Chandrika Tandon is a multifaceted personality. A globally recognized business leader, a Grammy-nominated artist — and a doting grandmother, who like grandmothers do, sang on demand to put her two grandchildren to bed.
Tandon is now sharing that treasure trove of bedtime “intergenerational love, sharing, and opening your heart out” with the world at large with a new album — ‘Ammu’s Treasures.’
“We’ve spent hours and hours on production, making the album to the highest levels of production quality. Having done that, the whole vision then became about why wouldn’t we want every child to experience that hug?” she asks in an interview with Aziz Haniffa for The American Bazaar.
“Why wouldn’t I want to share it with everyone, including your grand nephews and nieces? So that you could sing those songs that are part of our connection and our childhood. I want to inspire people to sing songs like that to their grandchildren,” she says.
Produced by Tandon with a stellar group of musical friends, the album offering what would become a boundary-breaking omnibus of 35 songs and 21 chants, was released by Soul Chants Music and distributed by Platoon last month.
The music in Ammu’s Treasures ranges from traditional folk tunes like ‘Molly Malone’ to French chansons, to popular songs of the 1950s and ’60s like “(How Much) Is That Doggy in the Window?” and “Que Sera, Sera.”
Additionally, “To the Light” is a 26-minute meditative journey, comprising 21 ancient Vedic chants set to Indian scales, aimed to soothe and relax.
Tandon also speaks about a new business school, Boyd Tandon School of Business, opening at her Alma mater Madras Christian College and the expansion of NYU Tandon School of Engineering set up with her generous gifts.
“The Arts and the music industry have been completely transformed by science and technology, and it’s an imperative. We’ve got to come at this with a purposeful set of initiatives,” she says.
Asked how she did what she did, be it business, philanthropy, and now music with so much passion and drive, Tandon said, “Look, it’s about creating an intentional path, creating an intentional plan for yourself. Very often, you sleepwalk through it, you don’t even know.”
READ: Chandrika Tandon: I sang before I could speak (December 1, 2019)
“My epiphany, my spiritual awakening, if you like, 20 years ago was the greatest gift the universe gave me. Now, I’m very clear about what I’m going to do,” she said.
“I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do. In broad strokes, there’s nothing I would do differently,” said Tandon who has won numerous awards for from leadership and integrity to her contributions to arts, science and engineering.
Here is the full transcript of the interview, lightly edited for clarity:
AB: Chandrika, it’s an absolute delight to be with you again, and congratulations on your most recent album, ‘Ammu’s Treasures.’ Four years ago, we spoke about your journey in Shivoham. Could you talk about how the concept of Ammu’s Treasures came about? I believe your grandchildren were the inspiration for Ammu’s Treasures, yes?
CT: It’s very interesting that you speak about ‘Shivoham: The Quest.’ Shivoham: The Quest was an oratorial expressing my journey from the late ’90s, early 2000s to 2020.
That was a journey of my finding myself, and I’d also say that as you find yourself, you’re able to share more of yourself. You’re able to give more of yourself.
I had that great opportunity when my first little grandson came along. Ammu’s Treasures began as a series of songs that I sang for him and then extended to my other grandson, which I just did as bedtime routines with them.
AB: And how did they respond, in terms of the fact that you were inspired to go ahead with this very comprehensive album of many songs, not necessarily children’s songs but also other songs which made them sing along with you?
CT: Well, before that, I have to tell you, what is Ammu? Ammu means happiness, Ammu means purity, Ammu means joy. It’s a term, a delicious term of endearment.
That’s what my grandchildren call me. I could have chosen to have them call me ‘patty’ or ‘amma,’ but I chose that they would call me Ammu. This is before they were born.
Every time, they would ask me for a song. So the journey started because when the boy was very little, my Kavi, the oldest grandson, I would just sing him to sleep, and then he would automatically fall asleep in no time.
In fact, whatever time of day it was, whether he had just woken up and had a feed, he would be asleep within a few minutes. His entire body would relax, and he’d fall asleep.
Then I decided, you know, being a grandmother, I should be giving him some of the old Vedic chants. So I would start with little chants, and he would listen and listen. And then, as he got older, when I’m saying older, which is six months to eight months to 10 months, he wanted more. He’d want more, and he wouldn’t stop.
If I stopped singing, he’d start crying. So then I started to do so many songs, and it grew to a point when he was about two years old, the bedtime routine sometimes was two hours long because he wanted more. The first thing he would do is if I was singing one song, he would ask for the same song nine or ten times.
But then I had to go in and write on my phone what additional songs do I remember. So I went very quickly away from Vedic chants into Asha Bhosle and Surangani and “Teddy Bear Picnic” and “Footprints Song” and all the songs that gave me so much joy as a child.
AB: I was intrigued, and as a Sri Lankan, I was delighted, and ecstatic because you sang those two singular songs, ‘Surangani’ and ‘Portuguese Songs,’ which are very popular back in Sri Lanka. How did that come about, and how did you sort of memorize the lyrics to sing those two songs?
CT: You know, when we sung songs, when you and I sang songs, and you were in a band when you were younger, I don’t forget a single lyric. Do you? No, no, no. So, I didn’t need to memorize anything.
When I was little, ‘Surangani’ in my college was like a happy song. We sang it. The boys sang it more than the girls, of course. They sang it with some questionable words, but I decided to make them tender.
I brought in the grandmother, I brought in love. So there was no question of my forgetting the songs. I was just simply looking for songs that made me happy.
What made me happy were songs from so many parts of the world. Songs made me happy when I was in college. When I joined Madras Christian College, I was 14 years old. ‘Surangani’was all the rage on a cool summer morning.
Songs like ‘Ashokan Farewell’ were songs I did at Holy Angel’s Convent way back when I was in the second grade. So, for whatever, five, six, and, in fact, all but one song on the album.‘Now’s the Time for Planting Seeds,’ that’s the only time ever sang it.
But when my grandsons wanted a new song one day, I picked out ‘Now’s the Time for Planting Seeds,’ but that’s how our memories work and then I added another verse to it because I thought the song was too short.
AB: And as you initially conceptualized it, as an inspiration from your grandchildren, you have described it as a ‘hug to the world.’ And you then went to Prague, there was a choir there. Can you speak to that? And then also speak to your performances at the World Culture Festival on the Washington Mall.
CT: So this whole album has been an incredible evolutionary journey. So, stage one, I have these grandchildren, I’m singing to them every night. My voice gets tired after a while because two hours I’m singing. And then I think to myself, “What if I’m not around? I should just leave something for them.”
That’s exactly how ‘Amu’s Treasures’ started. So, step two, I got a couple of musicians. We went to a beautiful location called MASS MoCA, and we recorded for two days. Nothing else. We just sat, and we had a pianist, a guitarist, and a drummer, and I had my trusty ‘tanpura.’
And we just sang one song after another non-stop, from 10:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night. We finished the whole album. Now, at the end of the third day, we were all listening, and one guy said, “You know, Chandrika, if we could only have a cello on this, ‘Molly Malone’ would sound so much more beautiful.”
Then somebody said, “Well, you know, this is calling for a banjo. Why don’t we see if we can get so and so? Let’s get B.F.L. Let’s get Eugene Frez. Every piano accordion, too. And a piano, of course.
K. Warner had worked with me many times, so these are maestros. These are masters. So each one came together, invited by other musicians. So Jamie had called up some of these musicians and said, “You want to do this?”
READ: Chandrika Tandon: I sang before I could speak (December 1, 2019)
And they called up all of these people, and that’s how the album grew. So once it grew, every one of these masters, these maestros brought their tenderous emotions to the music. I’m going to tell you a quote from Eugene Frez.
“Chandrika, I’ve played for 67 years or something like that,” he said. “I’ve played in churches. I’ve played everywhere. Never have I played ‘Teddy Bear Picnic’ in a studio, and never have I had so much fun doing it.” I think that’s the spirit everybody brought their most beautiful tender self to this album.
AB: And how did the idea of this massive choir of children singing favorites like ‘Que Sera, Sera’ and also the songs like ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone,’ how did that emerge in the whole aura of this concept?
CT: So the first part is just all of these songs, now 35 songs I started out with. And by the way, for these 35 songs, I have another 50 songs that aren’t on this album. So that’s stage one.
Now, we sent a friend of mine who had taken a raw draft of the album to a refugee center in Prague, which is called the Croydon, where 200 refugee families from Ukraine are being housed to help them through the trauma.
So my friend thought, “Look, I know your album’s not ready, but why don’t we just send them a few songs? They’re sweet little songs. They might enjoy singing them.”
I said, “Sure,” thinking nothing of it. No one spoke English, by the way. They were all non-English-speaking and young children. So then they called me and said, “Well, would you come in and do a concert with us, with the children?”
I thought to myself, “What? 30 children? You know, it’s a refugee center. It’s not a big deal. We’ll just go sing with the children.” Those children, suddenly I started to get little videos from these children. They couldn’t speak English, but they’d say, “Chandrika,” and then they would show me ‘Que Sera Sera.’
Their practice sessions of ‘Que Sera Sera’ were so sweet, you know. But then the Lititz Palace, which is a beautiful palace in Prague, offered us the space.
So we ended up performing with the children. I had two rehearsals with them in Prague. They had already been rehearsing, and the children danced the songs. I created movements for them, and they sang it, and it was a very joyous moment.
But the most sweet moment of it all was at the very end. The children drew a picture of Ammu. Each one had been spending weeks coloring pictures of Ammu.
So when I turned to the audience and sang ‘Que Sera Sera’ with the children and I turned around to kind of look at them, all the children pulled out their pictures of Amu and stood in a line.
I just wept because this was such a beautiful way that they were giving back and expressing their love. There were many moments of poignant, tender emotions.
AB: And your performance with several choirs at the Washington Mall, the Art of Living Foundation, Sri Sri Ravishankar’s annual concert that was done, how did that impact you? How did it affect you because there were hundreds of thousands of people on the mall?
CT: I had opened both the World Culture Festivals. I’ve sung the invocation for both the first World Culture Festival in Berlin in the Olympia Stadium. And again there, Sri basically told me, “Oh, why don’t you involve a few people in singing?”
So what happened there is that I ended up just teaching people, and then before I knew it, a hundred people from Argentina would join the choir, and another 200 people from some other country would join the choir because they were all in Berlin.
I couldn’t accommodate all of them, but they all ended up singing anyway. We did a couple of very short songs, which I could only do because they had to make do with limited practice.
Fast forward to this, Sri Sri had asked me several months ago. He said, “You should do the invocation.” He came to me, and I’d come up with these other ideas of ‘Vande Mataram’ and so on, and he said, “Sing with lots of people.”
So that was the instruction. And a wonderful woman in DC spoke to a couple of the choir directors. We sent up the songs that I had composed for this, and they were very excited to practice.
So we had 250 high school kids from Walt Whitman High School and Clarkdale High School, both of them had practiced incredibly well, you know, and then they came together.
So I went to Washington for several hours. I practiced with them, but what was fun is, you know, when I walked into the rehearsal hall to practice just for the first practice session, the children started screaming.
I could have been Michael Jackson or whatever, and I was stunned because I’m saying to myself, “I’m not an iconic celebrity. I mean, why are they cheering so much?” Because they discovered this music in themselves. So the joy came from that, and I think that’s really what this is all about. That’s what Ammu ‘s Treasures is about.
READ: NYU investing $1 billion in Tandon School of Engineering (December 1, 2022)
Music gives them joy, singing in groups in this very joyful way, they learned Sarva Mangalam Bhavatu, Bhavatu, Bhavatu… You know how difficult it is to pronounce it in the pure Sanskrit way.
You know how difficult it is to pronounce Vande Mataram, Vande Mataram. They are two different things and they all worked so hard we got it almost right, and I think that’s what I think everybody enjoyed.
And then I took them through Indian scales, you know, because each of the songs had Indian pieces and Western pieces because I had written them both together. And the most beautiful thing is they sang this with such fervent emotions, with such dedication.
We explain the songs; why are you singing “Sarva Mangalam Bhavatu.” You’re singing because you want to bless the planet, you want your family, yourself, your friends, your family, everybody to have sarva mangalam, your mind jeeva mangalam, aatma mangalam, mano mangalam.
AB: And later this month, you go to India. And segueing in terms of your philanthropic work, Madras Christian College, you are one of the only two distinguished lifetime awardees, the other being T.N. Seshan. Can you speak to that? I’m sure Ammu’s Treasures are also going to be messaged out in India while you are there. Could you speak to what you want to do with Ammu’s Treasures while you are in India and also what you’re going to be doing at Madras Christian College in terms of the philanthropic work you’re doing there and continue to do?
CT: Madras Christian College is one of the happy places of my life. I spent three years there. It’s a great college. It’s a wonderful set of friends, wonderful set of teachers. I enjoyed myself, and I learned a lot about myself being there, and I wanted to give back.
So when they made me [a] distinguished alum, I decided to give a gift. Surprisingly, a few years later, I found out that they had created a business school. It was named after me, actually, not named after me. It was really named after Boyd.
It’s the Boyd Tandon School of Business, and Boyd was the founder of Madras Christian College. When I was very little, my grandfather went to Madras College. I grew up on stories about Boyd and McFarlane, who are the two founders. So when they unveiled the plaque, which was a big surprise to me, I literally was in shock. I said, “What is this?”
They said, “Oh, this is the plaque. This is the foundation stone because we’re about to build a business school for Madras Christian College, and that’s going to be called the Boyd Tandon School of Business.” That’s what happened, which was an incredible gift that the college gave me.
Fast forward, we’ve now come together. We’ve got an advisory group. We’ve hired two deans. We’re about to start a major business program at the college.
The other wonderful thing about this is that many of the people that have come together as the advisory council for this college are many of my classmates from IIM Ahmedabad.
Many of them just want to come together because they’ve all been incredibly successful in the business world, and they want to do something. It’s a bond of friendship, a gift of friendship to each other, and we’ve also had a blast working together, dreaming about what is the possibility that we can create in this college.
One is a dean of a business school here, one of the top business schools here. One was the chairman of NASSCOM. So he’s very big in it. Gopal Vittal was a chairman of one of the largest companies in India.
Sajiv Thomas is now the chair of the board of this thing, and many more people will come together. We’ve got it small, so this college will open. The building is up. We’ve got the AICTE approvals. We’ve got two amazing deans that are going to be there, and I think the first courses will happen in the spring or early summer of next year.
AB: And back here in New York, besides the Tandon School of Engineering, which you have endowed and has been around for the last few decades, you also have a new project with NYU. Can you speak to that? I believe some buildings have been acquired, and it’s on the verge of a launch.
CT: Well, it’s really a broader expansion of the Science and Technology footprint of NYU. I think this is a critical issue for our school and for NYU in the Science and Tech space because my mission is economic empowerment through science and technology.
The economic empowerment gets into science and technology, and we are going to be expanding the school. We have already signed major memoranda of understanding with the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, which is called the MIT of Korea, and with IKOR and a couple of others during the (Indian Prime Minister Narendra) Modi visit.
NYU is a Global Network University, so KA has now got a place at NYU, Tandon IIT will have a place here, and vice versa. The Arts and the music industry have been completely transformed by science and technology, and it’s an imperative. We’ve got to come at this with a purposeful set of initiatives.
AB: And finally, at a philosophical level, over the years that I’ve known you, you’ve been driven, whether it be business, philanthropy, and now music. How do you encapsulate all that with all the passion and drive that you have in terms of doing what you want to do?
CT: Look, it’s about creating an intentional path, creating an intentional plan for yourself. Very often, you sleepwalk through it, you don’t even know. My 20s passed, and I didn’t see the light of day. Yes, I made a lot of money, I was very successful, but there were whole aspects of myself that were ignored.
My epiphany, my spiritual awakening, if you like, 20 years ago was the greatest gift the universe gave me. Now, I’m very clear about what I’m going to do because I do want to be able to say at the end of each day, if today were the very last, I’m okay with that. I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do. In broad strokes, there’s nothing I would do differently.
AB: You could have kept Ammu’s Treasures within the family because it started that way. Why did you feel that it was something that had to be shared with the world?
CT: When we created Ammu’s Treasures, the majesty of the album with these 17 maestros coming together and putting their absolute best efforts, like Bela Fleck, who is the greatest banjo master in the world, took this and played seven tracks.
We’ve spent hours and hours on production, making the album to the highest levels of production quality. Having done that, the whole vision then became about why wouldn’t we want every child to experience that hug?
Why wouldn’t I want to share it with everyone, including your grand nephews and nieces? So that you could sing those songs that are part of our connection and our childhood. I want to inspire people to sing songs like that to their grandchildren.
I’ll tell you a story: The engineer, when we were recording this song, said, “I want to tell you that, for the first time, you gave me the strength to sing. I’ve been singing these songs, and I’m thinking of having your album to sing with my son.”
And another senior woman had tears pouring down when listening to it. She said, “I wish my mother had sung to me this way.” This is about intergenerational love, sharing, and opening your heart out.
Everyone has talents, and children may not be able to tell a note from another, but let’s all sing together and give a hug. That’s why I call it Ammu, it has a hug for the world.