On Monday 10th December, 30 singers and two organ scholars set off from Heathrow to begin a trip that would take in Mumbai and Goa, and see us giving concerts, working with hugely talented yet underprivileged local children, and absorbing Indian culture.
The atmosphere on our journey from Mumbai airport to our hotel was distinctly quiet, with the group taking in the sights and sounds of this densely populated mega-city. From the bikes weaving skillfully between cars and trucks, to the elegant Haji Ali Mosque surrounded by water, a vast outdoor laundry and the bright posters everywhere in Roman and Devanagari script, there were reminders everywhere that this was a city that mingled millions of people, of different faiths and cultures, living in close proximity.
For one day, we were tourists, visiting the sixth-century Elephanta caves. Our guide was truly brilliant at showing us round the caves, which mostly consist of monuments and iconography dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. We also encountered some extremely cheeky monkeys – one of which pinched a bottle of soda from the group!
From a musical point of view, we gave three concerts in three very different venues: The first was in the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai: in a 1,000-seat performance space featuring a pipe organ – one of only a handful in India.
We had some challenging and contemporary pieces to start with, but eventually branched out into real Christmas favourites such as The Twelve Days of Christmas, Ding dong! merrily on high and Away in a Manger. These all went down a treat, with plenty of whoops and cheers!
The second concert was at the Mehboob studios, in a barn of a Bollywood film studio which could well have been an aircraft hangar. After a concert of music on the theme of water (including works by Palestrina, Holst and arrangements by several former Kings Singers), we were able to enjoy the sounds of traditional Indian instruments such as the tabla and santoor, the latter an Asian dulcimer, playing alongside a Western jazz trio in the open air.
After travelling to Goa, the third concert was performed in the 17th century Church of St Francis of Assisi. There was no electricity, it was swelteringly hot, and we had several animal friends join us both physically and vocally during the concert, including pigeons, bats, dogs, and a rat that ran straight through the choir whilst we were singing. Coupled with the colour of the lights, and the glorious stonework the sound of the music was sublime.
The undoubted highlights of the trip were our workshops with the charities Songbound and the Karta Initiative. The latter was a cross-college effort with choir, tutors, and principal all combining to give 30 bright and personable 16-17 year olds a morning interacting with members of the University. The sessions that we had with the children from Songbound – which uses music to make a difference to the lives of some of India’s poorest children – will live long in the memory. We spent an hour in each session teaching them songs, learning from them, sensing their great joy at making music when the rest of their days were known to be troubling.
It was a pleasure for us to be part of such an extraordinary trip and to be able to act as ambassadors for both the College and wider University. As a college choir, we have arrived back with those memories and experiences firmly in our thoughts. The trip reminded us that Somerville is part of a global community, with alumni and well-wishers all around the world. Through the shared enjoyment of music, I hope that we strengthened the ties between Somerville and our friends in India. I’m thrilled that we’re already considering the next tour. More on that soon…
First-year experimental psychology student, Miriam Remshard:
When I joined the choir, I did not know of the plans to do a tour of India. So, when I received my first email in September informing me that I would be travelling to India in less than four months, I was excited to say the least. Seeing a country which is so different to the UK was an incredibly eye-opening experience. From the hot and humid climate, the animals (such as cows and goats) standing in the middle of the road, the hectic traffic, to the friendly, smiling and welcoming people, it was unlike anything I had ever experienced. There are many memories I will cherish from this tour. For me as a first-year student and new to the choir, it was a really special event and a fantastic opportunity to get to know the other members of the choir a lot better. Needless to say, I am very much looking forward to our next tour!