30 years on, MBS Youth Choir in Kerala continues to uphold values of secularism, peace

Started in memory of MB Sreenivasan, the choir continues to be an inclusive space, as envisioned by its founding members.
30 years on, MBS Youth Choir in Kerala continues to uphold values of secularism, peace
30 years on, MBS Youth Choir in Kerala continues to uphold values of secularism, peace
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As I enter Lenin Balavadi Hall in Thiruvananthapuram, I can hear the soft strains of ‘Qadam Qadam Badaye Ja’ fill the air.

For three decades now, this hall has hosted members of the MBS Youth Choir – it has been named after MB Sreenivasan, fondly called MBS.

The choir is well-known for being one of the pioneers when it came to mixing Indian classical and folk music with the harmonic convention of western choral music.

I see men and women in the hall repeat the verses of the song led by Guhaprasath, a musician from Chennai.  

“Diversity is the name of the game here. One doesn’t know the caste or religion of the person standing next them in the choir group. This adds value to the music,” says Guhaprasath.

The choir group tries to stay away from popular songs – they tend to choose older songs that are most likely not recognised by the new generation.

Guhaprasath amidst the annual training programme of MBS youth choir 

“The song that we are singing now is a patriotic song, sung by the Indian Army during their marches. We sing songs in every Indian language. We also include songs on farmers like ‘Kathirarappu’ song in Tamil,” says Guhaprasath.

Guhaprasath has been associated with the choir for decades – ever since his childhood. He has come to coach members of the choir as part of their annual training programme in January.

“Our motive here is to build a society where everyone is accommodative of diversity,” Guhaprasath smiles.

The MBS Youth Choir was started in 1988, in the memory of music composer MB Sreenivasan, to continue the choral singing movement that he had started in the early 1980s. Since then, members of the Youth Choir, from all walks of life, gather here every Saturday.

“This is a secular space. The singers of this choir come from various walks of life. We don’t know their caste or religion. It is only through the magic of music that we talk about things like nationalism and secularism,” says Anita Sharma, an admin associated with the choir.

Her father, Subramania Sharma, fondly called Sharmaji, was one of the founding members of the choir.

M B Sreenivasan (Archive Image)

It all started when the maestro MB Sreenivasan passed away unexpectedly on 9th March, 1988, in Lakshadweep. For thousands of his followers, who believed that music transcends everything, his absence left a huge void.

That’s when several friends and fans of his came together in Thiruvananthapuram and put forward the proposal to begin the MBS Youth Choir – after all, he had started the Madras Youth Choir.

Respected figures in the field of politics and culture, including Sharmaji, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, ONV Kurup, P Bhaskaran, came together and thus, the MBS Choir was born.

On 7th August, 1988, the choir came into existence, formally declared open by MBS’ wife Sahida Srinivasa, at the University Senate Hall, Thiruvananthapuram.

(Archive Image)

“His sudden absence left a huge void in our lives. We felt orphaned,” recalls M Jayachandran, a renowned music composer.

Jayachandran was part of the choir and adds that it was the first place he truly felt like he belonged, which then catapulted him into music direction.

“If it was not for Sharmaji, MBS Youth Choir would not have begun. It was Sharmaji who encouraged me to compose songs for the choir. We wanted to carry forward MBS’ idea of inculcating secularism through music,” adds Jayachandran.

It was Sharmaji, a renowned Communist leader, who held the torch aloft and led the way for the formation of the choir, in a bid to keep the memories of MBS alive through his music. Later, Sharmaji was instrumental in helping the choir travel across Kerala as part of the peace movement. Till his death, he coordinated the choir’s programmes.

Ashok Sharma, Sharmaji’s son, recalls how his father, even on his deathbed, wrote a letter to Mathew T Itty, who taught the choir members then, saying, “I am with you in soul and spirit.”

“My father wrote a letter to Mathew T Itty while he was hospitalized. Mathew still has the letter with him,” recalls Ashok.

Many of MBS’ disciples went on to carve a space for themselves in the industry and they still espouse his values of secularism.

M Jayachandran, renowned music composer and former MBS choir conductor 

“He was a composer who believed that anybody can sing. He wanted to create a united force through arts and music. And, as his disciple, I still strongly uphold that value,” says Jayachandran.

When asked if art is what will help nurture secular spaces in India, Jayachandran says art is an intelligent platform to help spread ideas of peace and tolerance.

“I don’t affiliate myself with any political parties; I have no politics. But I strongly believe that nothing should challenge the secularism in society. Arts can nurture these ideals and instil peace in society. Organisations like MB Youth Choir are a reminder of this,” says Jayachandran.

Now, songs written by Vayalar Rama Varma, P Bhaskaran, ONV Kurup and Kavalam Narayana Panicker features prominently in the choir’s repertoire. Members also sing hundreds of Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Hindi.

Latha Unnikrishnan, also in the city to train members of the choir, says, “We are all so young when the choir started. MBS was like a father figure to me. The spirit of music that he inculcated in me will never die out. I have been singing and teaching songs to the members of the choir since its inception.”

“We were all young when the choir started. MBS was like a father figure for me. The spirit for music that he inculcated in me will never die out. I have been singing and teaching songs to the choir members for thirty years now,” recalls Latha.

Present members of MBS youth choir

“One time, I taught the singers a Bengali song called ‘O Alor’ by Rabindranath Tagore, tuned by Sani Chaudhry. The song tells us that differences of opinion should not stop anyone from unifying for the cause of our motherland,” she adds. “I also taught them a Bharathiyar song called ‘Om Sakthi’, which speaks of internalising the power within you.”

The MBS Youth Choir now has close to 50 members and they have opened branches in schools too. But it hasn’t been a smooth journey. Choral singing has seen rises and dips in popularity over the years.

“We have a sublime audience for choral singing now. We have to make use of social media to reach a wider audience. Popularity is not easy to gain here. It is the understanding that the group is bigger than the individual that can take this movement forward,” says Guhaprasath.

“I don’t know if choral singing has lost its charm. That is debatable. For us, this is a meeting space that upholds the values of democracy and secularism. People don’t gather here for money or popularity. This is a much needed space in our society now and we will continue our journey,” says Ashok.

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