Saturday, 17 December 2011

Entertaining Madam President

Last night I participated in one of the most unusual carol concerts I've ever attended - certainly one of the most memorable. It took place in the ballroom of the Rashrapati Bhawan - the Presidential Palace - with the President of India, Pratibha Patil, in attendance. The carol concert takes place every year with several choirs from across the country invited to take part, and this year (for the second time) the choir I have recently joined, Capital City Minstrels, was included in the programme. Needless to say, I was quite excited at the opportunity to sing for a Head of State!

The palace itself was built towards the tail end of the British colonial period as the residence for the Viceroy of India, and became the President's residence on India's independence. I'm not particularly inspired by the exterior - or indeed by the rest of Lutyens' Delhi, as I've blogged before - which manages to combine squatness and pomposity (though, as a fellow chorister pointed out, it's still better than Buckingham Palace):

Sadly we weren't allowed to take cameras inside, so you'll just have to take my word for it when I say that the interior is much more pleasing. Of course it's all terribly grand, but somehow the proportions seem to work far better once you're inside, and the marriage of classical architecture with strong Indian influences is really stunning. The effect is only slightly marred by the red masking tape marking the edge of all the stairs (the original designers apparently having failed to realise that two white marble steps in the middle of a long white marble corridor is a recipe for unfortunate mishaps).

The ballroom itself, though, is quite simply one of the most gorgeous rooms I've ever been in. Mostly this is due to the paintings that cover the walls and ceiling, featuring scenes reminiscent of the best Mughal miniatures (though magnified rather a lot, obviously) surrounded by lovely arabesque floral designs. I spent quite a lot of the concert (when not singing) with my head back feasting on the beauty of it all. I felt enormously privileged to be able to do so.

Preparations for the concert were extensive - we arrived at 3 and didn't start singing until half past five - and organised by the Indian military (I presume the Presidential guard) with a technique that showed a great deal of respect for tight timing and absolutely no recognition of the practical matters of getting entire choirs on and off a stage. As a result we over-ran by nearly an hour, but good humour seemed to prevail.

Apart from our three numbers we had a mixed programme, including a couple of children's choirs (actually not bad) and a really amazing performance by a group called Voices of Hope, from Nagaland on the border with Myanmar, whose conductor Nise also plays piano for our choir and who has a heartbreakingly beautiful singing voice. There was also a group called the Delhi Syro-Malabar Mission, who sang a number in the Malayalam language from Kerala which, upbeat and highly enjoyable though it was, is, I fear, unlikely to be joining Silent Night and Jingle Bells on the list of Christmas classics any time soon:

Apparently, that little mouthful translates roughly as "Do re mi fa so la ti do...the holy light over the stable". Doesn't really trip off the tongue in either language.

Once the choirs were finished we had a Christmas message from the Cardinal of Ranchi, who rejoices in the superb name of Telesphore P Toppo. No, really. It's an even better name than Cardinal Sin. The evening was then slightly marred by the appearance of two very skinny santas wearing frankly terrifying masks, which of course put me immediately in mind of a certain episode of Dr Who and made me fear for the safety of everyone present:

Baffling, this. As a fellow singer pointed out, India hardly has a shortage of rotund gentlemen with white beards. The preference for skinny guys in hideous masks is something I can't really fathom.

To round off the evening we had a good old singalong, including the following verse of Jingle Bells. I can honestly say I have never heard this verse before, so I'm wondering if any of you have ever come across it. And what is the meaning of the word "upsot"? Answers on a postcard...

And the President? Well, she sat dutifully through it all, perched in splendid isolation immediately in front of the stage in a white armchair that seemed far too large (she is a tiny but dignified elderly lady). At the end she congratulated all the conductors and then posed for photos with all the choirs (I will post ours on here as and when it's sent). At one point one of the choirs sent up two of their members for a photo dressed as Mary and Joseph, at which point the President grabbed the Baby Jesus out of Mary's arms for an impromptu shot, which I thought was a nice touch. But it's rather hard to say how much she enjoyed it all. The presidential role here is largely ceremonial so I imagine she has to go to a lot of this kind of thing, and she maintained a fairly inscrutable expression. But it was an honour to perform for her, whatever her thoughts on the matter!

Altogether a truly memorable evening and one that reflects India's embracing of its many different cultures and creeds as well as its love of festival. Despite the rigid security, the inevitable formality of the event, and the fact that a majority of the people present were not Christian either by background or by belief, it was one of the most enjoyable Christmas events I've been to. And just the fact that it happens at all - hosted by the President of a country that is only about 2% Christian - is really quite beautiful. I feel lucky to have been there.

1 comment:

Sonya said...

Amazing! I look forward to seeing the photo... xx