Chong Chiu Sen is a Chinese-born Malaysian vocalist. He was an apprentice of the late great Carnatic musician Smt. D.K. Pattammal, who also adopted him as her god-grandson and named him Sai Madhana Mohan Kumar. For the last several years, he has continued learning under the same banner (D.K.P. School of Music) under Pattammal’s grand-daughter, Smt. Gayathri Sundararaman. Currently, Chong is also under the guidance of Smt. Visalakshi Nityanand as well as young Carnatic violinist Kamalakiran Vinjamuri. He has been the recipient of several national and international awards for his music.
Chong Chiu Sen, accomplished Chinese-born Malaysian musician, recounts his unique journey with Carnatic music to US based Mridangist and Sanskrit student Abhinav Seetharaman
How did you initially develop an interest for Carnatic music?
I started learning Carnatic music when I was young but I was not very serious about it. The reason why I started learning was because I was told that classical music was the only way I could improve my ability to sing Sathya Sai Baba bhajans. My family and I are Sathya Sai Baba devotees; I started attending Baba bhajans in Malaysia in sixth standard and have continued to do so ever since.
Long story cut short, after lots of ups and downs, I finally met my Guru, my beloved God-grandmother, Smt. D.K. Pattammal. Her loving aura and deeply caring nature allowed my passion for Carnatic music to truly blossom.
In what ways has learning Carnatic music impacted your life? How has it shaped you and your character?
Music is like literature of the heart. It commences where speech ends. In this Kaliyuga, our minds are filled with all sorts of mayas! Music definitely calms my mind, and among this calmness, I start to question a lot and constantly seek more knowledge. Music instills this in me: to always seek and learn more. Learning Carnatic music it is an ongoing process that will continue for very long time, and certainly something that I will always look forward to.
What aspect - or aspects - of Carnatic music draws you deeper into the learning experience?
Raga and sahitya, for sure! Through raga I experience bliss and through sahitya I experience different types of emotions. Both terms have also led me on a path of discovery, as I find myself questioning and answering.
Raga, for example, is a deeply profound term. Take alapana, for example. There is no namam or rupam, so what’s left? Nadam! It is true bliss. Back in the olden days, people used the word raga-svarupam. Nowadays, people use the word rupam in each raga after introducing the concepts of arohanam and avarohanam. Looking at svarupam vs. rupam, one is truth and one is a creation.
Ultimately, there is essentially no end to learning Carnatic music. No matter how deep I dive into the ocean that this art form is, I will not be able to reach the bottom simply because of the number of possibilities there are. But I can say that the deeper I dive, the more I discover in this beautiful journey.
What have you found to be the most challenging aspect(s) of Carnatic music?
All aspects, to be honest. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know and how much more there is to explore. Of course, there are specific elements that have become familiarized with practice and listening, but each day is a unique and positive challenge that I embrace.
What are some additional skills you take on to better your practice and learning of Carnatic music?
Dhyana, japa, and yoga! All three elements are connected in some way to music, and are ones that I try my best to practice on a regular basis.
What are some of your most memorable learning and performing experiences?
Every moment I have spent with my gurus, and especially with Smt. D.K. Pattammal, has been dear and memorable to me. I derive immense joy whenever and wherever I sing, whether it be in my home or on stage.
That being said, one of my most special moments was singing in the main hall at Bhagwan Sri Sathya Baba’s Prashanthi Nilayam in Puttaparthi, an experience I will never forget. I sang a mixture of Carnatic krithis and bhajans as part of the performance. It was a dream of mine since a young age to be able to sing in front of Swami, and the concert that day certainly fulfilled this longstanding wish.
In your opinion, what is the importance of a Guru in imparting and sharing his/her knowledge and wisdom with you?
To me, guru is music and music is guru; both are inseparable and are one. I have enjoyed my classes learning under all my gurus, and especially classes with Smt. D.K. Pattammal. Every moment has been dear and memorable to me. I never really intended to become a performer of Carnatic music but I am now, thanks to all the encouragement from my gurus. To me, my gurus are my gods, and I relate all krithis (songs) to them.
Do you perform any other kinds of music or classical art forms? If yes, has learning one helped you with the other?
I enjoy singing and performing bhajans in different Indian languages and dialects, as well as in other languages such as Chinese, Malay, and English. I’ve been fortunate to be able to sing bhajans in venues across Malaysia, India, and other countries. Learning Carnatic music has definitely helped me continually hone my bhajan(s) singing and vice versa, as both art forms complement each other very well.
What appeals to you most during your travels in India?
Tradition, religion, and culture. India is so rich in these three elements, and I am always fascinated by them as I travel through different parts of the country.
Is it difficult to get non-Indian audiences to appreciate Carnatic music?
I don’t think so; the late great Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna used to say in many of his speeches and interviews, that karna means ear, and that Carnatic music is a beautiful art form that certainly does please the ears.
Ultimately, as long as the music is sweet, people around the globe will enjoy listening to it and develop a sense of appreciation and curiosity for it at the very least.
(Abhinav Seetharaman is a professional Carnatic musician on the mridangam and a language entrepreneur. A current disciple of Sri Kumar Kanthan and Guru Karaikudi R. Mani, he performs worldwide and has shared the stage with many of India's leading musicians. He is a co-founder of Spoken Sanskrit Series, a YouTube channel aimed at teaching the basics of Sanskrit conversation in an enjoyable manner. Abhinav was recently named a Young Ambassador of India by the Center for Soft Power, and spoke at CSP's inaugural Namaste 2020 Festival. He is a graduate of Columbia University, from where he earned both his bachelors and masters degrees.)