Nikhil Sardana: What does the name “Stop-Gaps” stand for?
Alfred D’Souza: The Stop-Gaps started out as a spontaneous and temporary choral group intended to raise funds for a pressing social need of bringing relief to washermen or “dhobis” whose hutments and livelihood had been literally washed away in the terrible flooding of the Adayar river, during the monsoon in Chennai around Christmas in 1972. The group comprised people of different ages, professions, communities, religions and social backgrounds and hence various gaps seemed to have been bridged through singing for a common cause. Therefore, the name, The Stop-Gaps. The group went out carol singing almost 6 nights in a row through most of Chennai (Madras in those days) and the money collected was used to buy clothes and food for the affected families and distributed on Christmas Day.
Today the choir, though amateur, strives for very professional standards and sings all genres of music. It is known for its thematic concerts and for catering to the tastes of almost every one in its audience. The motto of the choir is ‘Bridging The World With Song.’
NS: Where did you grow up in India and when did you move to Bombay? Please share your background with us.
AD: I was born in Kalyan, Thane district in Maharashtra and spent my early childhood in Chennai with my Mother’s family. There, I think, my musical and creative talents were nurtured. My grand-aunt’s husband was an organist and the church choir master and choir rehearsals took place at home. My mother and most of her family sang, so I just grew up with singing and choral music. I did a broadcast on All India Radio at the age of 4 and never really realised I had a special talent! I sang in a boys choir in Chennai which was conducted by the very strict but endearing, Fr. George Whyte from whom I did absorb a lot.
I moved to Mumbai in 1964, because my Dad had a transferable job and before that was posted in a god-forsaken place in those times, known as Bhira, where the power generation company he worked for as the resident doctor had one of its hydro stations. I completed my final three years of schooling at St. Mary’s (ISC) Mumbai and returned to Chennai to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology and then a Master’s in Social Work, both from the Loyola College. It was at this time that I formed the Stop-Gaps.
I returned to Mumbai and began working in the same company that my father used to work at in 1976. I did a short stint of vocal study in Mumbai with Situ Singh Beuhler and the late Hyacinth Brown. I attended a master class with singers Joanne Grillo and Richard Kness from the Met and was offered to be taken to the US, since they were impressed with my counter tenor voice and flexible style of singing. But I declined the offer for personal reasons and have no regrets.
Two of the main features of The Stop-gaps Cultural Academy are firstly The Festival of Festive Music held over the last 33 years in December at the Tata Theatre in Mumbai which has showcased choirs from all over India. The second is in association with the NCPA which is The Young Talent Concert series of which The Budding Brigade has recently become a part.
NS: Tell us about the history of the Stop Gaps Cultural Academy including its key events and accomplishments.
AD: The Stop-Gaps Choral Ensemble was formed in Mumbai in 1984, after I had wound up The Stop-Gaps in Chennai and with it was born The Festival of Festive Music that December, which brought together about 6 choirs in a Christmas carol competition at the Patkar Hall to raise funds for an organisation known as The English-Speaking Union Of The Commonwealth, of which I was a committee member. I had seen so much talent at the Parish Zonal competitions which is unique to Mumbai. I thought that it was a good idea to give the choirs that took part in these events a bigger platform for displaying their talents and gaining recognition while helping a good cause.
The Festival of Festive Music was so well received that the next year we took it straight to the Tata Theatre and cut out the competition part, making it more choir friendly and an event for peace and goodwill. The response from choirs within the city was so enthusiastic that we had to make it a two day event after that and threw it open to choirs from all over India. The Stop-Gaps Cultural Academy came into being as a registered organisation in 1985 which made it easier to get funding and sponsorship as well as being accepted as an associate on the panel by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations.
A few of its prestigious performances have been singing at a Papal Audience for the late Saint Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, opening the Indian Film Festival in Stuttgart, being the first Indian choir to sing in China, invited to sing as India’s representative at the closing celebrations of Israel’s 50th anniversary of Independence, among others.
Two of the main features of The Stop-Gaps Cultural Academy are firstly The Festival of Festive Music held over the last 33 years in December at the Tata Theatre in Mumbai which has showcased choirs from all over India. The second is in association with the NCPA which is The Young Talent Concert series of which The Budding Brigade has recently become a part. In the Young Talent concerts, young musicians of Indian origin, between the ages of 15 and 30 who have reached a certain level of proficiency in Western classical music are provided a platform at the Experimental Theatre to showcase their artistry before a rather knowledgeable, discerning and supportive audience. The Budding Brigade does much the same for children between the ages of six and fourteen.
The Stop-Gaps Choral Ensemble has represented India at several International Choir Competitions and Festivals abroad. A few of its prestigious performances have been singing at a Papal Audience for the late Saint Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, opening the Indian Film Festival in Stuttgart, being the first Indian choir to sing in China, invited to sing as India’s representative at the closing celebrations of Israel’s 50th anniversary of Independence, among others.
NS: What are the Parish Zonal Competitions?
AD: The Parish Zonal competitions have thrown up a wealth of talent. The parish is divided into two or more zones and competitions are held in various disciplines, the most popular being singing and dramatics. It is a delightful and healthy rivalry between the people in these zones, affording them the chance of honing their skills and having their talents recognised. There are a couple of shields and cups, besides cash prizes to be won and the judges are all highly respected professionals in their field.
NS: What are you most looking forward to at this year’s Young Talent and Budding Brigade concert series?
AD: I’m really looking forward to a very high level, both in the performances and the achievements of the young artistes this year. The bar has been set quite high over the years and I like to see that raised still further. I’m really amazed at the level that some of these youngsters have reached and though they are still students they show a great sense of professionalism. I also hope that this inspires others to take up music and excel in it, besides just academic studies.