Chai Lenin: A Young Lady’s Love for Music

Chai, as most people call her, is a talented and ambitious young lady finding her way in the world. She has now come out with her very first single ‘Rebirth’

Chaitanyasre has always been attracted to music, being born into a musical family might have played a hand at that. She has now come out with her very first single ‘Rebirth’ which encapsulates much of her own personal journey in the past couple of years. Chai, as most people call her, is a talented and ambitious young lady finding her way in the world. In conversation with the musician we learn of her passions and the journey that led to ‘Rebirth’.

Tell us a little about yourself

Most of my friends call me Chai, although my full name is Chaitanyasre. The truth is, most people just can’t pronounce it, and so over the years, Chai has become the name I resonate with. I’m born and brought up in Singapore and have lived here for 15 years. I spent the last 5 years of my life in India, before I decided to come back to Singapore to attend college. I am currently a Philosophy major at Yale NUS College, Singapore. I am very interested in questions around justice and specifically, what kinds of narratives matter in our larger notion of upholding justice. I feel passionately about the social and economic inequalities we live through, and want to examine how we can generate meaningful discourse around making our world a more just place for all. I think access to educational opportunities keeps coming back into the picture when I think about this, so I also devote my time outside of college to work with children from ages 5-19 in helping them enhance their language proficiency. I work with them primarily on helping them achieve a greater level of English and Tamil language proficiency.

My family is a rather musical one. My parents are musicians themselves and they are involved in the music scene in Singapore, specifically so with Indian classical Carnatic Music. My brother is the only non-singer in our house. He plays the mridangam though but has now graduated from college with a degree specialized in Computer science, mathematics and physics.

When did you realize your passion for music? Have you studied music?

Since an early age, I’ve been exposed to music because my parents themselves are musicians. I never actually formally studied music. I remember my parents saying I used to sing myself to sleep as a baby (they have clips of these), and looking back at my childhood, I spent a lot of time around musicians, and Indian classical Carnatic music itself. My father has always been my mentor, guide and best friend in this regard. I would eavesdrop on the classes he was teaching and learn from those. Most of the time, it was instinctive because I would hear a kriti/song so much that I would just remember it and know how it sounded. Sometimes I would sit in on dad and mom’s classes to do my school homework at the corner. The exposure definitely had a huge role to play in my acquisition of music knowledge. I never formally sat for a class or learnt anything, until my father said I should consider doing my arangetram (a milestone for most in Carnatic music, where you perform for an audience to exhibit your proficiency in the art). My Carnatic music concert was definitely a turning point because it made me realize how much I loved being on stage, performing, sharing and I continued to want to do more of that.

I can say without a doubt that Carnatic music has inspired me in many different ways, and given me a unique perspective and voice as a musician. It was while I was completing my IB at UWC Mahindra College that I came to terms with bigger questions about what I wanted to do with music. I was always exposed to Carnatic music, but was constantly re-negotiating what it meant to be a Carnatic musician. I wanted to re-negotiate the boundaries between tradition and modernity, and wanted Carnatic music to do justice to the narratives that it has failed to represent so far. Carnatic music is such a rich and dynamic form of music that I also wanted world audiences to be able to appreciate it at a much greater capacity. So I embarked on this passion project with no idea at all about how it was going to turn out, and eventually at some point, I found my sweet-spot: a bilingual, vibrant musical expression that blends my own influences and interests in music, with a Carnatic touch to it to tell stories about the world around me. This was how Rebirth happened, and looking forward, I am excited to tell more stories about the world and to make Indian classical Carnatic music’s dynamism heard and appreciated in the world music scene.

What genre of music are you most interested in? Do you have a favorite when it comes to creating music?

I am an absolute hotpot of many different genres. I listen to everything ranging from indie, rock, jazz, traphouse jazz, ghazals, folk, r&b, techno, electronic and blues…. Some of my all time favourites are Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, Tash Sultana, Raveena Aurora, Peter Cat Recording Co., Shamoon Ismail, SYML, Masego, Milky Chance, and Maribou State. I have a bigger list but these are the artists I listen to on most days, and have songs looped for ages now!

I think it’s hard for me to pick one single genre and say, this is my commitment/my thing; if anything I’d definitely say my mood goes into the picture with regards to the kind of song I choose to play to get work done that day haha!

Rather than sticking to one genre, I enjoy colouring outside the lines. My music is definitely a fusion of various kinds of genres’ influences I am most drawn to, and an experimentation of what it means to create music that speaks to me. This was why I have a hard time everytime someone asks me what genre I’d classify “Rebirth” to be. I honestly don’t have one answer. This notion of vibrant sounds in various genres is what makes music so beautiful and all-encompassing for me; the fact that you can interpret, re-interpret and re-define what the sounds, tempos and ideas are by bringing together different cultural influences and creative perspectives.

Music is a very personal experience. What does music mean to you?

Music is personal to me in the way of it being a medium of therapeutic release, for me to relate experiences both in my mind and around me. It is a medium for me to tell more colourful stories that can’t be told with words alone. Specifically about myself, the world, and most importantly, the people I encounter and see. Music is a way for me to express my sentiments about lived experiences and abstract, bigger philosophical ideas in a more tangible and pervasive manner, as opposed to writing them down in words. Most of the time, words can’t always get to truly exploring the multidimensionality that lies in the way people perceive and experience the world. This is why I believe in the power of interpretation, negotiation and experimentation. Using music to de-construct and unpack experiences and ideas about the world is not only therapeutic, but also speaks to the ways in which humans fail to articulate their ideas and experiences in conventional ways. Every time a melody, tempo or word fuses, it gives rise to a new sort of sensory experience, or a sensory assault even. Creating room for interpretation, inevitably sparks room for discourse. Music has the power to tell multiple stories, all at the same time. It helps me map my thoughts, feelings and ideas into a sort of ethereal third space, where the physical and psychological fuse to create meaning that resonates with myself, and those around me.

Your song Rebirth is now available on various platforms. How does it feel? Does the song title signify a personal journey?

It has always felt so surreal that I now have my first ever song out. Truth be said, I had no idea any of this was happening. It was all a process, and with each passing step of the process, I eventually ended up with Rebirth. I definitely feel joyous, yet also very excited for everything else I have to do and work on along the way. There is so much more I can and do, so the release of this song has made me anticipatory and a lot more focused on my future projects.

Rebirth is a sort of amalgamation of everything that I have been going through in the last 4-5 years of my life. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

There’s a mix of languages in the song Rebirth.  Can you explain your reason for doing so?

I have grown up being a bilingual (or rather, trilingual person). I think in 3 different languages and it is integral to my identity, so I decided that being able to include all 3 languages was important to me. It also speaks to how in an increasingly globalized world where tradition and modernity intermingle in nuances ways, most people have very bilingual identities. I included English, Malayalam and Tamil(“Tamizh”) in my song for the same reason.

I am first language proficient in both English and Tamil (“Tamizh”), so I can read, write and speak them. With Malayalam, I can speak, but never learnt to read or write. But it’s the language that whisks me home and connects me to the people I love very very much. I also resonate with how Tamil and Malayalam capture emotions and intricacies that English cannot, or fails to do, and thus, it helped me translate my thought process in a very raw and intimate way whilst making the song. Thus, I decided to have a blend of all 3 languages in Rebirth.

From what or where do you draw your inspiration from? What is your creative process?

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. 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 overtime, 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.

What are your hobbies? What do you like to do when you are not making music?

I read quite a bit. I read both social theory related texts, and fictional books alike. I also enjoy running, so I run every other day in the late evenings. I used to do theatre quite actively while I was at UWC Mahindra College; I miss this very much, but enjoy watching plays during my free time & also watching theatrical pieces/reading plays. Other than that, I love being around good food and people. I spend my free time with my kitten, Alaska.

I recently learnt how to swim, and have been so mesmerized by how life under water liberates me. Thus I’ve been wanting to pick up diving for awhile now, and really look forward to getting to it as well!

What are your goals for the future? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I want to live a meaningful life. I know that a lot of emphasis these days is placed on material wealth and success as dictated by material terms, since we live in a Capitalistic society. But what I hope to achieve is meaning in my own personal life; that no matter what I’m doing, I’m doing something I care about deeply, and that what I do brings to the world a perspective that can help shape it to be a better place for people.

I am passionate about issues to do inequality and wealth from a socio-legal perspective. This is also why I intend to attend law school after I complete my undergraduate degree. I also care about diversity and equal access to opportunity in different industries, especially the entertainment industry.

I see myself making music and getting through graduate law school in the next 5 years’ time. I see myself seeking meaning in my legal education and translating my notion for meaning into my music career as well. I hope that my music evolves into a more far reaching community where stories can be told, and different voices can be heard. I am open to what the future holds. I’m going to let life guide me in my pursuit of meaning and making change.

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