to China, the choir accompanied by Neil performed in Beijing at the Forbidden City Park. It was quite an event. Everyone was deeply drawn to his brilliant and flamboyant musical talent.
Subsequently, during my tenure as Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Shillong Chamber Choir performed at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on the occasion of US President Barack Obama’s state visit at the end of 2010. They were a success. with the Obamas. Then we saw each other again during my tenure as Ambassador to Washington in 2012 after the choir won top honors at the World Choir Championships in Cincinnati.
Neil Nongkyinrih is gone too suddenly. He was 51 years old – an extremely talented musician and composer, at the peak of his achievements. For those who knew him as a friend, the loss of this eccentric, irrepressible, outspoken, compassionate, deeply caring and sensitive individual with childlike charm and music that runs through his soul, is hard to comprehend.
He was a man of incredible, unforgettable grace, a great ambassador of soft power in northeast India, and a proud Indian. His infinite love for humanity sets him apart and gives his music soul and substance in every note. He was in harmony with the sources of nature and creation.
We once corresponded about the mythical flower of the Meghalaya mountains – the flower called “Tiewlarun” which is hidden in the forests of these blue-topped hills, among the whispering pines. I think of him now, surrounded by the winds of the forest, like this mythical flower, under the splendid stars, among the waters turned golden by the evening moon, blossoming in the desert.
In the winter of 2020, he participated in a webinar I hosted on the topic of whether a South Asian identity can be expressed through music. Neil told us on this occasion: “I am a very simple person. He said that he had been influenced by Western music, that he had studied piano in the UK, but upon returning to India he wanted to discover his musical roots, his Khasi heritage, the music of the ‘India, and he had embarked on a new journey. A career that has earned him universal recognition.
He spoke about the Christmas album he had just produced which featured different languages, both from India and the Middle East, including Ancient Aramaic and Farsi. “My journey for a long time now has been to introduce people to different sounds, different cultures, and to do it in a way that it becomes something they can digest,” he told me. He was happy that the members of the Shillong Chamber Choir came from different ethnic backgrounds, “with a strong and cohesive attitude …”
He was particularly proud of the Khasi language opera – “Sohlyngngem” – which he had composed. But even there he was emphasizing how he had woven diversity into work, where East met West, “using a more holistic approach,” as he called it, “so that we let’s not separate ”.
In his words, “Khasi is such a beautiful language, with soft, smooth vowels and even consonants that work perfectly for opera like Italian does”. He wanted “Sohlyngngem” to be an opera “for the common man.” So, I made music accessible to the average viewer without making it average ”.
Upon his return to India after spending 14 years in the UK, he had been disturbed by “the emphasis on Mozart and Beethoven”. He hated the snobbery “that the ultimate music is Wagnerian” – there were musicians in our area who had better voices than “the greatest opera singers”, and he cited Pakistani singers in recitals of the country as an example. Coke Studio. He was a fan of the tabla, the alaap, all the rich musical expressions of South Asia.
“I just like to tell the truth, so that we don’t have this hierarchy” – which said that there is nothing greater than Western classical music. “But you give me a beautiful melody from Sri Lanka – music is music, and although you can get the best instruments in the world, you cannot beat what God himself created – which is the human voice. . At the same time, creating a musical identity among the peoples of the South Asian region should not generate divisions, he stressed.
It wasn’t like Neil was rejecting Western music. He explained, “For me, I had a great need to promote the eastern side of me. It started with my own language, Khasi, and then moved on to Hindi and Bollywood as well, even as I was writing an opera. His return to India had been the start of a journey, where he had begun to explore the different meanings of music and its many sources. He had this wonderful advantage of knowing the two worlds, East and West, in a unique symbiosis. “I use a lot of dholaks now, this is my new love,” he exclaimed.
As we sound the bugles for Neil, I cannot adopt a tone of mourning for him, nor sound hasty prayers as dusk envelops this Saturday, January 8, the sad day of his funeral. I think of the legacy he leaves behind for all the young people he has educated, mentored, tutored and nurtured, the humility of the wonderful singers of the Shillong Chamber Choir (not just a choir, but a “social movement” as one of its members once called) and the happiness that Neil has brought to audiences around the world.
As was said during his funeral ceremony, the Shillong Chamber Choir is his legacy. During all these years he was their good shepherd. Listening to the young men and women of the choir talk tearfully about Neil, I can understand why he must be so proud of them and what he has accomplished in creating this group of world class musicians.
Although Neil was mortal like the rest of us, fashioned from the same imperfect wood of humanity, he strove to break free from stagnation and the mundane, to rise above littleness. And that’s how I remember this benevolent light, this musical genius, torn away too soon from among us. It is a living and lasting memory that our grateful hearts will cherish.
Nirupama Rao is a former Minister of Foreign Affairs.