Race no boundary in Indian music contest

Race no boundary in Indian music contest
Krsna Dasa Tan Guo Ming, 24, with a sitar.

SINGAPORE - Being Chinese and a skilled exponent of traditional Indian music run in the family of Krsna Dasa Tan Guo Ming, 24. His father is an Indian music enthusiast and a Hindu who has been training Krsna in the sitar since he was five years old. Krsna went on to win the 2002 National Indian Music Competition in the Sitar Open category at the age of 12.

Krsna's younger brother, Radha Govinda Dasa Tan Guo Jun, is also a previous winner of the competition. The 21-year-old, who goes by the name of Govin, has been playing the tabla, a percussive Indian instrument, since he was 12. He took first place in the 2006 Tabla Intermediate category and the 2008 Tabla Open category.

The brothers, whose parents are Chinese, are among three non-Indian winners of the triennial competition.

Organised by the National Arts Council, the 16-year-old competition is now open for registration. The preliminary and final rounds will be held at the School Of The Arts Drama Theatre from June 16 to 20. A total of 162 musicians have won prizes in this event, which has eight categories. Aside from the new Hindustani vocal category this year, the others are carnatic vocal, violin, veena, flute, sitar, mridangam and tabla in the junior, intermediate and open age groups.

The junior category is open to those aged 12 and below, intermediate to those 18 and below and the open category to those 30 and below. Carnatic vocal refers to the South Indian singing style, while Hindustani vocal is the North Indian singing style. The veena is a plucked string instrument and the mridangam is a percussion instrument.

The Tan brothers and Rit Xu Kai Xiang, 24, who placed third in the 2011 Flute Open category, were exposed to Indian instruments from a young age. They also play instruments from other cultures.

Krsna says "playing Indian instruments wasn't a choice from young". However, he says he and his brother now "love and honour Indian music as much as our father does". The brothers are full-time musicians.

Xu's late father was a pianist and composer. He says: "My Indian flute teacher, Mr Ghana, was my neighbour. He would come to my house to do recordings for my dad because my father sometimes did commercial recordings which required traditional sounds."

When Xu was around eight years old, Mr Ghana gave him an Indian flute. He began to take formal lessons in his late teens. Xu, who plays other flutes such as the Chinese bamboo flute, shakuhachi (Japanese end-blown bamboo flute) and Andes quena, feels that the Indian flute has an alluring sound.

He says: "I like to play it in a large setting with a lot of reverbs. It's hauntingly beautiful." The third-year student at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music is majoring in the Western flute.

Govin, who plays other percussion instruments such as Western drums and the mridangam, agrees with Xu that Indian music is unique. He says there are many overtones, drones and microtonal bends in Indian music which set it apart.

All three say taking part in the competition has given them more opportunities. Krsna and Govinplayed at the ASEAN Commemorative Summit in India in 2012, while Xu played at the Lantern Festival at Clarke Quay in 2011.

Govin recalls: "When I was backstage, I stopped at every door I walked past. When I heard the sound of the tabla outside a closed door, I stopped, stood there and I was like, 'Oh no'. Then I went back to my room and practised triply hard."

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