It’s past twilight. As I walk into the St Joseph’s Convent School on Hill Road in Bandra and find my way around the brickwork that looks like gingerbread in the moonlight, I stumble into dead-ends and creepy corners.
Finally, a cackle of voices guide me to a room where a small group of people, aged anything between a possible 17 to 70, are singing. A rehearsal session of The Stop-Gaps choir, known for its elaborate dressing, dancing and stage antics, is on. A friend who had briefly sung with the group a couple of years ago had warned me. “Their conductor and founder-director, Alfie, might seem like he is perpetually shouting,” she said. “But he’s a softie at heart.” So when Alfred D’Souza, known as Alfie, interrupted his choir’s practice shouting a rhetorical, “Can we sing in English and not Swahili?” I quickly hide my crinkle of a smile.
The Stop-Gaps, in existence since 1984, is a trendsetter for choral groups across the country for reasons more than one. “We were the first choir to choreograph our performances,” D’Souza tells me in the adjoining room. A brainwave of D’Souza’s, the choreography has now been picked up by choirs across the country.
As I see the motley set perform a number from their recently-concluded annual September concert — they twirl, do the twist, put their hands up in the air, clap — I can see why the idea has been replicated. It infuses life into music traditionally considered tedious, with the singers typically clasping their hands on their chests. Here, instead, they make my feet tap and my fingers snap; it makes even a tone-deaf person like me want to get up, sing a little and shout, “Hallelujah!”
Maybe that’s the magic that draws strangers to The Stop-Gaps. Like a certain Nikhil Kini who is here for the first time. He heard the choir singing in the train en route to Delhi where they performed recently.
Kini, who has had no formal lessons in music, found himself at an audition and now, at his first ever choir practice. “If I knew how big they were before I approached them, I would’ve never come,” he admits. I ask him if he is scared of D’Souza who is now chiding singers with, “Are there any angels in pain? Then why are all of you so loud and painful?” Kini says that he is confused and intimidated, but happy to be here and will be back.
Speaking randomly with the 15-odd choir members that have made it to this balmy Tuesday evening practice (the group has about 40 singers in all), I realise that they all voluntarily come for their rehearsals, some after school or college, some after wrapping up their housework and some after they are done with their day jobs (one of them here is a dentist, another one is his patient).
They pay a nominal fee to be part of this academy, and usually fund their own travels when the choir is invited to sing outside the city. While they continue to douse their audiences in magic with an annual Christmas concert — Festival of Festive Music that takes place at the NCPA always running to packed houses — they are often doused in magic themselves. “We sung in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve in 1998 and have also sang in the midst of Pope John Paul II at the Vatican,” some ladies from the choir excitedly tell me. What’s impressive is that the group also sings in Hindi, Marathi, Tamil and Gujarati, as well as some foreign languages. People across faiths and religious beliefs are part of this choir that has sung Bollywood and Broadway numbers, retro songs and even songs of The Beatles.
Outside, the group is singing The Hands that First Held Mary’s Child. D’Souza, a stickler for perfection, directs the group through diction as well as posture (“Stand straight, hands either by the side or clasped in front of your chest”). The choreography hasn’t started yet but D’Souza is excited about the theme for this year’s concert: bonbons. He will be composing a song on bonbons, and intends to hand some out to the audience.
Like tradition goes, they have invited choirs from across India to be part of this two-day extravaganza. Till December, the group will rehearse about three times a week to achieve that level of meticulousness that their conductor demands of them. On the day of their concert, everything will have to be uniform, right down to their costumes, hemlines and nail-paint colour.
As I take my seat in a corner again, the group pipes up with the last stanza of the song they have been rehearsing all evening. The group is a mixed one — sopranos, altos, tenors and basses are interspersed instead of being grouped; it makes the voices emerge from everywhere and not just unilaterally. I start drifting into another time and place, in which the snowflakes are melting on my nose, a Christmas tree is in sight and where angels are singing all around me. And then, a stern voice punctuates the air — “You are singing your own rubbish. Stop and listen to me!”
We sung in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve in 1998, on the occasion of Israel’s 50th anniversary, even though there was widespread conflict in the area. We sang in the midst of Pope John Paul II at the Vatican then