For the love of Carnatic music

For someone who understands its intricacies, Carnatic music may appeal at an intellectual level — they may marvel at an artist’s expansive manodharma, recognise a rare sangathi when they hear one, appreciate a percussionist’s laya prowess, and so on. To others, it may appeal emotionally — they may not be able to identify ragas or understand the lyrics, yet it may tug at their heart strings, provide solace, and so on. But when the impact is so profound that it makes the listeners — non-Indians at that — travel half way across the world to Chennai in pursuit of the art, you know that it has gone beyond mere emotional or intellectual appeal. Carnatic music has transformed their lives.

This article presents the stories of two extraordinary gentlemen — British rasika and music student Nick Haynes, who has made Chennai his home, and Malaysian–Chinese vocalist Chong Chiu Sen, a disciple of the doyen Smt. D.K. Pattammal.

The first rendezvous

For Chong Chiu Sen, it was his devotion to Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi that drew him to Carnatic music. When he was 11 years old, his father received a picture of Sathya Sai Baba, which he installed in their altar at home. Then, one day, after reading a book on Sai Baba, his father approached a Sai Centre in Malaysia, where they lived. It was there that Chong learnt to sing Sai Bhajans.

Chong Chiu Sen at the Sai Centre in Malaysia

Chong Chiu Sen at the Sai Centre in Malaysia

A fellow devotee at the Sai Centre, Guhan, was the son of a Carnatic music teacher Smt. Vijayalakshmi Kulaveerasingam. So, in 1998, with the aim of being able to sing Sai bhajans better, Chong started learning Carnatic music from her.

Nick Haynes 1For Nick Haynes, who used to live in London, the love affair started so long ago that he doesn’t remember when! “I used to go to Indian music concerts in general whenever I saw them in the listings,” he says. “I was in my mid-twenties, was an ex-hippie by then and loved all sorts of other music too, but it was Indian music that got me off my backside. I used to go to dance too, but, with one or two exceptions, I realised that I had started watching the musicians rather than the dancer!

I remember going to a mridangist after a concert and saying, “I know what your instrument is called, but how do you pronouce the word?”

I remember seeing Bangalore-born Manorama Prasad sing in London, and being completely wowed by it. I remember seeing Sivatharini Sahadevan, one of the London veena teachers, perform around the same time: I didn’t dream that she and her family would become dear friends!”

Was learning Carnatic music a natural consequence of liking it? “I just wanted to understand a bit more of what was going on in the concerts,” Nick says. “I was actually thinking of learning tabla, and, at that time, discovered — a couple of decades late — London’s Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. I was in the bookshop, and the shop manager introduced me to their mridangam teacher. He invited me in to class for a taster, there and then, no obligations. I stayed. I am no longer a student, but “Guruji” M. Balachandar is, nearly 20 years later, still a close friend.”

Nick with Balachander

Nick with guru M. Balachandar (kneeling), kanjira vidwan Mayavaram Shri Somasundaram and other students in London

What was it about Carnatic music that attracted Nick and Chong to it, I’m curious to know. “I am really not sure,” Nick says. “I loved Hindustani too. Dhrupad is particularly wonderful. Maybe I literally *fell* off the fence on the Carnatic side. I do recall that, in my ignorance, I thought that the rhythmic aspects might be easier to understand!”

Chong 1Chong says rather simply in response, “Pattamma! It was her love that transformed me, her love that nurtured the interest for Carnatic music in me.”


Chennai — a new chapter

It was in the winter of 1997 that Nick made his first trip to India. “I was a nervous foreigner who hardly dared leave the hotel without a guide! I came for just two weeks, including a trip to Kerala. I recall seeing Ganesh and Kumaresh, and TVS, I think, accompanied by MSG and Trichy Sankaran.”

Chong’s story — of coming to Chennai and finding a guru — is heart-warming. He travelled to Chennai for the first time in March 2002. He was introduced to Smt. Usha Srinivasan, from whom he started learning dance. He came back to Chennai in August that year and continued his dance lessons, but felt that something was missing. “I started questioning myself. What was it that brought me to Chennai and what was it that brought me to dance? The answer came to me: music! Therefore, along with dance, I decided to take up music as well. I started searching for a music teacher. I found two and started classes with them but unfortunately it didn’t work out well. And after a while, my dance teacher advised me to stop my dance lessons because it was becoming difficult for me to pursue multiple things at once. So I stopped my dance lessons.

One particular day, I was feeling very upset — I hadn’t found a good music teacher and I had already stopped dance lessons! I started to think about returning to Malaysia, but fell asleep because I was tired. While I slept, I felt a strong gust of wind blowing into my room. When I woke up, I saw that the wind had flipped open the pages of the musicians’ directory. I felt this was a sign not to give up, so I turned to the vocalists’ section and decided to try my luck by calling a few vocalists. With the first, I did not get an encouraging response. Then I called Smt. D.K. Pattammal. What can I say — Swami is great! Pattamma answered the call. I was surprised by her voice because it was deep and sonorous! She tried to speak to me in English, and somehow, we managed to communicate with each other. She asked me to come to her house after two days. The next day, I visited Smt. Usha Srinivasan and told her what had happened. She told me that Smt. D.K. Pattammal was not an ordinary teacher, that was a legend. But I didn’t get the full import of her words then.

Chong with Smt. D.K. Pattammal and Shri Ishwaran

Chong with Smt. D.K. Pattammal and Shri Iswaran

The next day, I bought some fruits and visited Smt. D.K. Pattammal. I was astonished when I stepped into her house and saw all the awards and titles that she had received over the years. I realised then that she was not an ordinary musician! Her husband, Iswaran mama, interviewed me and when he discovered that I was a beginner, he tried to divert me elsewhere because the venerable lady had stopped teaching beginners due to her age and health. Moreover, language would be a big barrier. After hearing that from mama, I looked at Pattamma and my tears started flowing. I could not take disappointment anymore, I really couldn’t! Pattamma looked at me and kept saying “paavam”. I saw a calendar on her desk with a picture of Swami on it, so I turned to it and prayed hard. All of a sudden, Pattamma asked her husband to allow me to sing a song. In my mind, I was thinking that that would be the last song I sang before I left the country! I sang the only keertanam I knew — Maha Ganapathim in the raga Nattai. I think she was impressed with my singing. After the keertanam, she corrected my talam and told me she was surprised by my pronunciation. She requested her husband to allow her to teach me. Iswaran mama agreed to let her teach me for three months if her health permitted. Three months became five months, and then I performed my arangetram in Chennai with the guidance of the great violinist R.K. Shriramkumar anna and the great mridangist N. Manoj Siva anna. That is how I became a disciple of Smt. D.K. Pattammal.


Chong learns from Smt. D.K. Pattammal

In fact, she accepted me not only as a student but also as her grandson. She gave me the Indian name Sai Madhana Mohan Kumar. When I asked her why “Kumar”, she told me that both her sons’ names ended with Kumar – Sivakumar and Lakshman Kumar — and as her grandson, my name should end with “Kumar” as well! Subsequently, I made a few trips to Chennai for music lessons with my beloved grandma and also performed in a few temples and sabhas.”

Challenges along the way

Nick Kanjira

Nick plays the kanjira

Was learning Carnatic music difficult? Nick puts it rather eloquently: “It was not easy, but not in the ways you might think, because I wasn’t learning to sing in different languages, or learning ragas. My first difficulty was counting. Sounds silly, but I have always had a hard time with numbers: play this four times was, for me, like remembering three teas and two coffees, something I would get wrong more often than right!

I used to watch the childrens’ program Sesame Street to help me with numbers! Another adult westerner in the class told me a great secret: for threes, visualise a triangle, for fours, see a square in your head.

I had no difficulty with the system being Indian, because I had never learnt Western music, and ta-ka-di-mi was no harder than 1-2-3-4.

My next problem was learning by rote. Memorising. This is why I was, and still am, a monoglot linguistic dumbo! This is probably what failed me. Learn five lessons, ok: learn sixth lesson and forget first… and so on.

What I achieved: playing morsing with the London Tamil children, quite well as long as the piece was not too challenging, and mostly in team with Abhiram Sahadevan, who was then 11 (I was about 40), the son of Sivatharini, who I mentioned earlier.”

For Chong, it is manodharma that is the most challenging aspect of Carnatic music. “I get very nervous when I sing alapana, neraval and kalpana swaras. Pattamma’s repertoire is like an ocean. I’m not even a drop in that ocean. There is so much more to learn and experience. I will never give up, but I may try to escape for a really short while!”

Chong 2Chong’s enunciation while singing is remarkable. Has he learnt any Indian languages? “I learnt a little Tamil and Hindi, but I don’t speak them. I learnt basic Tamil writing as well to get the ra, Ra, zha, la, La, etc. right. That helped me with Tamil compositions, especially those of Papanasam Sivan and Arunagirinathar. I practise word by word and at times use a 108-bead japamala to recite the same word again and again until my guru says OK. Pattamma used to be extremely particular about pronunciation.”

Watch Chong perform a concert at Puttaparthi:

‘Foreigners’ no more

Has the Carnatic music fraternity been welcoming, I’m curious to know. “Yes. I’m very thankful to Shriramkumar anna and Manoj Siva anna. Both of them are big musicians, yet they humbly agreed to play for my arangetram and a few concerts after that,” Chong says. “I still remember, during my arangetram, Shriramkumar anna called Pattamma and left his phone on the stage so that she could hear the concert. Manoj anna adjusted so much for me, and that helped me with my talam. I am really grateful to both of them for agreeing to play for a beginner like me. What a blessing!

With Pattamma’s grace, this year I will be performing during the Season. Poorna Vaidyanathan akka and Arjun Ganesh anna have agreed to accompany me on the violin and mridangam.

I may not be able to do a full concert with a long alapana and other manodharma elements, but I will do my best to share the little I know. Poorna akka gave me a lot of moral support to take on this challenge.

I perform regularly in Hyderabad. My organisers Mr Vijay Marur and Mr Bhaskar R. Mallavarapu are very supportive and the rasikas there are encouraging as well.”

While Chong lives in Malaysia and makes occasional trips to Chennai, Nick has been in Chennai for so long that it’s difficult to think of him as a ‘foreigner’ anymore! “I guess I’m part of the furniture in certain halls and at the performances of certain artists,” he chuckles. “People get used to seeing a person attend those they think are the best artists, they assume that person has good taste too! And thus, there is a group of Mylapore rasikas that I am on, at least, nodding terms with, several that I chat with, and two or three that get regular lifts home in my car. Some have become firm friends. During the post-flood period when I had no car, I twice got a lift home from the artist who had been performing. The music is my love, but it is also the foundation of my social life here. My wife claims that she cannot get me out of the hall until I have chatted with *everyone,* “even the ants and the crows!”

The Season, of course, is the peak of that social life. Weather allowing (my 2015 season was literally a washout), I will go and spend two weeks in a guest house near the Academy. Apart from the concerts, I will see people from London, people from USA, people from… the Internet. Actually, because I have the luxury of concerts here all year, I feel the season as being more of a social thing. I can tell you now, though, that on the evening of December 25th, I will be at Raga Sudha Hall watching Smt Vedavalli sing.”

Nick with RV

Nick with Smt. Vedavalli at the Madras Music Academy (December 2013)

When he brings up Smt. Vedavalli’s name, I can’t help but prod him about his association with the veteran. “I saw her perform in London in about 1998. My non-Indian-adult mridangam student friend and I were knocked back in our seats by her concert there. I don’t recall when I *next* saw her here, but I know that I then seldom, and now never, miss her anywhere-near-Chennai concerts. This is what I say, and it is an adaptation of an old hippy thing about the band The Grateful Dead: There is nothing, absolutely *nothing* that is anything like a Vedavalli concert.

Why? What is it? What is so different? Isn’t she just an elderly lady with a sweet but gentle voice?

I don’t know. Of course, she is a very serious singer of deeply classical music, and that, even though I remain ignorant, is the kind of music that I have come to love best. All the best music moves us, uplifts us, heals and inspires us, and there are several musicians that I can rely upon to do that. All I can say is that nobody else, in any genre of music, has ever sung so directly *to my soul.*  From the first note to the last. There is a smile that comes to my face and a feeling that the air itself is cleaner. Some American friends, at the Music Academy canteen, one December, remarked, “We saw you light up when she came in.”

At her 80th birthday celebration, somebody said, “If you come within two yards of Amma, you join the family.” Yes, it is true. Also, her inclusive attitude to all and everyone was mentioned, and I find this extends to her students, from whom I feel, “If you love Amma and you love her music, that is good enough for us.” I’m just a tiny asteroid on the edge of her solar system, but still, one cannot deny gravity! That solar system includes other wonderful people too. Sumithra, Usha, Sumathi and others: I try not to miss their concerts too. A friend and I drove all the way to Bangalore last weekend to see the rare combination of Sumithra Vasudev accompanied on veena by Ashwin Anand.

I requested Smt. Vedavalli to sing on my 60th birthday. I think it must have been the best birthday since my 0th!

Nick Haynes 2Despite my public chattiness, I’m quite shy, and it was some time before I accepted the invitation to visit their house. Now, I can say that her friendship, and that of her husband, is one of the greatest gifts I have ever received. She is just a very, *very* special person.” At the end of the interview, I learn that Nick is co-sponsoring a concert by Smt. Vedavalli with Nada Inbam on the 10th of September.

Nick in his garden

Nick poses with his cat in the garden of his home in Chennai

It has been more than a decade since Nick made Chennai his permanent home. In fact, he’s married to a Tamilian! “I have had a home in Chennai since January 2005 — just 8 years after I was an oh-so-nervous tourist — and it has been my only home since September of that year. With all those years of listening to Indian music, of course I had thought of coming here, but it never happened until ’97. Without Carnatic music, it probably would not have been the south. Without Carnatic music it probably would not have been Chennai. Without Carnatic music I wouldn’t be here!”

Chong continues to learn from Smt. Pattammal’s granddaughter Smt. Gayathri Sundararaman. “She’s an amazing akka! But,” he rues, “due to financial constraints, my classes are over the phone.”

For both Nick and Chong, there is no doubt that Carnatic music has completely changed their lives. “It gave me somewhere to live!” Nick quips. “It introduced me to the magic of playing music with others; it gave me a second childhood, working with the [other] kids; now it gives me the wonderful music plus friends. And it brought me to India.”

“I teach music here in Malaysia, and I will continue learning till my last breath,” Chong says with conviction. “I would like to share my music not only in Chennai but worldwide. I would like to travel and share my guru’s music to one and all. I am sure Pattamma will be happy if I do so. That is my duty as her shishya. I owe every swara to her. She is my God. She is my everything.”

Featured image 1

I’m awed and inspired by these gentlemen’s stories and by the magnitude of their love for Carnatic music. Take a bow, gentlemen; the Carnatic music world is incredibly proud.

2 thoughts on “For the love of Carnatic music

  1. Nivedita,
    How did I miss this? An engrossing piece about one of my good friends and an admirable young man who was fortunate enough to learn from Pattamma mami herself.
    Your blending the stories in this one essay is perfect–about a musician and a rasika/percussionist– you feel the pulse of their fervor–yourself being a musician and one who is a born lover of music. Your writing skill too, to top it all 🙂


    • Thank you, dear Arasi-ji. This was back in 2016. Someone wrote to me saying I should feature the incredible Chong Chiu Sen, and I grabbed that opportunity to feature Nick and his awe-inspiring story as well.


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