In a rare cultural twist, 23-year-old Chong Chiu Sen has been quietly making waves within classical carnatic music circles in Chennai as the protégé of the legendary singer D.K. Pattammal, writes NILUKSI KOSWANAGE.
FOR Chong Chiu Sen, who has spent most of his life speaking fluent Hakka and Cantonese at home, taking on a new language that comes with singing classical carnatic music was a heady challenge.
Chong Chiu Sen, also known as Sai Madhana Mohan Kumar, has devoted most of his life to carnatic music.
“It can be quite difficult, especially if you belong to a totally different culture and language system but it has been an exciting learning process for me,” said Chong, dressed rather fashionably in a kurta during this interview.
“I think the greater challenge lies in whether fluent Tamil speakers can accept a Chinese who can sing carnatic music.”
The carnatic music repertory does pose special problems for non-Tamil speaking singers – idiomatic Tamil pronunciation, subtleties of phrasing and rhythmic shaping are all not easy elements to grasp.
Chong feels, however, that finding the right teacher makes this learning process a little easier.
“The student may be enthusiastic and dedicated but if the teacher does not encourage these qualities, nothing can be achieved,” he shared.
Chong’s search for the right teacher is also a tale of his own assimilation into the carnatic music culture. At first, he looked for a teacher in carnatic music for the sole purpose of improving his pronunciation when he sang Sai Baba bhajans (devotional hymns) at gatherings held around his neighbourhood in Petaling Jaya.
Chong was only 12 years old when he enrolled as a student of Vijayalaksmi Kulaveerasingam here. Through attempts to perfect his pronunciation, the young man became increasingly drawn to the music.
It was only after Chong completed his tertiary education in Kuala Lumpur College that his father encouraged him to make his way to Chennai in 2003 to find the right teacher. For Chong it seemed like a coming-of-age adventure, heading out to a foreign country, armed with just a smattering of Tamil to get him by.
“It was an exciting time. I did everything on my own. I managed to live as a paying guest in a typical southern Madras neighbourhood and ate a lot of Tamil vegetarian food,” he said.
Finding the right guide
However, not all journeys run smooth. Instead of finding a carnatic vocal teacher, Chong found himself a teacher of bharatanatyam, Usha Srinivasan, instead. And soon he had to head back to Malaysia because of his rapidly depleting funds. The right teacher was nowhere in sight but Chong was all the more determined to come back and find one.
The next trip to Chennai in 2004 started off rather dismally. Chong learnt that many a musician was willing to teach but at a cutthroat price. Poring through the phone directory turned out more difficult than expected.
But then he chanced upon a name that gave him a little hope.
“It was Pattamal. Literally the name means ‘singing mother’ and it sounded very comforting,” he said.
Little did Chong know that ‘singing mother’ was the name of the legendary carnatic vocalist celebrated for her musical but sonorous voice. Not realising who he was dealing with, he called her up and asked for an appointment.
As Chong waited in the living room of the large family compound that Pattamal lived in, he realised that this was no ordinary teacher. There were hundreds of plaques and trophies that lined the walls and filled the cupboards in the room.
“Sitting there, I just realised that this might be the right teacher. With all that experience, I thought I would be in good hands,” he said.
“It all seemed so natural. I sang and she simply gave me a class there and then. Then it was agreed that I would take daily lessons with her for three months,” he said.
Three months became five and Chong continued to have interesting classes with Pattamal about the origins and the meanings of the melodic compositions as well as the stories of the various composers and saints who crafted these compositions. Speaking to each other in a mixture of Tamil and English, student and teacher began to forge a more familial bond. Just as Chong prepared for his first performance to a small audience, Pattamal began referring to him as her adopted grandson and insisting that he call her “mami” or grandmother.
“She took me aside and said I was not just her student but her grandson who had the responsibility to convey a style of singing that her family has passed down from generation to generation. She also gave me an Indian name, Sai Madhana Mohan Kumar, that recognised my family’s devotion to Sai Baba and my new role as one of her musical descendants,” he said.
Proving his mettle
For nearly two years Chong has been steadily performing for bigger audiences at larger venues in Chennai. Many have been impressed with his tonal clarity and emotiveness even though others still find room for improvement in his pronunciation of Tamil words, which have generally been quite perfect.
Nevertheless, Chong’s recitals have been creating a buzz in India and this has brought about new opportunities for him.
“To be frank, being Pattamal’s student has opened a lot of doors for me. For instance, I have been able to get in touch with a famous musician, G.S. Mani, who gives voice coaching. I now have regular lessons with him and this complements whatever I learn from my ‘grandmother’,” he said.
Just this year, Chong put his lessons to the test when he was invited to perform on the first of January this year at the Music Academy in Madras, the premier venue for carnatic music concerts in India.
Chong performed to a very appreciative audience that night.
It was after his recital that Chong finally understood why Pattamal had shown such a keen interest in his musical development.
“While I was always looking for the right teacher, she too, in her own way, was finding a way of making carnatic music more accessible for everyone, irrespective of whether you could or could not speak Tamil. I suppose I was that medium for her,” he said.
Indeed, Chong seems to be going in the same direction as Englishman John Higgins, a consummate carnatic vocalist who broke into the carnatic music world with a string of performances staged in the 1960s and 1970s.
While Chong has been slowly making his way through India, performing at various concerts and recitals, he still remains virtually unknown in Malaysia.
“I have performed for Astro once and sung at a temple in Seremban. I am open to performing here in Malaysia but it can be difficult to put up performances here. Plus there will always be that suspicion of having a Chinese singing classical carnatic music,” he said.
Till then he is most content to make constant pilgrimages to Pattamal’s home to learn more.
“I am putting everything on hold now. I just wanted to learn all I can from my grandmother. Once that is done, I will feel ready to take on a degree in psychology, look after my parents and continue singing where ever I can,” he said.
For more information on Chong’s upcoming recitals and concerts, e-mail email@example.com