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Shillong Chamber Choir Founder Neil Nongkynrih Passes Away at 52

The composer and conductor was in Mumbai and working on more music with the renowned group

Anurag Tagat Jan 05, 2022

Composer, conductor and pianist Neil Nongkynrih, who founded the Shillong Chamber Choir. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Veteran and acclaimed music figure Neil Nongkynrih, best known for his work as composer, conductor and founder of Shillong Chamber Choir, died earlier today following a brief illness. He was 52 years old.

“He was admitted at the hospital yesterday and passed away in the evening today after a surgery,” a spokesperson of the group told Press Trust of India.

Uncle Neil, as he was informally known to many, was the mind behind the powerful and poignant performances of the Shillong Chamber Choir, who have been among India’s most well-recognized music groups. Founded in 2001 and scaling up to include about 25 musicians (vocalists and instrumentalists), Shillong Chamber Choir took to multitudes of stages – from festivals in the North East to the televised reality show India’s Got Talent in 2010, going on to win at the competition and gaining nationwide adulation.

Nongkynrih positioned the choir in a way that they adapted film songs as well as pieces from western classical and opera. The group said in their statement, “Uncle Neil was the life force of our world, a towering personality whose music, through the choir he so fondly nurtured, reached the ears of Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ambassadors and some of the biggest names in the worlds of sports, culture, business, music and film.”

A trained pianist who studied in the U.K. starting in 1988, Nongkynrih was first establishing himself as a pianist in different parts of Europe before returning to Shillong to start the choir. He told Rolling Stone India in 2019, “I have inside my soul both worlds. I was in Europe for many years. So I had a lot of influence on the First Viennese School, which is Mozart and Beethoven. But I am born and bred in India, so there’s also that part of me that you can take away. My opera has tabla in it.” Following years of concerts with the backdrop of Indian diplomacy, Nongkynrih was awarded the Padma Shri in 2015.

While concerts were the mainstay of Shillong Chamber Choir, they often uploaded YouTube videos of covers and mashups. In 2020, however, Nongkynrih spurred the group on to release Come Home Christmas, a multilingual holiday album featuring collaborators from around the world. “The familiar marries the unfamiliar and hopefully they live happily ever after,” Nongkynrih told Rolling Stone India about the album.

Pandemic notwithstanding, Nongkynrih was working on at least two more albums for the Shillong Chamber Choir. Plus, an opera called Sohlyngngem, which was being composed with a full symphony orchestra in mind. “It is a three-hour-long musical saga that depicts life in Shillong during the British Raj in the 1860s when Shillong was a summer hub for the Britishers and other royals from princely states of India who would come to ‘cool down.’ That is the backdrop with a tragic love story of a Khasi Prince and a poor girl,” the conductor said at the time.

As news of Nongkynrih’s sudden demise was put out, condolences arrived from different quarters. Meghalaya chief minister said in a tweet, “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.”

Prime minister Narendra Modi said in his statement, “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.”

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