Chandrika Tandon: I sang before I could speak

Chandrika Tandon
Chandrika Tandon performing Shivoham at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, on November 22, 2019. Photo by Yassine El Mansouri

Tandon, who dazzled the Kennedy Center with a brilliant performance on Nov. 22, speaks about her late-blooming music career and philanthropy.

(Editor’s note: Interview transcript courtesy of Neestream.)

Indian American Chandrika Tandon dazzled the Kennedy Center, the high temple of American art and culture, with a brilliant performance of her fourth album, Shivoham, on November 22nd. The concert at the packed Eisenhower Theater, which has a capacity of more than 1,160, was the first by the Grammy-nominated artist and businesswoman in the nation’s capital.

In a performance that lasted roughly 100 minutes, Tandon sang 12 songs from the album, accompanied by an ensemble of 10 world-class musicians, including pianist Kenny Werner, and a two-dozen-strong choir drawn from New York University faculty, students and alumni, among others. (For Shivoham, which was recorded at nine studios in four countries, Tandon used 279 musicians.)

Tandon came to the United States when she was 24, after earning a bachelor’s degree from Madras Christian College and MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmadabad. She is the first Indian American woman to become a partner of McKinsey & Company.

In 1992, she and her husband, Ranjan, launched the Tandon Capital Associates. In 2015, the couple donated $100 million to New York University’s School of Engineering.

Though music and art have been part of her life since childhood, Tandon’s late-blooming musical career didn’t take off until 2010, when she released her first album, Soul Call. One of the songs, Om Namo Narayanaya, was nominated for Grammy in the “Best Contemporary World Music Album” category.

Shivoham is the culmination of Tandon’s musical journey that lasted a couple of decades. A day before her performance in Washington, she discussed her Kennedy Center debut with prominent journalist Aziz Haniffa for the streaming platform Neestream.

Speaking about the performance, which came on the 56th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, she said “How great is it that, on that day which created so much conversation in the country that we are able to go in there and speak about finding your own radiance and peace and harmony and blessings. So for me all these factors coming together is a great confluence. So I am beyond excited.”

Here are the edited excerpts of the interview:

You straddle the world of high finance, business, education, the arts… You are a philanthropist, you are a humanitarian. But your passion has been music. Tell me about your early years. How did it all begin? I remember in one of my interviews, you spoke about using your first salary to buy a guitar and a stereo system.

I really sang before I could speak. Growing up, we came from a very simple family. I [did] thousands of chores growing up. I don’t remember what chores I did. But I remember what songs I used to sing when I did those chores. So music was always a part of my life. Then, of course, I got into the business world. I worked very hard; I studied very hard. [When] I came to America, I was with Citibank, [then] I was with McKinsey. And music simply disappeared from my life for a lot of reasons. About 20 years ago, I had a crisis of  spirit. I had to really get into [the question of] what was success, why was I on this planet — all these important questions we don’t often get to ask. I was lucky enough to be able to ask these questions. That got me back to thinking that I really should do things that made me so happy. And music was always something that really completed me. So I went back to learn music, and I did it on the sidelines.

I had a $5,000 bonus when I joined McKinsey. I had to pay my down payment for my rent. I had to pay security deposit. I had to buy furniture. But I didn’t buy any of that, other than the down payment. I bought a Martin guitar for $1,800, and I bought a stereo system, which was the rest of the money. I had about $50 or so left for the next month. I ate rice and coriander chutney every single day that month because I didn’t have any money to eat. I had no furniture. I slept on a sheet. This is how crazy I was about music.

Fast forward to 20 years ago. I then decided I had to go back to music. I wasn’t trying to get anywhere. I wasn’t trying to get a Grammy nomination. I wasn’t trying to perform. I simply wanted to sing. I wanted to feel happy. And this journey to music really made me discover myself. It made me go into the deepest part of myself. It made me understand what the quiet space is, because in Indian music, when you go into the highest levels of Indian music, you really have to quiet the mind to find the note, to find the sur.

And once I started to do that, the teachers came. I added mediation. I added breath work. I added a lot of work to my practices and my life strums formed because of that. Now all of this that’s happened with the albums that’s come about has been a series of synchronicities, or accidents, or universal accidents. It’s not that I set out to do anything. ­­­

Shivoham is particularly unique because what I did with Shivoham was really trying to express this journey of the last 20 years in songs. And what was that journey? That journey was this intense yearning for something more. This intense yearning that there was a beyond; that there was a different state that one had to rethink success; that one simply couldn’t be put in whatever treadmill we’re in and suddenly life is over. Is that it? Are we living consciously? And that question was the first movement of Shivoham.

The second movement of Shivoham is that yearning led to a very intensive search. It led to an intensive search for what? I didn’t know what it was. Was it God? Was it something beyond? What was that I was looking for? It was a very frantic search.

Was it a major contrast from your early years, your first album, for which you received a Grammy nomination?

Yes, all of them. The first three albums were chance, where I took chances like Om Namo Shivaya, Om Namo Narayanaya, and Raghupati Raghava Rajaram, did them in classical raga. Shivoham is really much more of a, sort of a confluence of multiple genres, multiple ideas.

And cathartic, too?

[Yes,] cathartic because it actually tells a story of a journey. It’s my journey but it’s everyone’s journey. We’re all sort of periodically reassessing what is success, and we’re reassessing what the purpose of life is. The third movement, once you gone into this intense searching, you really connect with something bigger than yourself. Once you connect with that something bigger than yourself, you feel the sense of radiance and, of course, life still goes on. Life still gives you ups and downs and sideways; everything happens. But the prism with which you view your existence is completely different.

And why did you want to be the major project? You had the confluence of major musicians. But you went out to Abby Road, you went to South Africa. There is also a fusion of people. You got some of the best. Why were you so focused on having this kind of an ensemble?

You know, the words came about because, while I was born in India, I’ve been here for 41 years. And I’ve lived in almost all these parts of the world. So I am not thinking only in Sanskrit; in fact, I don’t really think in Sanskrit. It really is telling a story. When you tell a story, at the same time, you say Asato ma sadgamaya — “Lead me to the light” — but you are also saying what I learned in my Catholic convent school, which is Out of the depths, I cried to you: O Lord hear my voice. And those two in my mind are very, very closely interconnected. If you want to express both those ideas, I have to bring in the genres that touch those ideas. For example, when we did Out of the depths I cry to you: O lord, we used a Gregorian chant, and we used a choir from Abby Road. And when we did Asato ma sadgamaya, we used traditional, beautiful Indian instruments. And similarly, the South African choir that you spoke about is a gospel choir which is so well known. See, when you connect with yourself, you start to get a sense of peace and you start to get into a sense of not just wanting peace, but blessings for the whole planet. The last song was a song of blessings, and the South Africans have a beautiful set of chants for blessings because they actually ask for blessings from the ancestors. They ask for blessings from everyone. So we thought why not use that chant as part of the song for the song of blessings, which says Sarva mangalam, bhavatu, bhavatu, bhavatu. “Let there be blessings for all, the earth, the sky, the waters, for you, for me, for all mankind.” And we used the South African choir, and we recorded that in South Arica.

What is the message you want to convey?

My journey began when I was in my forties. I’ve had a very intensive, a very successful life. When I was in my forties, I started to ask questions of success and what is happiness. Not that I stopped working or stopped being a good mother or a good wife, but I asked those questions and I started to really rethink how I spent my life and how I thought about my life. I can really say today, that if I die today, that I would be so happy. I have no regrets. I want everyone to access that light inside of them because, as Gandhi says, “You got to the change you wish to see.” If you don’t access your own radiance, what are we talking about peace for the world? How can you be peaceful if you are so bloody tormented inside? So part of this whole journey that I’ve gone through, and it seems so trite and yet so important because it is so transitive.

The reason I want to share this with young people, is I think to myself, of course, I always think to myself, if had I unlocked this wisdom in my twenties, I would have been so happy all the time. I would have still done it. It’s not that you pack up and go off the mountain, but the whole vision of your life changes and it’s not to also explore all your dimensions. Look Aziz, all of us are multi-dimensional people, but very often we explore just one dimension of ourselves. If you are a business person, you are just a good business person. That’s all you spend your whole life trying to do. Then at 65, you try something else. You may never be that at 65, so life is short. So I really just want people to explore their own radiance.

Once you explore your own radiance, you can then talk about peace. Then at some point, peace won’t be enough because you really want blessings for the planet because you feel your abundance, and you want abundance for everyone. There is no division, there is no religious difference, there is no color difference, and there is no skin difference. We are one. You begin to see the oneness in all and you see that in every moment of what you do. That’s what I want. That’s what I feel every minute of what I do. My life changed. You spoke about humanitarianism and all that. I started that journey because I changed inside and I didn’t do any of this. I’m not doing any of that. I spend 80 percent of my time now in service and I don’t do this because I want something. I do this because I must. I do this because my responsibility is to make my little corner of the planet a better place, and just be happy doing that.

Can you talk a little more about the humanitarian work you do, the philanthropy you do? It is not just the arts you are focused on; at the New York University, you have endowed the engineering school. You are still an artist at heart, but your philanthropic giving covers humanities, arts, as well as the engineering school.

I have a very active business life. I chair the board of the [NYU] engineering school. I am a vice chairman of the university’s board of trustees. I am involved in many businesses…

As well as arts centers…

As well as arts centers, like the Lincoln Center. We use a minuscule amount of our capacity, we use a minuscule amount of our dimensions. The more you can get rest within yourself, you can access the best part of yourself, with meditation and with your capacity to do thing expands dramatically. It’s not that it’s very effortful. It’s joyous to go and exercise different sides of my brain. It’s very interesting for me to think about research issues and engineering, and I am involved in a lot of that. Because we have a lot of first-generation students, 47 percent of students in our school are women. In an engineering school, it is a record. We really want to do right by them and we want to give them the right education. NYU is one of the most important global universities. So we really want to give them a global perspective. And some of our faculty lead the research in extraordinarily important areas, from everything from cyber security to wireless, to multiple spaces, health and engineering. We are in urban [studies] because New York City is one of the most important urban centers in the world. There are a whole lot of advancements to be made, and I am actively involved in thinking and helping the leadership of the school transform the world. We will be one of the most important transformation stories in the history of education, and I am excited to be part of that.

So in terms of the philanthropy, you are very particular that it will be purposeful philanthropy?

Yes. In fact, one can’t, with a certain amount of resources, change the world. But you can change your corner of the world. You can change one corner of the planet. You have to pick the planet corner carefully that you can add value. The one thing that we made a decision that we wanted to get involved in causes that engaged our soul. So the three broad areas that I am engaged in are this whole area of education, higher education, in multiple areas; the arts; and I would say the whole topic of well-being because I really want all human beings to be their best selves. When I say well-being, it’s not that you need to be in depression, it’s not negative. It’s just being your best selves. Whatever your starting point is, my starting point when I started my journey, it wasn’t in any bad place. I was lucky that I was able to have this crisis to be able to crush the spirit, unexpected to be able to be able to change my life for the better. And this is why I just want everybody to be able to have the tools and resources to be your best selves because we’ll    all be in a better planet if we could do that.

Whatever your business in life is, whether you’re an artist, a painter, an engineer, or a doctor, you have to control your mind. You have to get in and understand who you are. Once you quiet all the noise around, a lot of the effort we take in this world and the noise in our head occupies as much emotional and physical energy as the actual work we do. My message to everyone will be not to wait too long, to take that time to quiet yourself and to understand who you are. Once you understand it and are able to access that space, there are so many more dimensions. Your dimension may be that you’re going to be only a doctor for the rest of your life, but do it consciously. Don’t do it with your eyes closed. That would be my message. That is the message of the message of Shivoham is. That is the message for everyone because once you’re conscious, you will begin to understand so much more. It’s a little bit like you suddenly go up a mountain top and look at yourself, rather than being inside you and constantly looking at because you have no vision, you have no perspective. I just want people to quiet their mind enough to get that perspective. I think it’s not a piece of advice, it’s an imperative. I don’t think the younger generations have a choice. I don’t regret what I didn’t do. I am super grateful that I got the chance to do that, I’m filled with gratitude that I got the chance. Really Aziz, my days have gotten five times busier than it was before, but I don’t feel tired. I don’t feel stressed. And if I get upset, what used to take me hours and days and months, now its minutes. You have a very different perspective in whatever happens in … life.

(Aziz Haniffa is the Executive Editor of India Abroad.)

Grammy-nominated Chandrika Tandon to perform at Kennedy Center on November 22

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