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Goh Beng Choo – October 1st, 2007

My Delightful Encounter with the Sacred and Profound Karnatic Vocals-Oct 2007


At the time that I’m penning this article, two traditional festivals are forth-coming: the Chinese Lunar Lantern Festival falling on 25 September and Navarathri Festival which begins on October 12th and ends on October 21st. Now, which one am I excited about? No prize for ticking the latter. But why, my dear reader, you ask, why should a Chinese woman be excited about a Hindu music festival? The answer is: I am looking forward to the festival because I will be singing devotional songs in two Indian temples in Singapore. Ha ha, your interest in the subject must have been whetted. Well, do read on, as I have a unique experience in my encounter with Karnatic vocals.

As a matter of fact, this is not my first temple performance. In the Navarathri Festival last year, I sang six songs together with my Karnatic teacher Mr Suntharalingam Sathyalingam and five fellow students at the Senpaga Vinayagar Temple in Ceylon Road and Sri Thendayuthapani Temple in Tank Road. That happened after about eight months of lessons! I must admit that I had felt tremendous pressure when my teacher told me to join in the performances, especially having to memorise Kuraiyendrum iley – a song containing three ragas, after receiving three lessons. But I could not let fear get me down. After all, singing is supposed to be an enjoyment, not a chore, right? So while having a good time practising the songs, I kept telling myself not to worry and doubt my ability. As it turned out I managed to sing from memory the songs as well as to put the thala correctly. While singing, I noticed a graceful lady sitting in the front row watching us closely. She turned out to be a freelance journalist Ms Soundaranayaki Vairavan. A veteran Navarathri festival singer herself, Ms Vairavan interviewed me after our performance and featured me in Dinamani Kadir, a Tamil magazine published in Tamil Nadu. Her encouragement and warmth move me and we have since become good friends.

The songs we will be singing this year are as melodious. My favourite among the six pieces is Brocheva, an expressive and demanding composition for a junior student. The others are spelling Devi Niyetunei, Nichita Mu, Sithi Vinayaka, Siva siva yenna radha, and Devadi deva. We will be performing at the Sri Thendayuthapani Temple on 14, Oct at 7.30pm and at the Sri Mariamman Temple in South Bridge Road on 19, Oct at 7pm.

I have been listening to Western classical music, Italian opera, Chinese opera and South-east Asian traditional music such as Sundanese of Western Java. I had wanted to sing but had not been able to find a vocal teacher who could inspire me towards my goal. I first heard a Karnatic concert organised by The Alapana Society at the Singapore Art Museum about four years ago. It was performed by a lady from India who holds a MA in Karnatic vocals. Her lyrical performances touched me to tears and I told myself: “this is heavenly!” Little did I foresee that I was to get a chance to be introduced to my teacher, who has led me into the pantheon of this sacred and profound art.

In my contacts with fellow Indian countrymen through singing, I am impressed by their intelligence and versatility in the arts. They have great energy and good voice; I’m amazed that even little girls who can’t read the lyrics yet can sing kritis, learning Karnatic is now my greatest passion. It is joyful as well as enriching both in terms of vocal expression and comprehension of the meaning behind the lyrics. I have fallen in love with Thiagaraja’s songs and been to more than 20 Indian vocal and music concerts. At these concerts I would always sit as near to the stage as possible and put thala to the songs or music, giving the vocalists and musicians a pleasant surprise! I think it is important for me not just to sing but to be familiar with Indian music instruments and dance as well, since the three fields are closely related.

I am grateful to Mr Sathyalingam, 79, who is a pioneer in this field in Singapore. Teaching a Chinese to sing in Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu, by using romanized characters requires a lot of patience, not forgetting the fact that I’m 55 while fellow singers are in their prime! In addition to his vocal skills for which he has been conferred the Viswakalaa Bharathi by Bharath Kalachar in Chennai, Mr Sathyalingam speaks and writes English beautifully and has an interest in Chinese art. There is great chemistry between us and I’m looking forward to years of immersion in this wonderful art form which I dub “king of all vocals”.

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