Sunil Paulraj's Nostalgia 2011
The classically trained singer leads charitable tour of India with Northern Irish choir
Many and varied are the roads that lead from the world beyond to Belfast city. For Sunil Paulraj, the trip began in Bangalore, where as a child at Sunday School he sang for the Little Sisters of the Poor, a charitable organisation helping the destitute.
He fell in love with singing and, unusually, with the type of classical choral repertoire that normally falls well outside the staple musical diet of his native India, a country rich in its own indigenous musical traditions.
In the India of Paulraj's youth, making a career as a singer was, he explains, well nigh unthinkable. 'In India the youngsters don't take up music, it's considered a profession that you don't really want to go into. Being a doctor, being a lawyer, being an engineer is what to aim for.'
Paulraj himself duly became a doctor, but the dream of music-making continued to burn brightly. He was still singing regularly in his spare time, but in terms of developing his vocal technique was going nowhere.
The question was, what to do about it? After a period spent working in the Maldives, Paulraj finally grasped the nettle. 'You don't have really good singing teachers in India,' he explains. 'And so I thought, "why not go over to the UK and train the voice?"'
Why Northern Ireland in particular, I ask him? Happenstance turns out to be the answer. 'People I knew said the folks in Belfast are very friendly.' And are they? 'I found that is true, yes,' he says, smiling warmly.
A post as paediatrician at the city's Royal Victoria Hospital, where he still works full-time in the neo-natal unit, was all the bait he needed. He's been in Belfast since 2002, and is clearly loving every minute of it.
Fully settled at the Royal Victoria, Paulraj finally turned his attention to the proper training of his voice professionally, becoming one of the Belfast pupils of Judith Sheridan, whose many clients include Northern Ireland ecclesiastical trio The Priests.
'My voice is classically set up now. As a high tenor I can reach a D without using falsetto.' It was not ever thus. 'In India I used to sing a lot of country,' he chuckles, 'with a group called Ashley and the Black Roses. We had four girls and two boys, which prompted the press to call us The Two Black Baskets and the Roses. You wouldn't get away with it nowadays...'
All the music Paulraj did in India was for charity, and when parts of the country were devastated by the 2004 tsunami, that thread in his activities was strongly reawakened. Toccata was the upshot, an organisation formed by Paulraj to mount musical productions for charitable causes, particularly in developing nations.
And it's Toccata which has organised Nostalgia 2011, a three-week tour of India which departed Belfast in late July, featuring a choir of 40 hand-picked singers, all from Northern Ireland.
Though naturally modest, Paulraj was clearly a galvanising presence in making this ambitious project happen, devoting 18 months of his spare time travelling to India, setting up venues and sponsors, and auditioning 80-odd applicants for the available choir positions.
Paulraj is clearly delighted by the group of local singers he has recruited. From the start it was deliberately intended to be inclusive, not the sole preserve of already experienced or semi-professional singers. 'You look at X Factor,' he says, 'there are so many people who want to sing. We said, "If you have a half-decent voice, we can train it." So we threw it open.'
The membership of the choir is, accordingly, notably eclectic. 'Psychiatrists, doctors, nurses, local government workers, even a young artist with no previous singing experience,' Paulraj explains, grinning broadly.
Rehearsals began eight months ago and were, given the diversity of backgrounds among the singers, 'initially very tough', according to Paulraj. But the steadying hand and vast experience of conductor Judith Sheridan, his old singing teacher, have moulded the group into what Paulraj clearly feels is something rather special.
Nostalgia 2011 will perform eight concerts in India, in three separate locations, to a combined audience of 12,000-15,000 people. And what, I ask Paulraj, will the paying punters be hearing? 'I was very selfish over repertoire,' he smiles impishly. 'I chose the repertoire that I grew up with: Abba, Elvis Presley, John Denver, The Eagles.'
Selections from all of these, and more, will be presented in four-part (occasionally eight-part) arrangements, with a team of eight West End soloists, an orchestra, local Indian musicians and dancers also participating.
For Paulraj personally, the musical highlight of the trip will be the choir's performance of a piece by Ilaiyaraaja, a hugely prolific Indian composer with over 900 film scores to his credit, with Ilaiyaraaja himself present.
'We must not only give what we have; we must also give what we are.' The Belgian Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier said that, and it perfectly describes the attitude of Sunil Paulraj, who co-opted it as Toccata's mission statement. 'Personally I feel that I've been very blessed, I have never been in want of anything. But there is dire need in the world, so much financial need.'
Paulraj's mission, 'born in Belfast' as he puts it, is to do something about it, by donating all proceeds from Nostalgia 2011 to the charity for which he sang as a boy in Bangalore, and whose work among the poor and disinherited there touched him so greatly.
'When I came over to the UK, the dream was always to take over a good musical group to India, to bring the music that is so beautiful from here to India, to take the music home,' he explains. 'But the thing that's always been upmost in my mind is the Little Sisters...'
Nostalgia 2011 will return from their tour of India in late August. Watch this space for a post-tour diary.