Chandrika Tandon is a Grammy-nominated artist, a distinguished business leader, and a devoted humanitarian.
Chadrika Tandon’s name graces the NYU (Tandon) School of Engineering, but the true legacy she hopes to leave behind is not in the world of business or even philanthropy—she wants to pass on the intergenerational love as a heartfelt gift to her grandchildren.
Tandon’s considerable business experience includes being one of the earliest and youngest partners of McKinsey & Company, as well as founding and chairing her advisory firm, Tandon Capital Associates. She also chairs the Board of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. However, music has been an integral part of her life as she consciously integrated music, service, and meditation into her professional journey. As the driving force behind the non-profit music label, Soul Chants Music, she has released four albums, including the Grammy-nominated “Soul Call.” Her latest musical offering is her recently released album—”Ammu’s Treasures,” which she considers as a heartfelt gift to her grandchildren.
Chandrika Tandon’s dedication to music, education, and humanitarian causes continues to have an indelible impact both in the world of music and in her various ventures. Chandrika Tandon spoke to SEEMA about her inspirations, her professional and philanthropic work, her expansive repertoire of music and the heritage that she wants to pass on to future generations.
The songs and chants of your childhood served as inspiration for the album “Ammu’s Treasure.” Tell us a little about the album?
This is such a wonderful time in my life. “Ammu” is a term that means happiness and purity, which I didn’t know until we started to think about what my grandchildren should call me. My first grandchild is five, and I started to simply sing to him. I started with very simple Vedic chants, a few shlokas, as all good grandmothers do. We should leave behind something of ourselves with our next generations and that just evolved from one song to more chants. It is about giving to them as much as a global hug for the family. It’s a way that families can share and pass on the intergenerational love. That’s the feeling and the purpose of the album.
You refer to your latest album as a hug for all ages. What was the inspiration behind this album and the process of making this album?
This was so much fun. It really came out one night when I had been singing for almost two hours to my grandson. My voice was tired. I’d had a long day at work, but he’s like, “Ammu, you need to sing this nine times again.” And I’m thinking to myself, ‘We’ll do a little recording of it, maybe with a piano—let me leave it for him. Even if I’m not there, he’s going to be listening to it. That’s how the idea started. Then I called three people and we went into MASS MoCA in North Adams, MA and in this beautiful setting the four of us sat there with a couple of my friends and over three days I just belted out 35 songs and chants. The musicians then heard it and they said we really need a cello, a banjo and this could use a tuba. Then each musician called up another musician they knew and said, you got to be part of this. So that’s how “Ammu’s Treasures” grew. Then I went into their studio properly, put my voice down. Then each of these guys like Kenny Warner—a great jazz pianist, came into the studio and played whatever he wanted to express. Rakesh Chaurasia, flutist extraordinaire, he has played on Scarborough Fair. So we have a very eclectic amalgamation, which blends different world sounds. Everybody wanted to express what love they felt for the next generation or for somebody else. So this was all an expression of love. That’s how this album came about. That’s why I call it a hug to the world.
You have this deep connection to Indian classical music, how did that influence your life?
Music very simply helped me find myself. I discovered Hindustani classical and I worked with a lot of masters from Pandit Jasraj to Veena Sahasrabuddhe and Subhra Guha. I have had a lot of great teachers, but to sing and to find the note in Hindustani classical and to be at the level of sophistication and excellence, you have to calm your mind. I would find that I needed to do a lot of calming, to find the note. So music and my spirit really went hand in hand. So then little by little I learned ragas and I studied all the techniques of Hindustani music. This to me was finding myself, finding my spirit, finding out who is God, who am I, what is silence, how do I access that? So that’s been my whole journey over the last 23 years.
Your album, ‘Soul Call,’ which blends Indian classical music with other genres was nominated for the Grammy Awards. What inspired you to create this unique fusion?
My music has never been in one genre. I’ve trained in Hindustani music, I’ve trained in Carnatic music, I’ve trained in jazz, and I used to sing in western choirs. You name a pop song from the 60s and early 70s, I know them all. Then I sing in French, I sing in Portuguese, I have been singing all genres all my life. So when I think of music, I’m already thinking across boundaries. So for example, it’s much more apparent in my fourth album Shivoham. I blended a lot of the Dorian scale of some of these Gregorian chants together with beautiful Indian Hindustani ragas. The two come together very nicely, with the worlds of two different traditions. The way “Soul Call” happened was that one morning I was literally awakened by some force. I was hearing all these tunes in my head. These ragas, these amazing melodies and I kept hearing Om Namo Narayanaya. I started to record on my phone whatever was coming into my head. I called my teacher in India and asked do you recognize these scales? He said, ‘Oh, they’re quite sophisticated.’ So all of that reflected in this global vision. I think, “Ammu’s Treasures” is a further evolution of that.
You’ve been involved in a variety of industries, from finance to music. How have these diverse experiences shaped your perspective and approach to life and business?
I discovered two important dimensions of myself. The two dimensions I made a commitment to – the business life and also to pursue music, which was very important for my happiness. I did not go into music to perform. I didn’t go into music to be in the industry. I didn’t go into music to make an album. I went into music because I love singing, it makes me happy. I have been exposed to so much global music in my work career because every night after my work, I would hit the bar in Brazil and just go and listen to Brazilian music just as excitedly as I’ve listened to M.S. Subbulakshmi. So music was a dimension I chose to invest myself in. The other dimension, which I made a promise to invest myself in, was service. I should do something which is beyond me. That’s how I went to NYU, where I didn’t go to for school. I’ve never been to college in America. I went to NYU met the Dean of the Business School and I said, can I help? And he said, Oh yes, come on in and be what they call the distinguished Executive in Residence. He and I worked together to make the school better. All of that gave me different kinds of pleasures and I learned so much more about myself.
As a successful woman in both business and philanthropy, what do you believe are the keys to achieving a fulfilling and balanced life?
I think, at the end of the day, what each one does doesn’t matter. I had an extraordinarily wonderful business career. What made my business career exciting, were two things. One is that I worked with some extraordinary people over the years, which was an important outcome of what made it happy. And the second, which I think was critically important, is that I worked hard for impact. So that was my business life. The philanthropy, I don’t even want to think of it as philanthropy. I think of it as a privilege. There are so many institutions I’ve been involved with but NYU is my greatest, most deep involvement. I have learned so much about education, about the psyche of students, the brilliant faculty, I get to ask questions, get to share their thinking and get to introduce my ideas in reshaping the course of these iconic institutions. I’ll tell you one story which I’ll never forget. When we had given the big gift to the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, a young girl came to me and she said, “Miss Tandon, I want to thank you. I’m the second of three kids. My older brother is a drug addict. My mother is a housekeeper with three jobs. My father is a bus driver on disability. I’m the person who’s at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. I found a place where I belong.” I thought to myself, this is why we do what we do. We transform generations, we transform families, and we owe it to the people. So to me the possibility of engaging with time, talent and treasure is an extraordinary privilege.
What impact do you hope The Tandon School of Engineering at NYU will have on the future education?
If we lose a generation that doesn’t know how the world is getting transformed, we have really lost the possibilities of what a country can do. I think that’s really the opportunity that I saw when I invested in NYU. We can’t talk of happiness, we can’t talk of mental health, if people don’t have food on the table, or they have thousands of dollars of debt to repay and they’re dealing with anxiety. So I feel very strongly that we should make sure that the kids can have jobs, they learn the skills and that they can go out and serve the world. Our kids end up with some of the highest salaries when they graduate and we work very hard to make sure that that happens. So that to me is part of the economic transformation. Since I got engaged at the school, we have seen some of the highest percentages of students that are first in the family to go to college. It’s just a huge honor to be able to watch what’s happening to families as a result of this. When you have kids first in the family to come to college, it is an intergenerational gift. The first thing these kids do is go back and do things for their mother or their father or their grandparents. So I think the gift flows both ways.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects or initiatives you’re excited about other than ‘Ammu’s Treasures’?
There are so many at the moment, just on the musical front. Recently, I was at the World Culture Festival, working with two gigantic High school choirs, 250 kids and another 150 adults; talk of intergenerational and cross border. We had people from India and from Maryland High schools and I composed songs for them. ‘Vande Matram’ and ‘America the Beautiful’ coming together and to work with each one of them to get the accent of Sanskrit just right and the accent of English just right, is not a trivial task. It had these kids perform the chants from “Ammu’s Treasures.” I’m going to do the same thing in Panama in a few months, in India for another major Peace Festival. I have so many invitations, but my thrust that I’m focused on is not singing to people. I want to sing with groups of people. For about four years, I have conducted a community choir in Queens. I had an amazing group of people and the average age was about 75, of the people in that group. We have 100 people in that choir and I’ve got a repertoire of about 40 songs which I composed for them. These are extraordinary Sanskrit verses set to exquisitely beautiful choir pieces, which I now want to spread out to the world. I want everyone to sing it is such a joyous thing to do. It gives me so much joy and I want the whole world to share that gift with each other.
SIDE BAR 1
Advice to South Asian Women breaking into male-dominated fields
I will tell you from my own experience, I never walked into a meeting thinking I’m a woman, thinking I’m a woman of color, thinking I’m anything other than the best. So the single piece of advice I would give to any woman, particularly South Asian women, is that if you walk into a situation feeling disadvantaged, you will be disadvantaged. You’ve automatically given yourself a discount. When I’ve walked in there, I’ve always thought I’m the very best because I’ve done the work, I’ve thought about this and I’ve done the best I can. I spent a lifetime wearing this badge of a perfectionist with great honor. My mantra right now is – I am perfection. We are all perfection. I want to tell them all that they are perfection.
SIDE BAR 2
Chandrika Tandon’s Favorite Few
Dream duet partner – Bele Fleck or Kenny Werner
Go-to song on a tough day – Too numerous to name. Probably Killing Me Softly.
Beach vacation or mountain retreat – Beach vacation
Dinner with a historical figure – My grandfather. He died when I was 18, and I really would like to see him again
Favorite mantra or meditation practice – I do TM, Sudarshan Kriya, and Vipasana
If you could go back to an era – The 60s, my happy era. The music was amazing.
Unusual place to find musical inspiration – Air Conditioner. When I hear any buzzing sound I listen for the tonic scale
Favorite dish – Bisi Bela Hui with potatoes and any south Indian sweet with jaggery
Current book you’re reading – Complete Works of Vivekananda
Perfect day off – To have my grandchildren with me the whole day
Favorite city in the world – New York City. You’ll have to take me out of here.
‘Ammu’ is a term which means happiness, which means purity, which I didn’t know until we started to think about what my grandchildren should call me.”
“It’s a way that families can share and pass on the intergenerational love. That’s what the feeling and the purpose of the album.”
“Even if I’m not there, he’s going to be listening to it.”
“Music very simply helped me find myself.”
“My music has never been in one genre. I’ve trained in Hindustani music, I’ve trained in Carnatic music, I’ve trained in jazz, and I used to sing in western choirs.”
“The two dimensions I made a commitment to – the business life and also to pursue music, which was very important for my happiness.”
“There are so many institutions I’ve been involved with but NYU is my greatest, most deep involvement.”
“To me the possibility of engaging with time, talent and treasure is an extraordinary privilege. “