If there’s one word that describes the essence of the eight states comprising North-east India, it would be ‘music’. Not only is music in the blood of the region’s people, it remains one of its only flourishing industries (it’s often said that there are more music acts here than in the rest of India combined, and there’s hardly anyone I know here who doesn’t play a musical instrument).
Shillong, the capital of Meghalya, is known as the ‘rock capital of India.’ And from here has recently emerged the Shillong Chamber Choir—the freshly-crowned winners of the second season of popular TV competition India’s Got Talent.
The interesting thing about the Shillong Chamber Choir is that all 15 members come from very poor backgrounds, but have still dedicated their lives to music. Founder Neil Nongkynrih, a trained pianist who learnt his art from London’s Guildhall music school, started out by training talented young boys and girls hailing from less privileged backgrounds. The youngest member of the choir is 13 years-old, while the oldest is 27.
During the nine years the group has existed, it has performed in several countries and won international acclaim, including winning the gold medal at the World Choir Olympics held in China in July.
But it’s the India’s Got Talent victory that has brought the choir to national attention for the first time. In fact, three years ago I met the group at a performance in Delhi—their first performance ever in the capital, but one that went largely unnoticed.
The choir’s win isn’t just a triumph for the group, but also a big boost for the entire north-east region, which has largely been living in the shadow of the rest of India. For a while now, the north-east of the country has been trying to shed its image as an insurgency-infested region, and to demonstrate to the world its talents in sports, music and art.
The central government has also been helping out—now, 10 percent of all central ministries’ funds currently go to the region, while many new educational institutions are being opened. Meanwhile, the Look East Policy, a new foreign policy initiative, is an attempt to bring the north-east of India closer to ASEAN nations with which it shares its major borders. The idea is to invite investment from South-east Asian countries for economic development.
There’s also been a considerable change in the attitude of the rest of India towards the north-east, in part because of the greater presence now of Indians who were raised in the north-east of the country but who have now moved elsewhere.
In the mid-1990s, when I was a student at Delhi University, there was less interaction and more misunderstanding between the north-eastern students and other students—their traditionally tribal culture and way of life was often ridiculed by their peers.
But I’m happy to say things are different now. There’s a greater ease in interaction, facilitated in part by economic liberalization, which has encouraged more travel to neighbouring states.
The fact that all of India had a hand in selecting Shillong Chamber Choir as the winners of India’s Got Talent is a reflection of the changed attitudes and of the breaking down of boundaries. As usual, the people have taken the country somewhere that officialdom for so long couldn’t.