Listening to the melodious renditions of 'Sankara Nada Sareera Para', the hit film song from the Telugu classic Sankarabharanam, and of Thyagaraja Krithis all in chaste Telugu, and Papanasan Sivan's composition in Tamil, it was difficult to believe that they were emanating from a Chinese-Malaysian artiste! What a remarkable achievement, was my reaction, as is that of everyone who has listened to this musician.
Chong Chiu Sen is indeed a Chinese who lives in Malaysia and renders full-fledged Carnatic music concerts to critical appreciation.
His sonorous voice, fine manodharma, and control over shruti (pitch) and laya (rhythm) have won him many admirers among critics and laypersons. His commendable effort to pronounce words of Indian languages as correctly as possible has also endeared him to Indian audiences. Considering his native sensibility is so far removed from the Indian ethos, all this is impressive.
Chong and his music are a living illustration of how art can transcend boundaries and barriers of nation, language, religion and culture.
Chong was living in Malaysia and around 10 years old when his parents became Sathya Sai Baba's devotees. He thus began attending bhajan sessions. The Sanskrit hymns he heard in these sessions captivated him.
He says, "I started learning bhajans by myself. Later, I learnt a few more from Vatsala Ravindran and Datin Shanti Jegathesan. However, I felt my singing was not improving, and my pronunciation, too, needed correction. So, I began basic vocal lessons from a local teacher, Vijayalakshmi Kulaveerasingam. Later, I felt a deep desire to visit India, specifically Chennai."
He made it to Chennai in 2002 and could not immediately find the right teacher, and so ended up learning bharatanatyam under Usha Srinivasan. He got introduced to Savitri Sathyamurthi, B Krishnamurthy and voice culture guru G S Ani, who taught him a few vocal lessons. Inspired by a performance of Veena E Gayathri, he began learning this instrument under a few teachers and then from the reputed veena vidushi Kalpakam Swaminathan.
Who among the three?
There was also disappointment and disillusionment. Being a foreigner and living alone in Chennai, he was taken for a ride by many. He ended up losing money to some teachers and gaining little of what he had come seeking.
Finally, on a day of disappointment, he checked out the Mudhra Musicians' Directory and picked out three names, M S Subbulakshmi, D K Pattammal (DKP) and R Vedavalli, with no idea of who they were.
M S was ill and so he approached DKP and thus began what he calls an extraordinary chapter in his life. Not only had he found a living legend and an ocean of knowledge as his guru, but he was showered with love and affection by her. "I became her godson, or should I say god-grandson?" She even rechristened him Sai Madhana Mohan Kumar.
Chong had reached the stage of varnams and DKP taught him from krithis onwards.
He gave his first Carnatic music concert in 2004, after one year of training under DKP. Since then, he has given around 50 performances. Besides India, he also performs in Malaysia regularly. He has also performed in Abu Dhabi, USA, and Singapore.
There are nitpickers who find fault with his pronunciation of Indian languages and say it's not "100% perfect." However, Chong manages to sing like he knows the languages well, and is admired for this and the bhava (evoking the right mood) he brings to his renditions.
When people commend his grasp over alien languages like Telugu, Sanskrit, Kannada and Tamil, he recalls his guru DKP with gratitude. "My guru would insist on careful pronunciation and bhava. She would teach me word by word and insist on my knowing and understanding the meaning of each word and sentence so I could bring out the right feeling or bhava.
He continues to train in Carnatic vocal music under Pattammal's granddaughter Gayathri Sundararaman over the phone. There are also many musicians and friends helping him to develop his music, he adds. He is now a full-time, professional musician and teacher.
Off the charts
Besides music, Chong likes gardening, chanting Vedas, eating out, and reading books, especially on philosophy, with Jiddu Krishanmurthi being a favourite. He loves Indian food, though he likes having his idli and dosa with ghee and sugar!
His magnificent obsession, of course, is Carnatic music. "I know it's heavily spiritual. It's actually divine. When one is immersed in this music, the experience is one of divine bliss - ananda."
What are his dreams? "My dream is to be able to perform before Kanchi Kamakshi in Kanchipuram and Madurai Meenakshi in Madurai! And my biggest dream is to spread Pattammal's music to all music rasikas! I pray that I'll be able to share the same bliss I derived from music to all listeners," he says with a disarming smile.