The minstrels of utmost happiness
Capital City Minstrels, the Delhi-based choral institution, return to the stage
When Zohra Shaw, a Delhi-based piano teacher, brought together around 10 women to form a singing group in December 1994, she could scarcely have imagined it flourishing some quarter of a century later. The Capital City Minstrels (CCM), which would go on to include male singers, began by singing in private homes and diplomats’ drawing rooms. Today, their summer and winter concerts have a cultish following.
Their two forthcoming Delhi concerts (13 May and 25 May), titled With Love, From India, will feature a mix of Indian classical, folk and Western classical music. For these two performances, the group’s material will primarily highlight the influence of India on Western composers.
CCM is one of India’s few SATB choirs, in which all four major voice types, from the highest-pitched to the lowest—soprano, alto, tenor and bass—are represented. The group, aged 15-80, includes students, doctors, lawyers and architects. It’s also a multi-national group, though the majority of singers are Indian. “That’s what CCM is all about," says Lindsay Ross Boyd, the group’s American conductor. “It’s a mix of people, traditions, cultures and ideas."
The group’s sole original member, Usha Srivastava, says the choir is a labour of love, and one big family. Shaw, the group’s founder, now resides in the US. Boyd has been with the group for a year, and the forthcoming performances will mark her third set of concerts with CCM. The number of singers in the choir keeps changing. There will be 56 singers performing at the Delhi concerts. However, according to Annie Sinha, the president of CCM, this number can go up to 80. The singers participate voluntarily, and, except for an “honorarium" for the conductor and accompanists, no one is paid. “It’s a non-profit," says Sinha. “The ticket sales barely cover our costs."
Since 1994, the group has performed over 200 concerts in India and abroad. Their repertoire is quite vast, encompassing Western classical music, folk songs, numbers from Broadway musicals, as well as rock, pop, jazz, and Indian music arranged for choir performances.
Among the songs that the group will be performing at the concerts are British band Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, Choral Hymns From The Rig Veda by the English composer Gustav Holst, Wandering Singers by American composer Michael E. Ekbladh, set to text by Sarojini Naidu, and Rabindranath Tagore’s Purano Shei Diner Kotha, which was influenced by Scottish music (this version is arranged by another American composer, Alex Heetland).
When I drop in for a rehearsal session with the group, there is an air of familial bonhomie. Boyd’s every expression and gesture provides cues to the singers, and, ultimately, helps glue their voices together to produce a rich, cohesive sound. At one point, someone is unsure whether the phrase “laughter and beauty" in one of the songs should be sung with the American or British pronunciation of “laughter". “Guys, do we want laafter or laefturr?" asks Boyd. “Laafter," comes the resounding reply.
Capital City Minstrels will perform at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi, on 13 May and 25 May. For more information, visit Capitalcityminstrels.com.