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The children's doctor who has used his love of song to breathe new life into a gospel story

Belfast neonatal specialist Dr Sunil Paulraj loves to sing when he is away from the maternity wards, and he tells Ivan Little why he founded a musical ensemble which has performed all over the world to help disadvantaged people and which will be staging a huge show in Belfast next week


Dr Sunil Paulraj at his work in the Royal Victoria hospital intensive care unit at the neonatal ward

Dr Sunil Paulraj at his work in the Royal Victoria hospital intensive care unit at the neonatal ward

Sunil relaxing at home with his piano

Sunil relaxing at home with his piano

Sunil's musical Forgiven

Sunil's musical Forgiven

Dr Sunil Paulraj at his work in the Royal Victoria hospital intensive care unit at the neonatal ward

First things first. Dr Sunil Paulraj finishes his morning rounds in the neonatal intensive care unit of Belfast's Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital before he takes the time to talk about his music, the other passion in his frenetic schedule.

For the musical medic, his life is a seamless transition from his full-time day job to his night-time pastime and the amiable Indian-born doctor clearly enjoys speaking about the satisfaction his hospital work gives him and about the pleasure he gets from his music in the evenings.

"I love what I do with my neonatal duties. It's one of the most rewarding units you can imagine," says the 57-year-old, himself a father-of-two. "And when I leave here at the end of the day, I throw myself into my music."

Sunil is the founder of - and the driving force behind - the 80-strong Toccata Musical Productions ensemble and he has also devoted countless hours to the management of their forthcoming musical in Belfast, Forgiven: The Life of Simon Peter.

It's a massive project involving nearly 150 singers and musicians from diverse communities here, Britain … and India.

Sunil has dedicated the ambitious production to the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, which has been his home for the past 15 years and which he envisages will be his home forever.

Forgiven will be staged later this month in the cavernous Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle on the Shore Road in Belfast.

The church's now-retired minister Pastor James McConnell infamously hit the headlines after he was charged but subsequently cleared over his strident comments against Islam in 2014.

The preacher later apologised to Muslims for any offence his sermon had caused.

Whitewell's 2,600-capacity church with its enormous stage was the only venue deemed big enough to host Forgiven, but there was apprehension about making an approach.

However, Sunil says: "After a lot of talking, the church were keen to show that their doors are open to everyone and we were so, so grateful to them for helping us take our production there. They are also helping us with transport arrangements.

"People from all faiths and none will be taking part in Forgiven. Everyone wants to tell the story."

The local Toccata ensemble will be bolstered by a 45-strong guest choir from Mumbai in India called the Stop-Gaps choral ensemble, who have represented their country in many worldwide competitions. They have also performed at a special Papal audience with the late Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in front of 25,000 people in St Peter's Square.

In Forgiven, a group of children from Northern Ireland will also be singing, together with nine soloists from England, backed by a 12-strong orchestra under the baton of conductor Colin Scott.

Sunil can scarcely contain his excitement. He says: "Our aim has always been to be completely non-denominational, non-religious and multi-ethnic. We welcome everybody irrespective of what their leanings are. The only thing on our minds is to help people who are less fortunate than us.

Sunil worked in India and in the Maldives before coming to Northern Ireland to advance his skills in paediatrics and to further his interest in music.

He says: "I was in a lot of church choirs at home in Bangalore and when I arrived in Northern Ireland, I immediately set about finding somewhere to sing.

"I went to the school of music at Queen's University, Belfast, but they told me they didn't provide singing lessons."

Sunil was, however, pointed in the direction of the late Marie O'Sullivan, who not only gave him unsurpassable musical tuition but also introduced him to other singers and gave him a role in a production which combined elements of West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet.

Sunil was also in the chorus of a Belfast Operatic Company production of Beauty and the Beast but his musical career changed completely after he met Judith Sheridan, who was involved in training The Priests.

Sunil says he and Judith did as much talking as singing and the upshot was that they collaborated on a number of projects including taking a small group of musicians to India to raise money for victims of the 2004 tsunami.

Broadcasters in the Far East heard about the visit by Sunil and Judith and sponsored their mission.

"From there it has just snowballed," says Sunil. "We started going to help people in need every year and musicians quickly offered their talents to us."

The name Toccata - which means 'to touch' - was suggested by Judith Sheridan to promote the aspirations of touching the lives of disadvantaged people

And what had been the small-scale Toccata Musical Productions quickly blossomed into a massive group of 80 singers and musicians including soloists from the West End who have accompanied the likes of Demi Lovato and Elton John.

Toccata have now travelled to 19 nations including Thailand, Kenya, and Sri Lanka, raising £2m for charities around the world.

But they didn't stop there. Sunil says: "In 2009 we started a medical wing of Toccata taking doctors and nurses to help overseas and bringing decommissioned medical equipment from hospitals here to third world countries."

Former First and deputy First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness made Toccata cultural ambassadors for Northern Ireland.

The musical ensemble were also honoured by the United Nations with a 'Golden Rule Award' for their contributions to humanity.

In the past Toccata sang mainly songs from the shows or pop classics from the likes of Abba, Queen and Elvis Presley.

Says Sunil: "I didn't want to be religiously included in any way because that tends to lose your ability to attract people from other communities with different beliefs. We thought the best way would be to bypass all that and welcome everyone to sing with us."

But recently Sunil's father in India who is a deeply Christian man asked his son to consider staging a religious show.

And so the seeds for Forgiven were sown, with Sunil deciding to focus on the story of the apostle, Simon Peter.

"He was a simple man from the streets and his life with Jesus changed him and many other people besides," says Sunil, who approached his musical society friends Laura Kerr and Wilfie Pyper back home with the idea of writing and producing Forgiven, which features some of the best-known gospel songs of all time.

But Sunil insists the production will appeal to anyone and everyone.

"We took Forgiven to India last year to premiere it," he says. "It was like a wildfire, it just caught on. It affected a lot of people, Muslims, Hindus, everybody who saw it.

"The power of music and storytelling impacted on hundreds of folk and new friendships were forged among people who mightn't have had a lot of time for each other.

"Plus, my father was very pleased. He told all his friends that his son was very famous!"

Sunil, who's a talented tenor, laughs off questions about how a busy medical practitioner like him can find the time for his musical pursuits.

"I don't go the pub," he says with a smile. "And every minute of my life after I depart from the hospital is devoted to music, either with the management of Toccata or something else to do with singing.

"People in the hospital here know that all my time is dedicated to medicine or music."

Sunil says that aside from the benevolent spin-offs from Toccata's work, the biggest thrills he gets from music are in the live performances.

He adds: "Standing up on stage and getting that buzz from singing in front of large audiences makes me happy.

"But I also enjoy the challenge of putting a production like Forgiven on stage, especially as we are bringing in so many performers from outside Northern Ireland.

"However, the most important thing is knowing that wherever we go, our music is doing what the name suggests and touching lives and that keeps me wanting to repeat it, year after year."

Forgiven: The Life of Simon Peter by Toccata Musical Productions will be staged at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle on Friday, May 25, at 7.30pm. Tickets are £10

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