Chai Lenin is a Singaporean-Indian artist, bridging the gaps between tradition and modernity. She aims to bring out the influences of Carnatic music/Indian music in music so that music itself will be more diverse, inclusive and accessible. Modernity does not entail leaving tradition behind. Through her music, she hopes to tell the stories of people like her, caught up in the crossroads of an ever-changing world, wherein the cultural landscape of oneself becomes the starting point to expressing the nuances present within one’s identity. Through her music that utilises Indian Carnatic music as a point of departure and a global narrative of varied identity facets, Chai Lenin hopes to create by re-interpreting and re-defining the boundaries we’ve known with music and the stories we tell through it.
Here is Chai Lenin in a conversation with GOGO Magazine.
1) When did your journey as a musician begin?
I grew up in an environment whereby I was constantly meeting artists, watching shows, performing, and just having music around me all the time. At some point, this made me repel the idea of a music career actually. I realised very quickly that specifically, the Indian classical Carnatic music industry was heavily dominated by male voices and very many cultural norms that perpetrated caste-based prejudices, and heavily limited the ways in which narratives about South Indian identity were told. As a Singaporean-Indian, I found my diaspora background being unrepresented in the way music was done in the Carnatic music industry. I felt this overarching sense of unhappiness or rather, incompleteness and wished that the nuances of Carnatic music would be better appreciated, understood and also representative of a larger discourse around South Indian and more broadly, South Asian identity in this time and era. My deep frustration also set the stage for me to really reject the idea of being a musician, but it ultimately made me realise that I want to do better, and I want to do something that would redefine what Carnatic music looks like for me. Having grown up with Carnatic music, I can say that it is such a big part of my identity, and the ways in which I hoped to engage with it, I became more aware of as I kept pushing back on conventional practices and Ideas.
You wouldn’t believe it if I said that my father had a hard time getting me to sit down, so he could teach me. The funny thing is, I never really got a proper class off my parents. I would spend most of my weekends, growing up, at their music school. It was pretty much inescapable. I’d hear Kritis, Varnams and improvisations all day long, and inevitably, pick it up on my own. Sometimes I would crash some other kid’s classes, but I would never quite approach my parents on my own for a class. So I wasn’t ever actually formally trained by them. I guess it’s kind of like saying that when it’s your parents, it doesn’t work that they try to teach you. Most things I hear, I picked up through my exposure, which was definitely through them. In that odd sense, my parents played a huge role in making me understand and grapple with the magnitude of Carnatic music. When I was in middle school, my father would drive me to school every morning, at around 6 AM. I’d usually want to take a nap in the car, but he’d force me into doing the agaara sadhagam : training and practising your voice to be able to produce different kinds of minute sangathi / expressions that render your musicality far more vibrant. I hated it so much (haha). I remember how I would just sing it because I had to, and wonder when the long ride to school would end. But today, I look back at that and realise how much my dad has given me, through some of the very small but minute everyday things that he slipped into my everyday life. Whether it was through deliberate instruction or via my own exposure, my parents invited me into their world but invited me to do so on my own terms. This was especially rewarding and liberating and has definitely shaped the way I approach the question of what it means to make music in this time and era, and what it means, specifically, to unfold questions of what is just in a tradition that has been so largely exclusive for the longest time.
2) How did “Chai Lenin” come about?
I resonate most with the name ‘Chai’. In fact, most of my friends, teachers, literally everyone… calls me Chai. It also means Tea, and I’m just about the biggest coffee fan. So what originated as a paradoxical call to the fact that Chai likes coffee better, ended up being the name I resonate with, the most. Most people see me and understand me to be this bubbly, talkative, bright, and rather happy go, lucky person. My name is actually Chaitanyasre, but it made sense to use the name that I am most acquainted with every day; in fact, it is the everyday lived experience of life and the embodiment of the personal as intertwined with the interpersonal that I wanted to bring to my identity as an artist too. I am Chai to all those dear to me, and through the music, I bring to life, I want to be known through my own raw and authentic projection of myself.
I was rather insistent on keeping Lenin with it because it is my father’s name, and my father is my best friend at the end of the day. He has been the biggest source of inspiration for the way I see the world. His willpower, creative energy and his sense of selfless devotion to music, and to the family, has made me think that there is no better family name to keep than to keep his name, as my family name. I think most times, a family name represents years of tradition. To me, it was simply a way to hold onto my family and everything they have done for me personally, and musically. I would never have picked up Carnatic music if not for my father’s artistic expertise and guidance. With my voice as Chai Lenin, I will be able to tell stories that matter, stories that are intertwined with my own personal everyday being, and the stories that I want to tell, I hope are not just personal, but interpersonal in the way I see existence in this world as being not inward-looking and individualistic, but embedded in a web of relationships with people we learn to love and know through our everyday lived experiences. I wanted to embody this sort of everydayness and paint a picture of my own contemplative thought processes whilst simultaneously connecting them to the larger ways in which each one of us exist, with each other. We are a community, and I hope that Chai Lenin will represent that form of connectivity that we can all feel through coming together and introspecting our own subjectivities to understand our own existences a little better.
3) Which was your first song?
Rebirth is a sort of amalgamation of everything that I have been going through in the last 4-5 years of my life. I wanted to be able to capture my personal journey in the sense of my life being a sort of voyage. From moving abroad to study to having to bid farewell to many people in my life and also re-claiming my own personal identity, this song captures my personal growth. It is literally about being born again through my music. The song is also about how I want to always remember and hold close the power of my humane instincts, whether it is to love, to cherish, and to question what it means to be liberated. I thus used the song to embody my journey from my teen years to adulthood, and my journey in self-discovery and seeking my own peace in my own journey in self-empowerment.
When I talk about Rebirth, I think it’s also really important to talk about how “Chai Lenin” was born. When I look back at the journey, I am in awe at how much of it was pieced together rather spontaneously and in a very organic fashion. I decided to name the song Rebirth because I wanted it to symbolize the re-construction of my identity. As an artist, Rebirth would be the first time I give birth to music outside of my usual Carnatic music practice, in a varied form that I can reclaim as my own. To embody that process of re-claiming that music and re-claiming my artistic pursuit as an empowered young woman in the crossroads of modernity and tradition, I decided to also take on the artist name of “Chai Lenin”. My full name is Chaitanyasre Lenin; so shortening it to Chai, as how all those around me have grown accustomed to calling me embodies my modern identity. This is the name I have come to resonate with the most though I have such a long, beautiful and traditional name that I will always hold close. But to me, the process of reclaiming who I am also meant choosing what parts of my own identity I resonate with, thus settling for my commonly used name, Chai. It also reminds me of tea, of all things happy, light (literally and as a source of brightness), carefree, yet wonderfully powerful. This is the sense of identity I draw from being called Chai. I was rather insistent on keeping Lenin with it because it is my father’s name, my family name. I think most times, a family name represents years of tradition. To me, it was simply a way to hold onto my family and everything they have done for me musically. I would never have picked up Carnatic music if not for my father’s artistic expertise and guidance. Keeping Lenin in my name symbolizes the strength that tradition has given me in finding my own voice. My father has always encouraged me to be bold and fearless, and to me, my dad’s name will always be a reminder to hold onto the good things that Carnatic music has done for me. My father is also a self-made man, and his journey with Carnatic music was not an easy one. Thus, I want to honour the ways in which my father has guided me to be bold and fearless, and to take the good from tradition. Thus, the name Chai Lenin became my artist name (oh and do I also need to mention that people always make Lenin jokes, because of THE Socialist Lenin, and I think an aspect of that strength, courage and grandeur of telling stories that can revolutionize the world (pun intended), sits in very well with me.) I do hope, with my voice as Chai Lenin, I will be able to tell stories that matter, about the voices that have been excluded from a traditional lens (tradition has always been a double-edged sword), and make the world a more equal and just place.
I think as I pieced together different parts of what is now Rebirth, I realized how I did not need to reduce my feelings into “one specific” fixed thing. Thus, the ambiguity at many instances are intentions, and speak to the multitude of feelings that can co-exist at the same time. For instance you could be re-discovering what it means to love, yet feel torn about a loss. You could also feel liberated, yet feel like there is more to know and seek. This song, if anything showed me how to paint life experiences as they are, ambiguous, encompassing and more often than not, in the grey area. Thus, it felt extremely therapeutic for me to put it out without needing to define everything. That’s how complex life is Afterall- and my song speaks to that.
4) Which music genre do you normally prefer?
I have such a wide range of interests, and it entirely depends on my mood what I choose to listen to. Some of my all-time favourite artists are Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, Tash Sultana, Raveena Aurora, Peter Cat Recording Co., Shamoon Ismail, SYML, Masego, Milky Chance, and Maribou State, Lifafa, Yellow Diary, MALFNKTON, Kaleo, just to name a few. I have a bigger list but these are the artists I listen to on most days and have songs looped for ages now! As for my go-to genre, it’ll definitely be indie/indie-pop/electronic/Carnatic fusion/Indian indie/rock and some R&B.
I also have various playlists that I’ve curated based on what I’m feeling. I enjoy how much diversity there is within the music itself, and how different artists resonate with you in very many different ways, especially in the way they tell a story, or evoke a particular emotion.
5) Has your family been supportive with your career option?
I am a full-time college student, and I have quite a lot of academic interests I want to explore, whilst also juggling a music career. My parents are musicians themselves and are heavily involved in the music business scene in Singapore, so they understand how important music is for me. All I know is that I want to put out raw, authentic and soulful music, and it is something I’m passionate about, and I could not have asked for a better family to support me through this, for without them, I would not have any of the knowledge and interests I have today in making Carnatic music far more accessible and inclusive in a larger discourse around Indianness and Indian identity in the global diaspora.
6) Who has been your inspiration?
No one person, or thing, honestly. There is no particular fixed process that I follow. I usually work things out by improvising and experimenting. I draw inspiration from the questions that probe me at present, whether they are questions about my feelings, or about my experiences. I also draw inspiration from the people around me. The people in my life are very important to me, and sometimes, when my closest of friends are going through some difficulty or thinking about what matters to them, it consumes me a whole lot too. Thus I can state that my process is driven by pressing questions, perspectives and emotions that are prevalent at the period of time. I definitely then write things that come to my mind, and over time, accumulate a couple of ideas, jam on them, improvise and then finally, let things achieve a natural flow. It’s important to me that I don’t force things to align, but rather that they take their own time, just like how life’s occurrences are natural and sporadic. I could sometimes be sitting on the train, or travelling and some sort of experience could happen, and then I’d have like a “eureka! Moment” at that point. Most of my musical ideas come about as a result of constant deliberation, recording inspirations there and then, and piecing them together by experimenting and letting it all then flow.
7) Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
Honestly, this has been such a big step for me, because I always thought I knew what I wanted to do but a lot of that has been challenged for me lately. I’m telling myself that we’ll see to it when it gets to that. I used to plan so extensively, but for now, I am going to make peace with the natural flow of life and see where it takes me. No rush, no plans, just trying to be completely present at this point in time.
8) Which has been your most memorable performance?
Being in college full time means you sacrifice a lot of performing in general. But to be honest, the best of my performances have always been ones in intimate spaces, with close friends and family, just jamming and feeling and music wholeheartedly. Nothing can quite replace how much I value intimacy with people in my life and emotional vulnerability. Music is all about sharing your soul with others, and hoping that you can all heal and be together in the face of being locked inwards. I am always happiest when I sing in such a manner, sharing music as a form of intimate connection with those whom I cherish.
Oh, and I also like to perform in the shower, and sing alone in my room for hours.
9) Tell us about your future collaborations.
There’s quite a lot of fun stuff coming up, and I am in the midst of piecing them all together, so let this be a surprise. But for now, know that you will hear more music and storytelling in time to come. I take a lot of time to just put something out because I get inspired in brief moments, and those stories I want to tell are the ones that I want to put out, as opposed to constructing something that is forced and thus doesn’t resonate with me. That being said, please stay tuned.
10) Tell us about your latest track.
I’ve always resonated with many different genres. The music that I listen to comes from a wide variety of genres- from Indie, to rock, to electronic music, I listen to a bit of everything. In that sense, what I appreciate is also very fluid, and it depends on the questions I am trying to grapple with, and the kind of mental state I am in. This is very evident even in the way I can listen to, say jazz tonight, and tomorrow morning, I could be listening to electronic songs in the shower. In my song “Tomorrow”, I wanted to bring out the sense of despair that was running through my mind, and yet at the same time, try to bridge that despair with a sense of hope that can be found and re-found in fleeting moments. To do that, electro elements seemed to resonate most with me. Some of the folk beats I used also helped create this feeling of going forth, and being able to feel the world and its weight all at the same time, yet be at ease with how life would unfold. It also helped me feel this sense of connectivity that i was very much searching for in being able to reconcile how we all search for light in our lives, at different points. A process that we return to over and over during the course of our life, and in doing this, we seek to find a sense of comfort. It could be the sense that someone is listening, someone gets you, or someone’s there for you, or that there is the world, in its entirety, that will embrace you through life. I think electro elements helped me encapsulate this state of mind of being in touch with hope, and yet, making peace with the way in which life unfolds. I also think it also has a very unique groove that resonates with me in terms of helping me transform lingering despair into a sense of futurity. I love that sense of ambiguity and yet resoluteness that the electro elements brought to what I was trying to convey. On the other hand, the Carnatic vocals help me complement this sense of soul-searching and defining hope as a way of holding on that I tried to do through the song. I wanted to articulate the melodies that can take us to a more hopeful place, where we can envision a better and brighter future, but i did not want to give it away in fixed words. I rely on the power of interpretation and want various narratives to unfold through my music. Different people have different narratives and in an attempt to articulate my own narrative, I hope others too, can find their own narratives being articulated through the way in which the lyrical and sonic input takes them through what it means to hope, and to hold on to each other. We don’t need to get each other word for word, but we can busk in on our feelings and the ways in which vulnerability makes us affirm others. Perhaps our subjectivities close us off in this manner, of not ever being able to truly define another’s narrative, but it doesn’t mean we cannot see each other and embrace our collective humanities in unfolding what it means to be human. It also doesn’t mean we can’t represent other narratives. Through telling and defining less, but letting states of minds and feelings be represented through grooves, I wanted to be able to encapsulate our common humanity. In this manner, carnatic music and its improvisational elements, and electro elements’ sense of grove and unfolding helped me articulate a deeply interpersonal and yet at the same time, personal way of transcending our individualities to collectively reminisce about what it entails to hope.
Needless to say, the way I grew up and the way I have now come to perceive the world, comes from my socialisation that was very intertwined with tradition and modernity simultaneously. My larger sense of purpose stems from this question of what it means for me to be making music in this time and era, and what my role as an artist is, in terms of representing identity discourses and the South Asian diaspora voice through my art. I know there cannot be one voice, or one right perspective, which is why I believe in the wedding of tradition and modernity to an extent whereby no fixed answers are provided, only room for interpretation and one’s own narrative storytelling can start off where my music trails off. This is what moves me to keep making music the way I do; one that seamlessly connects the very distinct worlds of tradition and modernity, yet explores the crossroads that they provide, in hopes that those who listen too, can make sense of their own relative narratives in a larger third space where diaspora identity can be more critically engaged with through the varied and yet intentional, sonic and lyrical (linguistically diverse) outputs.
11) How was life in quarantine?
Quarantine was pretty damn horrible because I yearn human interaction and intimacy quite a fair bit. But I have been fortunate to be in Singapore where covid has been constantly controlled and regulated, and so there hasn’t been a quarantine in some time. I acknowledge this is such a privilege and my heart goes out to those who are in quarantine, separated from their loved ones, and socio-economically disadvantaged and thus being hit badly by the pandemic. We need each other more than ever.
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