Carnatic music can only be understood through the experience of bliss within, says Chong Chiu Sen

By Sudha Jagannathan
Chennai: 16-06-2021 9:04PM
Last Updated: 16-06-2021 9:04PM

This was first published in 2015)

CHENNAI: A Chinese (Hakka) born, Chong Chiu Sen (Sai Madhana Mohan Kumar) lives in Malaysia. He came to Chennai some summers ago to learn music but ended up learning Bharatha Nathyam instead under late Usha Srinivasan and Veena under late Kalpakam Swaminathan. It was his dance teacher who advised him to learn vocal. Being a foreigner, it wasn’t all that easy living alone in Chennai. He discovered soon that learning music in Chennai was causing a big hole in his pocket. A chance perusal of Mudra Musicians’ Directory helped him to pick three names without knowing who they were. Those three were: M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal and R. Vedavalli. ``I tried calling but I was attracted to the second name i.e. DKP,’’ says he. ``To cut the story short, the moment she asked me to visit her and the moment I stepped in to her house, I felt a strong love as if I know her for many life times. It was a blessing that she agreed to teach me and showered so much love upon me. I owe every swaras to her. Every single note belongs to her,’’ he adds. There were many lovely moments in his life. He singles out four occasions especial.

·         Receiving an award from Padma Vibhushan Pandit Jasraj.

·         Singing in The Music Academy during the 79th Annual Conference in the morning (thanks to his guru DKP).

·         When Abaswaram Ramjhi helped him to sing in the Spirit of Unity Concert at Shirdi organised by Sri TVK Sastry.

·         Singing during Sathya Sai Baba’s 88th birthday celebration at Puttaparthi

``Through experience, one can be skilful in music. Only through the Grace of Guru, however, music will blossom in one's heart,’’ avers Chong Chiu Sen, who has been given the name Sai Madhana Mohan Kumar by his guru DKP.  Excerpts of an interview with him:
A Chinese living in Malaysia and learnt Carnatic music in Chennai... What has motivated you to do that?
I am pure Hakka, Chinese born in Malaysia. My parents became Sathya Sai Baba devotees when I was in my 6th standard. I attended a Sai Baba Bhajan session in a Sai Samithi near my place. I was attracted to the Bhajan singing, and thus I started learning it by myself. After a year or two, I felt my singing was not improving, especially pronunciation. Hence, I started learning some basic vocal from a teacher here in Malaysia, late Vijayalakshmi Kulaveerasingam. Somehow I felt a calling deep within me to go to Chennai.
One day I approached a musician in Malaysia to take me to India. She introduced me to dance teacher Usha Srinivasan, and I started learning dance daily from her for about a month. Later, I went back again to Chennai alone to continue my lessons from her. She noticed that my interest was more towards music. Even as I was dancing, I stopped in the middle of the song and merged into the of bliss listening to the song. So, she advised me to try and learn music.
I was looking for a good vocal teacher. But I had to encounter disappointments. As I was so disappointed, I decided to learn a musical instrument instead of vocal music. I was motivated after watching Smt. E Gayathri’s performance. I was lucky that I found two pioneer vocal teachers who were willing to guide me on my basic lessons - Smt. Savitri Sathyamurthi (Senior Violinist) and Prof B Krishnamoorthy who is a brother of B Rajam Iyer. Both of them polished my basic lessons that I had learnt in Malaysia, and through Savithri mami, I got to know someone whom I truly love very much. Sangeetha Kala Archarya late Kalpakam Swaminathan, who taught me Veena After listening to her Veena, I began to love Carnatic music more than Sai Bhajans.

Who is the inspiration? Why Carnatic music?

Though my journey of searching for the right vocal teacher continued, I was carried away by Veena. I wanted to focus only on Veena but again I felt something was missing. I requested Kalpakam mami to teach me vocal as well, and she lovingly agreed. Given her age, I felt it was a strain on her to teach me both Veena and vocal. With the little money I had, who would be willing to teach me music? With my last Rs.150, I thought of leaving India. I flipped through a directory book, and picked 3 names randomly.
And, I found my vocal guru DK Pattammal, who was willing to teach me even without fees. She gave me food. At times she fed me with her own hand, taking care of me like her own child. I never knew who she was. Once she started singing, I would slip into a state of bliss. I derived lots of joy listening to her, and thus my interest for Carnatic. The sound of Veena and the voice of Pattammal pulled me into the ocean of Carnatic music.
What made you to dabble in different art forms - vocal music, dance and instrumental music?
I started with dance, later got into musical instruments and finally vocal. I feel I am able to get connected to these fine arts easily. The bottom line is... music is what made me dabble in nathya, vadhya and sangeet.
In each of this format ... where are you standing as a musician?
Only through vocal singing, I feel my thoughts, speech and action are aligned.
Different teachers and different learning ... what is the best you got from each one of them?
I got the true art from all of them, and received different patantaras and approaches in music. In vocal, Pattammal music was filled with bhava. That was what attracted me the most.
How difficult was it to adjust to varied teachers?
In vocal, it was easy. With other teachers, I only polish up my basic lessons. And, Pattammal took from Krithi and Varnam onwards.
What are you doing in Malaysia now?
I am continuing my vocal lessons under DKP's granddaughter Smt Gayathri Sundararaman full time and also teaching.
Do you teach music? And, how ably are you sharing it?
I do teach music, I share whatever I have learnt from my Guru to all my students. My only wish is to spread music all over - especially my guru's style of music, which is filled with the essence of music and bhava.
Carnatic music - it involves multiple languages. Have you learnt these languages? How do you cope with them?
I do not know the languages. Pattammal would teach me word by word and explain the meaning of each sentence. Meaning and pronunciation … she would never let them go. It must be perfect.
Carnatic music - importance is given to sahityam or lyrics. How difficult is it for you to give expression to the lyrics?
Sahithyam is very important. To understand the Sahityam is even more important. Without knowing the Sahithyam, how are we going to project the emotion of the composer? The bhava in each line is very important. My guru would make sure that I learnt the meaning with proper pronunciation before I sing any of them.
Since you have learnt different forms - which one satisfies you most?
Vocal! Mind, speech and action - all are aligned.
As a non-Indian, how do you view Carnatic music, which is especially based largely on divinity?
I cannot deny that I have experienced something called the Aananda within me through music. The Aananda (bliss) is not something we can explain in word just like Divinity. How are we to explain or even question Divinity? It is based on individual experience, and experience is the only answer. Carnatic music can only be understood through the experience of Bliss within. That is my humble thoughts.