Facing the Music

13 January 2017

Carnatic vocalist Chong Chiu Sen on his rise to acclaim and the therapeutic qualities of Carnatic music.

Music, to Malaysian Carnatic vocalist Chong Chiu Sen, is a pathway to the divine.

“Carnatic music is something that will connect you to the divinity, and the divinity is not something we can describe in words. It’s for you to experience yourself,” he says with much fervour.

Chiu Sen speaks about the magic of Carnatic music with a childlike wonder, and it’s easy to be charmed by his impassioned love for the ancient Indian art.

But his foray into music wasn’t quite as romantic. Like with most musical prodigies, he invested years of patience, dedication, and unending practice sessions to become the man that he is today – award-winning performer and respected vocal trainer.

It began at age 12 when he attended bhajan sessions devoted to Sathya Sai Baba, which then spurred him to join sangeetham (Indian classical music) lessons in Brickfields helmed by Mrs Vijayalakshmi.

After graduating high school, he took the plunge and flew to Chennai, India, which landed himself in bharatanatyam (Indian classical dance) lessons. But during one lesson, he discovered that music was his true calling.

“One day when I was dancing, I stopped because I was mesmerised by the song from the CD player. It was a very beautiful song,” he recalls. “My teacher said ‘I think you’re more into music’.”

But to delve into it professionally, language and pronunciation barriers proved intimidating for Chiu Sen. He approached several teachers, many of whom were expensive. His wallet thinned, and so did his spirit.

“Everyone asked me for a very high fee. Unfortunately, they seemed to think that foreigners are really rich,” he says.

In a deflated state before boarding his flight back to Malaysia, he chanced upon a music directory and decided to complain about the high prices. Little did he know that the phone call would bring him to his career’s turning point.

By random, he dialled Smt. D.K. Pattammal, whom he hadn’t yet known was the “queen of Carnatic music”. After minutes of broken English and communication mishaps (“She thought I was from China!”), D.K. Pattammal invited him to her house.

“She’s an old lady, how could I not turn up?” Chiu Sen says. After cycling in the scorching Chennai heat for an hour and a half, he reached her home. Tears ensued.

“I don’t know why I became so emotional because the moment I stepped into her house, I felt at home. Like my mother was sitting inside. The moment I saw her, I broke down so badly. And I started hugging her leg,” he says.

​From that day onwards, Chiu Sen became a disciple of D.K. Pattammal, who trained him for free in her home for four years before she passed away in 2009.

“That’s how I started my musical journey. I felt so much love. It was a very close, intimate relationship,” he added, comparing it to the bond a son has with his mother. “Every song I sing, I sing for her.”

Upon news of her passing, a devastated Chiu Sen temporarily gave up music. He entered the corporate life as a HR executive and ploughed through for five years. But through it all, he felt like something was missing.

“My guru wanted me to be a professional singer, to spread the beauty of music,” he says. “She wanted me to share with people that music is beyond caste or religion, but about [the ability] to transform people.”

An epiphany induced him to continue Carnatic music under the tutelage of D.K. Pattammal’s granddaughter, Smt. Gayathri Sundararaman. The Cross Culture of Understanding award by the Rotary Club of Hyderabad and a particularly satisfying live performance in Puttaparthi helped him return to his element.


Chong Chiu Sen performing a soulful composition by popular bhajan composer, Shri Vasu Thevan in Chennai, India.

These days, Chiu Sen is a frequent performer in local and international concerts, and he hasn’t been surer about his love for Carnatic music. He also juggles his time between playing the harmonium and veena, but not always while singing live.

“There are so many young talented people nowadays in Carnatic and I may not be able to sing like them, but each song that I sing, it’s for the love of my guru. There’s no competition or comparison,” he explains, seemingly content with all that he has achieved.

One way Chiu Sen continues to celebrate music is by cleverly incorporating Malaysian influences into his live concerts, whether in the form of a Chinese song or a Malay devotion song. “I give [the audience] different flavours, different languages,” he says.

While he hopes to see more centres in Malaysia devoted to the teaching of the fading art, he also wishes to see more people delve into music – regardless of genre – as a medium to escape, as long as it’s “pleasing to the ear”.

“In that moment, you forget all your problems,” he describes the high when one is truly immersed in beat and melody. “It’s the same reason people meditate. It’s very addictive to be able to forget all your problems for a short moment.”

With that, he launches into a mellow Carnatic rhythm, his voice oscillating in ebbs and flows the way a gentle wave would.

By Surekha Ragavan

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