Daily Archives: June 20, 2010

Article: Voices for all Seasons (profile of the Madras Musical Association choir)

They’ve sung before the Pope and at the Pantheon in Rome; they’ve sung at the Coventry Cathedral in England and on the BBC Radio; they sang at the Sydney Opera House ahead of the 2000 Olympics, and come 2012, they’ll be part of the pre-Olympics cultural celebrations once again, this time at the Alexandra Palace on the outskirts of London, on the banks of the Thames.

We’re talking, of course, about Chennai’s own choir-that-could, the 117-year-old, 80-voice Madras Musical Association choir. Formed in 1893 by a group of Europeans who came together often to sing, the choir has never been disbanded or defunct during the entire period of its existence, though there was a brief lull in the late 80s, says Dr. Ravi Santosham, president of MMA for the last 20 years.

“From about 1985 to 1990, the support we had from the consulates fell away, there was hardly any activity, and we lost a lot of voices – we thought there wouldn’t be an MMA choir anymore,” he says. “But a handful of us continued to meet once a week, we started having membership drives, and we’ve just gone from strength to strength since then.”

That would be an understatement. Composed of 80 Chennai-ites from various walks of life (high school and college students, IT professionals and engineers, doctors and nurses, playback singers and homemakers… the list is endless), the choir today is the largest it has ever been, in terms of size, and perhaps the most accomplished, holding its own with choirs across the world.

“At least 75 per cent of our repertoire today is international standard – these are not simple compositions,” says MMA’s current conductor, Augustine Paul. “We are an amateur choir, yet we do pieces performed by paid, professional choirs at the Albert Hall or Carnegie Hall.”

No wonder then that the choir received an invitation from the International Church Music Festival to perform in England in 1998 – its first such international invitation. “I got an email asking if the MMA would be interested in performing at the Coventry Cathedral for a massed music concert,” recalls Santosham. “I couldn’t believe it and neither could the choir!”

But perform they did – the only choir from Asia to do so – and they impressed acclaimed conductor Sir David Wilcox so much that they were invited back in 2000, and again for the 25th anniversary celebrations of the festival in Rome in 2009 (where they did a one-minute performance before the Pope).

Along the way, they were invited by World Voices Australia (“maybe they heard us performing on BBC Radio,” says Santosham) to be part of the cultural activities ahead of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. And now, the men of MMA are gearing up to be part of a 1000-voice all-male choir that will perform at the Alexandra Palace six days before the 2012 Olympics open in London.

“We’ll be taking the ladies along too, because there will be a concert tour all over England for the participating choirs after the event,” says the president.

The choir, of course, also does two or three full concerts in Chennai every year, in addition to its well-known annual Christmas show, ‘Carols by Candlelight.’ The remarkable thing is that all of this is accomplished with the choir meeting just once a week (on Monday evenings), for a two-hour rehearsal.

“We’re now geared to do a concert with just three months preparation, with up to 80 per cent new music, which is very good by Indian standards,” comments Paul. “We have a blend of youngsters who bring tremendous energy, and seniors who have a thorough knowledge of the music.”

The practices are intense – each constitutes one-twelfth the preparation for a concert, after all – but they’re also a space for fun and friendship.

Husband and wife pair Revi and Lalitha Thomas, for instance, never miss a practice session and have missed just one concert in the two decades they’ve been part of MMA. “We love the music, of course, but also our fellowship with the other members – some of our closest friends are from the choir,” says Lalitha.

And Roshin Abraham, a 27-year-old psychologist, loves the fact that rehearsals are on a Monday: “It’s the perfect way to beat the Monday Blues,” she laughs. “There’s a lot of energy and a lot of variety in the music we sing.”

Today, the choir’s repertoire includes everything from Broadway musical numbers and jazz to ABBA and Michael Jackson, enabling the MMA to reach out to a wider audience. But the oratorios that were a staple of the past remain – both in its music library (“The MMA has one of the best Western classical music libraries in India, left behind by the British,” says Paul), and in its repertoire (the choir recently performed the immensely challenging ‘Israel in Egypt’ for the first time in nearly a century).

An amalgam of the past and the present, the young and the old, the classical and the modern – that’s MMA for you, a unique and integral part of Chennai’s rich cultural tapestry.


You can catch the Madras Musical Association choir’s next performance in Chennai on August 27 and 28, 2010. The classical music concert will be held at the Museum Theatre, in aid of the Hindustan Bible Institute’s social service activities. For details on passes call 98400-85531 / 98844-99456.


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Book launch: Anushka Ravishankar’s ‘At Least a Fish’

Photo: R. Ravindran

“Will you sing a song for us?”

“What do you like best in the whole world?”

“Did you use up all your imagination?”

“How many chapters are there in the book? How many pages? How many words?”

It was a question and answer session like no other, at what had to be one of the most high-energy children’s book launches ever at the Citi Centre Landmark.

Anushka Ravishankar, award-winning children’s author, poet and playwright, found herself at the receiving end of a rapid-fire round of random questions of the sort only seven year olds can come up with, and literally had to run off the stage (only to be mobbed by her little questioners for autographs) at the launch of her new children’s book, ‘At Least a Fish’.

“It was so hilarious,” she said, laughing good-naturedly later (when she’d had a chance to recover). “They ask the first thing that comes to their minds – it doesn’t matter if it’s relevant or not, and they don’t really want to know the answer. They just want to ask!”

You could think of it as a ‘welcome back’ celebration of sorts – the author, best known for her picture-books and nonsense verse for young children, is writing storybooks for this age group (seven to eight year olds) after a long time. ‘At Least a Fish’ is the first of a series (the ‘Zain and Ana’ series) planned for Scholastic.

“This is actually such a great age group to write for – I got to tell a proper story and I let myself go much more in terms of humour,” she said. “I had an absolute blast writing it.”

Her audience seemed to have as much of a blast listening to it –the jam-packed group of little kids who’d been brought from various schools burst into spontaneous laughter every now and again during the short dramatised reading from the book. Eight-year-old Tarun Lakshman and nine-year-old Shreya Thomas added to the fun with their immensely natural, lively performances as the goofy Zain and brainy Ana respectively (impressively, they remembered all their lines – not a piece of paper in sight).

“Purely by accident, it turned out that Shreya was just like Ana – Tarun immediately pointed that out – and Tarun was like Zain in a lot of ways and loved the character,” said Anushka. “We rehearsed for just a couple of hours for three days – I had to do very little with them.”

The little actors were helped along by Anushka’s wonderful writing – funny, realistic dialogue and depictions of childhood situations, such as playing with pets (and really, really wanting a dog because you can’t cuddle a fish – well, you could, but you’d get wet), imaginary dragons in the pond nearby and grand plans to capture it, older siblings who scold and the annoying twins next door who want to play house.

“The series is just about the adventure of being children,” says Anushka. “Things seem so much more important then – what fish eat can seem like a matter of life and death!”

Other things of importance cleared up by kids in the audience during the q-and-a session – whether the author keeps fish, how many she has, why she likes fish, what other pets she’d like to keep… Really, there was very little left for this reporter to ask by the end.


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Article: Personal yet universal (screening of Kimberly Reed’s ‘Prodigal Sons’)

Carol McKerrow, Marc McKerrow and Kimberly Reed

It was an evening of sharing and cross-cultural exchange, an evening that showed just how universal the search for identity and acceptance is, whether it’s under the wide Montana sky or in the sultry streets of Chennai.

The event was the screening of ‘Prodigal Sons’, an acclaimed documentary by transgender filmmaker Kimberly Reed, at the U.S. Consulate auditorium as part of the city’s ongoing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride (LGBT) Pride Month celebrations.

Entirely autobiographical, the documentary is a startlingly honest telling of Reed’s own transition and the struggles of her adopted brother Marc, who suffered brain-damage in a severe automobile accident in his 20s. With gorgeous shots of ‘big sky country’ Montana as the backdrop, the story of their sibling rivalry, Marc’s search for his birth parents and the family’s difficulties in dealing with his degenerating mental state unfolds in a powerful, and at times disturbing, tableau.

What begins as a tale of Reed’s return to her hometown (where she was last known as Paul McKerrow, star quarterback of the high school football team) turns into something far more universal – a story of making peace with one’s past, and coming to terms with difficult family relationships.

“This is such a personal story, and it’s wonderfully rewarding to see it connect with people across the world,” said Reed during the video conference interaction with the audience that followed. “There are a lot of unusual things going on, but this is basically a film about love and family, and I hope that message made it across to India!”

Judging by the reception the filmmaker received – a big round of applause, cheers and waves from the packed audience comprised of members of Chennai’s own transgender community, social activists, etc. – it would appear that it did. Warm and immensely likeable, Reed spent the next half an hour answering questions from audience, helped along by coordinators Kalki, transgender activist, and Amy Hirsch of the U.S. Consulate.

The result was a discussion on everything from mental illness (“Sometimes I feel that is the real taboo subject in our society”) to Reed’s own transition (“One of the best things I did was not be afraid to take it slow… it’s more important to get your head right about it rather than get your body right”). In between, Kalki spoke of some of her experiences and those of the transgender community in Tamil Nadu, leading to sharing on the similar difficulties the communities in the U.S. and India face.

“The fight is still going on in the U.S. – poverty is a problem here as well,” Reed said. “About 50 per cent of transgender youth take their own life – it’s absolutely tragic and something needs to be done about that.”

If some of the questions veered more towards rambling commentary, that was a minor issue during an otherwise rewarding evening. It was apparent that ‘Prodigal Sons’ made a deep impression on much of the audience, and what made this event truly meaningful is that they were able to share that with its director –and its subject— living halfway across the world.


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