Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Unity in diversity

The choir of the Asian University for Women, representing 14 countries, sang a wide variety of Asian and European songs. It has helped the women to develop their talents and self-confidence 

Pics: The choir of the Asian University for Women; Dr. Selvam Thorez. Photos by A. Sanesh  

By Shevlin Sebastian 

At the Pastoral Orientation Centre in Kochi, a 40 member all-women choir sings, 
Give me the nay (flute) and sing/ for singing is the secret of existence/And the sound of the nay remains/After the end of existence.’

This is an English translation of a Lebanese song, ‘Aatini al nay’ (Give me the flute), which had been sung by one of West Asia’s greatest singers Fairuz. And the audience laps it up. All the women on stage are dressed in black. In front of them are French musicians Camille Aubret, Martin Bauer, Jean-Luc Tamby, Stephane Tamby and Keyvan Chemirani, who are playing the baroque guitar, flute, bassoon, and percussion instruments. And standing on a stool and directing the choir is the Pondicherry-born Frenchman Dr Selvam Thorez, who is Director of the Alliance Française in Chittagong, Bangladesh. 

The singers belong to the Chittagong-based Asian University for Women (AUW). And they belong to four religions, Hindu Muslim, Christian, and Buddhist, and come from 14 countries: Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Syria, Indonesia, China, America, Vietnam, Pakistan and India. 

India is represented by Mercy Kikon from Nagaland. “It is a privilege for me to sing on behalf of my country,” she says. Later, the choir sings a Naga song called Zayele (Protect us). This is a Gospel song, says Mercy. In fact, because of the Christmas season, most of the songs are spiritual ones. But it is a mix of Eastern as well as French baroque music from the 16th to the 18th centuries. Interestingly, the Bangladeshi singers opt for a Rabindranath Tagore song, ‘Anondodhara’. There are songs from Syria and Cambodia, too. 
The concert, ‘Earth to Heart’, with performances at Delhi, Pune, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi (on December 19) had been arranged by the Alliance Française de Trivandrum in association with Alliance Française de Chittagong and the Kochi-based Chavara Culture Centre, along with the French embassies in Delhi and Dhaka. 

Conductor Selvam, who trains the choir three times a week, says that the girls were selected through a stringent test. Out of 80 applicants, only 20 were selected. 
When asked about his job, Selvam says, “A good conductor should be friendly, kind and as helpful as possible, to give the proper direction and provide meaning for the song. I try to give freedom to the singer to express herself. so that they can get better.” 

Interestingly, all of them come from poor and lower middle-class families in small towns and cities across Asia. “They are all studying on scholarships provided by the AUW,” says Selvam. “We want to give opportunities to the disadvantaged. There are a few Rohingya girls, too.” 

Says Cherie Blair, University Chancellor and former UK First Lady: “At a time when there is so much strife in the world based on our inherited identities, AUW shows that yet another world is possible where young women from different upbringings can come together – first in solidarity with each other, and secondly in supporting a wider vision of changing their communities together.”

Sidrah, a Muslim, who comes from Pakistan shares a room with a Bhutanese, who is Buddhist. “When we are together we forget about our stress and have fun,” she says. “We teach each other about our religions and cultural traditions, and we respect each other.” 

The AUW is funded by entrepreneurs Jack and Beth Myer, who has given $10 million, as well as the Ikea Foundation, which has given a similar amount, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has given $5 million, apart from 45 other foundations and individuals. 

Meanwhile, Naga singer Mercy is enjoying herself in Kochi. “This is my first visit to South India,” she says. “I like the food -- rice, sambhar, and uttapam, the culture, and the ambience. The people are very kind and hospitable..”  

The choir is now getting ready for a tour of Myanmar in February, this time with a repertoire of popular songs and baroque Italian music. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India editions and Delhi)