When Delhi heard songs of healing

Tags: Op-ed
Since New Year’s eve, Delhi has had a unique experience. Not only because of the new government and the euphoria surrounding the Aam Aadmi Party, but a more unique and esoteric one. A group of 80 teenage boys — The Keystone State Boy Choir of Philadelphia, US — arrived in the national capital accompanied by their music director, Joe Fritz, associate music director, Steve Fisher, programme manager, Martha, and a bunch of volunteering parents as chaperons, on a tour they have christened ‘Discovery of Gandhi Tour’.

The Keystone State Boy Choir is a unique experiment to bring together boys of all races, ethnicities, economic and social strata and unite them so that all differentiations melt away and form a singular unit which strives to excel in the field of music. While doing so, they spread the message of America, that of a nation formed by diverse people from all over the world welded together in contributing towards the formation of a united nation. The choir was co-founded by Fritz and Fisher, both accomplished composers and conductors. They started working with a mixed bunch of boys from Philadelphia; boys from the poor, lower middle class, upper middleclass and from very well to do families along with different racial and ethnic communities. They brought this bunch of young lads together, auditioned them, found talent and formed the choir.

It was an uphill task but the duo persevered. They found support from the community and philanthropists. Soon, they had a bunch of talented boys, who were welded into an accomplished choir. The Keystone Boy Choir has performed on all continents and is the first choir to perform on Antarctica. They have enthralled audiences in the US, London, Europe, Norway, Australia, South Africa and now, even India.

The boy choir arrived in Delhi on New Year’s eve last week and performed in private residences, at the Hare Krishna Temple and even at Chandni Chowk in the middle of a busy throughfare. Apart from their usual repertoire, the choir had prepared a few special numbers for their India tour. One an Islamic chant called Zikar — a bandagi of the different names of Allah and his Prophet. It is a haunting melody and the boys sing it with passion and energy. The other one is Ramkali — a Hindustani dhun in praise of god as divine love.

Fisher invited my father and me to interact with the boys. When we arrived in Delhi on January 2, we found we had missed out on their impromptu performances. They told me that on the roadside outside Jamma Masjid at Chandni Chowk, when the boys broke out into a rendition of Zikar, a crowd gathered around them, attempting to figure out what was happening. Why was a bunch of ‘foreigners’ suddenly singing a chant in praise of Allah? From how Fisher and the boys described it, it must have been an incredible experience, especially in that setting. I so wished I was there. They then visited the Salaam Balak Trust and sang for the children there and held an impromptu Bollywood dance competition between the Keystone boys and the NGO’s children, another moving experience. And of course, they sang at Rajghaat as well.

On January 2, my father and I took the group to Gandhi Smriti. I had requested them to sing Lead Kindly Light at the shrine where Bapu was felled. Fisher decided that they would sing exactly at 5:17 pm, the time when Bapu fell to the bullets of Nathuram Godse. The choir was delayed at their previous concert, but made it to Gandhi Smriti at five past five. They scrambled to assemble by the Samadhi by 5:15 and exactly at 17 minutes past 5, the Keystone State Boy Choir burst out into a most poignant rendition of Bapu’s favourite hymn, Lead kindly light amid encircling gloom.... The atmosphere was magical, this was one of the most emotional tributes to Bapu. After that, the choir performed Ziker and Ramkali too and created a magical atmosphere at the samadhi.

In the subsequent two days that we spent with them, the choir performed at Gandhi Bhavan at University of Delhi, at the US ambassador’s residence and at the IIC auditorium too. At IIC, they enthralled a packed house and created such magic that at the end, the audience burst out in an impromptu rendition of another dhun that was dear to Bapu — Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram.

What was sad was that Delhi was ignorant of what was taking place in its midst and the addicted to ‘breaking story media’, ignored this fantastic opportunity. What was touching was that at each of their public performances, Fisher stood with folded hands and apologised to the audience for the way their fellow Indian had been recently treated in the US and attempted to heal the scars through the music of his boys. Delhi should have responded, but being Delhi, it was more enthralled by the shenanigans of the new political dispensation. Alas, what an opportunity lost.

(The writer is founder president, Mahatma Gandhi Foundation)

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