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Vol. XXX No. 18, January 16-31, 2021

50 years of the Madras Youth Choir

by Varsha Venugopal

The Madras Youth Choir performs at the Kennedy Center, Washington.

A chorus of voices begin singing, perfectly in harmony. As the beats of a tabla join in to accompany the singers, you quickly realize that this choir is a rather unusual one. As the male and female voices fuse to create an intricate musical landscape, the song unfolds as a lovely, full-throated tribute to Mahakavi Bharathiar, rendering the iconic poems Thedi Choru and Achamillai in a form that is stunningly fresh in its interpretation as a western group harmony – a format that is seldom seen in classical South Indian music. Welcome to the Madras Youth Choir, a remarkable organisation that pioneers the cause of Indian choral music. With 50 years of composing and performing choral music under its belt, the group is celebrating its golden jubilee this year.

The Madras Youth Choir owes its origin to the acclaimed music director M.B. Sreenivasan, who wished to popularize choral singing in India. The organisation began in 1971 as a choir composed of college students called the Bharathi Ilagnar Isai Kuzhu. With Sreenivasan at the helm – the dynamic founder took on the roles of the group’s composer, conductor and director – the group introduced listeners to its fresh interpretation of choral music through a radio show called Ilaya Bharatham on the All India Radio. Much like the poet Bharathiar that he idolized, Sreenivasan too was a passionate man who sought to spread ideals that he believed had the power to drive social progress – peace, national integration, women empowerment and environmental consciousness, to name a few. He strongly believed that group singing could nourish nation and society by inculcating good values in the people. The choir channelised this spirit through its music – audiences which had come to equate choral music with western hymns and carols were treated to choral renditions of a stunning variety of poetry and songs by Mahakavi Bharathiar, Rabindranath Tagore, Jayakanthan, Sir Muhammed Iqbal and many others. The group’s success encouraged Sreenivasan to compose choral music in different languages and the choir, now a non-profit organisation, took on a new name – the Madras Youth Choir. Sreenivasan went on to create more than 200 choral compositions and received the Sangeet Natak Akademi award for his contribution to Indian choral music.

“Through our music, we spread messages of love for humanity and celebrate the richness of our country’s languages and literature,” said Ram S, the current secretary of the MYC. It’s not just the messages in their songs that makes the Madras Youth Choir unique. They create complex vocal harmonies while minimizing the use of musical instruments. “The vocal shades add colour to the music,” explains Ram. “Our compositions are a blend of Indian classical melodies and western techniques of harmony, counterpoint and counter melodies.” The Madras Youth Choir today comprises 40 members and the group brings a rich range of scales to their songs. Their voice range includes three men who cover High Tenor, Middle Tenor and Bass as well as three women who cover Soprano, Mezzos and Altos. If you’re a layman to music appreciation, like me, it’s perhaps hard to understand the technicalities in theory – but the intricate richness of the choir’s songs are immediately evident to a listener. For instance, the song Mazhai, available on the group’s YouTube channel, undulates with an astonishing variety of voices coming together in melody.

There must be some kind of magic in voices joined together in song – Ram’s descriptions of singing in the MYC choir are all about the joy of togetherness and unity. Little wonder then, that the group takes children of all backgrounds under its wing, training them in the unique art they practice. In fact, the Madras Youth Choir is recognised by Sangeet Natak Akademi, the premier body in India for Fine Arts and also the NCERT for training young children in the art of choral singing. The organization receives annual grants from the Sangeet Natak Akademi and IC Trust New Delhi in order to sustain its activities, which includes weekly rehearsals by the members, training programmes for school children and workshops for music teachers. The Madras Youth Choir also includes a Junior Choir group of 32 students in the age group 6 to 15 years, drawn from different schools in the city.

To encourage young singers, the Madras Youth Choir also conducts inter-school competitions for choral groups, awarding prizes and participation certificates. These competitions are reportedly quite popular, with the last such event seeing a record participation from 550 students across 22 schools. The Madras Youth Choir themselves participate in various music festivals in India and around the world. Over the years, they have been invited to sing at many prestigious events, including the 150th birth anniversary celebrations of Tagore at the Music Academy in Chennai, the centenary celebrations of Bharat Ratna awardee M.S. Subbulakshmi at Mumbai and the Shreshta Bharat function organised by the Sangeeta Natak Akademi at Thanjavur. When asked about the group’s most memorable performance, Ram spoke about their participation at the International Choral Music festival at the iconic Kennedy Centre in Washington DC in 2017. “The festival celebrated John F. Kennedy’s 100th birth anniversary,” he recalled.” It was a matter of pride and honour for an Indian choral group to be given a platform to showcase Indian choral music to an international audience.” The group sang a French song under the direction of world-renowned conductor Joshua Haberman, an experience that Ram says is unforgettable. “Music has no language barriers,” he said. “Making music with 375 other singers was amazing – we could feel the music that we created together.”

The Madras Youth Choir has also released a twin-CD album – Pallu Paduvomey showcasing a series of live recordings of choral pieces performed by the senior choir and Poo Venuma presenting Tamil pieces for children composed by M.B. Sreenivasan, singing of the ideals of social values, morals and environmental consciousness he set so much store by. The group continues to meticulously rehearse together on a weekly basis, shifting to virtual platforms to circumvent the coronavirus. The pandemic also set back the group’s plans to mark its Golden Jubilee, but it plans to celebrate the occasion with gusto later this year when normalcy is hopefully restored. Driven by a great love for Indian choral music, there’s no stopping the Madras Youth Choir. Their motto says it all – Come, let’s sing together.

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