Actor And Filmmaker Meneka Das: 'Great music transcends time'

Actor And Filmmaker Meneka Das: 'Great music transcends time'

She has given an operatic twist to Hindi Christmas carols in 'The Christmas Project' on behalf of her family

Verus FerreiraUpdated: Saturday, December 23, 2023, 07:37 PM IST
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An Indian song from a village, performed on a big stage, is a big dream. For Meneka Das, it is a dream project to put together the songs of her father Nirmal K Das, the unsung composer and poet behind the famous Christmas carol Aaya Masih and other Bhojpuri songs Sunlo More Bhaiya, Ghabar Dootan Ke among many others. While Aaya Masih has been covered by many Indian artists, Meneka wants to reignite her father’s songs in her own way.

The Christmas Project is an ongoing project set up by Nirmal K Das’ youngest daughter on behalf of the family. “His songs are sung by communities across India and the diaspora, often without the knowledge of who wrote them. This project is a way to share his legacy with India and beyond,” shares Meneka, during an interview from London.

Collaborating with Olivier Award nominated composer and producer Andrew T Mackay, Life of Pi (WestEnd/Broadway), Hamid (National Award-winning film, India), the project aims to bring artists from across the globe along with some of the original singers of his choir from Das’ hometown in UP, while taking his songs to a new generation.

“My father often spoke about what it would be like to explore these elements of choral music, orchestra and harmony in his Hindi compositions and make it accessible to the masses. So this vision became the starting point for us. We decided we would begin with Aaya Masih and do a choral arrangement, with opera singers, with no music — just voices to bring out the soul of the song. Maybe it will instigate a new genre,” says Meneka, who got four opera singers to perform Aaya Masih.

The journey, says Das, began with reaching out to popular choirmaster and arranger Paul Ayers who trained at Oxford University, now working in theatre and choral music across the world. He had never encountered such an opportunity, but after listening to the song was quick to take on the project. “With the arrangement completed, we needed to have it performed to see if it worked. Mackay, who was working with talented opera singers on Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Donmar theatre in London, decided to approach some of them,” says Meneka Das, an actor/writer/director who appeared as Freddie Mercury’s mum in Bohemian Rhapsody.

As a young boy growing up in an Indian village of Azamgarh, Nirmal K Das had the opportunity to hear Handel’s Messiah which deeply impacted him. Although he went on to work for the government as assistant commissioner for central excise, his love and gift of music continued. His dream was to write hymns in Hindi and Bhojpuri, using four part harmonies and counterpoint, something never really done especially in Indian music. He moved to the small Christian village in Allahabad called Muirabad, where he formed the Muirabad Choir which performed across North India and especially during Christmas and Easter. “In Muirabad, he also met and married my mother, who was an accomplished pianist and sang alto in his choir”.

For Meneka, this is a very personal project and one she dreamt to do with her father. “The irony is I never got to sing with my father in his lifetime, as he passed away too soon thanks to cancer. In his last moments, he asked me to take his songs and share them with the world. It’s sad that it has taken so long to get this project off the ground. But I am at least doing it now,” says Das who is currently developing her BAFTA Rocliffe winning feature script, to be filmed in India and the UK, with the British Film Institute.

Meneka’ hope is to introduce her father’s song to those who have never heard it and make it more accessible. “Great music transcends time. I believe these songs are timeless. I just directed Ibsen’s A Doll’s House adapted by Tanika Gupta, but set in India. The essence doesn’t change, but the telling does. So I guess that’s what I am hoping to do with this project.”

For Meneka, the love of her father’s song and letting the world know who wrote these songs is more important. She claims that she is receiving a great response. “My audience would be the people who sang in my father’s original choir and their kids who sing it now,” she says while adding, “The response from our little village has been deeply encouraging and emotional. Next is those who sing the song across India, for starters that’s already a pretty good audience”.

Das hopes to go one step ahead and direct her father’s music as a theatre piece. “Alongside releasing the songs through social media outlets, we hope to get artists to come together from different communities and perform it live and finally for me to direct it as a theatre piece as a re-imagining of his tableaux productions that he used to stage with his choir,” she signs off.

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