Music Is the Breath of Her Life
Businesswoman and Grammy-nominated musician Chandrika Tandon talks music, religion, business and the future of Hinduism in America
BY LAVINA MELWANI, NEW YORK
THE DAUGHTER OF A FATHER WHO WAS A BANKER AND A MOTHER who played the veena, Chandrika Krishnamurthy Tandon grew up in Chennai in a large joint family. As in all middle-class Indian homes, education was very important. Hers was also a family which loved music. “In those days we used to have frequent power cuts—and whenenever that happened, the three of us—my brother, my sister and I—would sit and sing,” she recalls. “We didn’t care how long the power cuts lasted!” Eventually the three overachieving siblings came to America: sister Indra Nooyi is now chairperson and CEO of Pepsico; brother Narayanan is in hedge funds and Chandrika heads Tandon Capital Associates.
After graduating from the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, Chandrika was a partner at the corporate consulting firm McKinsey and Company before founding Tandon Capital Associates in 1992. She has restructured many companies, and her name is well known on Wall Street. She is also active in the world of education, serving on the Board of Trustees of New York University, the Board of Overseers of NYU Stern School of Business, the Dean’s Council of NYU Wagner School of Public Service and the President’s Council on International Activities at Yale University.
Yet, for Chandrika, the interconnected worlds of music and religion are never far away. Her Krishnamurthy Tandon Foundation (with assets of $14 million as of 2011) has set up a chair for Contemporary Studies in Hinduism at Yale University. It is also one of the founding members of the Hindu Community Outreach Program at the Queens Hindu Temple, supporting large-scale community activities for seniors and children. In 2011, in addition to $1.5 million for the chair, the foundation made grants of $156,000 to the Art of Living Foundation, $142,000 to the American India Foundation and lesser sums to numerous community and educational organizations.
To offset the challenges of her day job in the financial world, Chandrika turns to yoga and her childhood love of music. She explains, “I am a vegetarian. I meditate and do pranayama and kriyas every day. My goal this year is to improve the frequency of my yoga practice. I believe in a disciplined, sattvic lifestyle, even though following it is quite a challenge. These practices are like brushing one’s teeth every day—except I brush away negativities and clean my mind. It is incredible that we have these practices available to us.”
Chandrika’s music brought her to international attention in an unexpected way, almost by accident, when she had to decide what to give her father-in-law—who already had everything—on his 90th birthday. She decided to give him a life-affirming mantra, “Om Namasivaya,” specially set to music for him and recorded in her own voice. All who heard it loved it and encouraged her on her musical journey. Music had always been a passion for her, but as in many Indian families, it had always taken a back seat to education and work. Still, she managed to study with a master of Indian classical music and became an accomplished composer and vocalist. Chandrika’s journey has taken her to many major international concert halls to interact with new audiences, all hungry for the magic of her songs and chants.
Her second release, the album “Soul Call,” topped the music charts and was nominated in 2011 for the Grammy in the category of World Music. That collection of devotional songs, based on the mantra “Om Namonarayana,” brought her many new fans around the globe who were moved by the songs’ healing power—from expectant mothers to the ailing and even those facing death. The experiences have been moving.
Chandrika’s latest effort, “Soul March,” brought 75 Indian and Western musicians together, using ancient and modern instruments, to record Gandhiji’s favorite bhajan, “Raghupati Rahgava Raja Ram.” This was the anthem of the Salt March during the Freedom Movement in India. Says Chandrika, “Every one of us is on a quest—seeking freedom. Soul March is a tribute to all those journeys.”
All her albums are produced by Soul Chants Music, a not-for-profit label she set up to partner with over 60 organizations including hospitals, universities and nonprofits so that proceeds from album sales go to benefit health and education. She says of the chants: “It is the vibrations—it’s a journey into yourself. You have to open yourself and take the journey. Your voice is the vehicle, a platform. When I’m four hours into music, I’m unshakeable—I’m so grounded.” One reviewer put his reaction this way: “I’m not sure how she does it, but Chandrika makes music that is good for the soul. Somehow it just makes me feel better.”
At this point, I will let Chandrika tell her own story:
Can you talk about your Hindu influences growing up?
We grew up in a very traditional middle-class household in Chennai, which was rife with prayers and rituals. While I did not understand them fully then, it became second nature to pray to God for everything, before everything, and offer thanks after everything. We also explored devotion through music as we memorized large bodies of prayers, such as the Vishnu Sahasranamam or the Suprapatham, by listening to All India Radio every single day.
But I also went to a Catholic convent school and studied the Bible, Christian scriptures, and had a picture of Jesus Christ alongside the Hindu aspects of Divinity. I also had close Muslim friends. I never thought about religion as dividing. I was always curious about the teachings of the other religions.
In a sense, my upbringing made me embrace what I consider one of the primary tenets of Hinduism and of spirituality—that the paths to Divinity are many; that people worship many Gods, but we honor all of them; and that we respect each other. Later on, as I have now worked with meditation, pranayama and spiritual practices for years, I am viscerally beginning to understand that God is inside of us in the form of light and bliss—”Chidananda roopa shivoham shivoham” [the refrain from Adi Shankara’s famed song Atmastakam composed in the 8th century ce, literally rendered as, “I am consciousness and bliss. I am Shiva, I am Shiva.”
Your thoughts on religious rituals and spirituality?
The division between ritualism and spirituality has really bothered me. Growing up, it seemed like the traditional way we were raised was very ritualistic. We were expected to follow rules without ever having a real understanding of why. I would rebel against why women could not do some things. But as I learn more, I begin to see how moving, beautiful and profound our rituals are. Over the last several years, I have intensively incorporated Vedic spirituality based on the Vedic way of life.
I have incorporated pranayama, meditation, community service, yoga, reading and chanting as an integral part of my life. This has deepened my connection to myself, to others and to my religious roots. Hinduism is one of the only religions that requires you to undergo a process of self-discovery—to find out who you are and feel the Brahman—and these practices allow us to have glimpses of that experience.
How hard is it to raise a family in the US as Hindus, and what do you think is the future for Hinduism in America?
It was a challenge raising my daughter with strong religious foundations—though I worked hard to do so. I dream of a day when we will have a set time for worship—like a Sunday church routine. I dream of these routines incorporating Sunday School as well as parental discourses and group chanting. I wonder whether we should create learning and support programs for youth and young adults who struggle with life in all its dimensions. I wish there was almost a standard textbook and a national course/graduation—much like the bar mitzvah. We need to create organized community service programs and chaplaincy programs and follow the karma yoga aspect of our teachings.
These suggestions may seem heretical, but for kids in the US who grow up without the osmosis of Hindu culture all around them (as it is in India), it is especially important to create structure and belonging. Traditional temples alone will not be enough. Many smaller groups are working on pieces of this in different communities. Many religious gurus teach parts of different philosophies and have their own structures. We all need to come together without ego and create a national approach. I believe there is a crying need for that.
What would be your wish list for young Hindus? I wish there was a way that we can induct all the young Hindus into the practices of spiritual background of Vedic rituals. Most of them are so beautiful, so moving and so profound. We need to make spirituality an integral part of a Hindu upbringing. I wish meditation, pranayama, chanting, yoga and service were simply rites of passage for all young Hindu children, in addition to the prayer rituals and rites. I wish all Hindu temples had mentoring and community service arms which invite participation by the young and old—so we can practice seva and karma yoga in addition to bhakti yoga. I also wish knowledge sessions were de rigueur so we could easily practice jnana yoga. This is especially important outside India; and the US can be a model for Indians as well.
On a musical march: Chandrika Tandon in concert with the seniors’ choir at Lincoln Center, New York.
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How do you reconcile your business world and spirituality? Naturally, my view of business is altered by spirituality, but the two worlds are not in conflict except in terms of time commitments. I would love to dedicate a lot more time to meditation, yoga, music and sattvic living. Business, social and philanthropic commitments occupy a lot of my time, and it’s challenging and often very hard to allocate that.
On the other hand, my spiritual practices have changed the way I view people, problems and relationships; they have altered my view of success and perfection in both life and business. I have become a lot more centered and able to let go of outcomes and concentrate on the work and the journey. My spiritual practices also make me realize viscerally how much the Divine is of everything we do.
Tell us about the Hindu Choir? An Indian choir was challenging because, in traditional Hindu worship, singing together and worshiping together is not a common practice. It’s more of an individual act. The music favors solos as opposed to harmonies and group singing. I was inspired to start the choir because of the joy I encountered with gospel choirs in Harlem and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The temple choir is a means of combining Western choral and harmonic traditions with ancient Indian chants and ragas and bringing together a community in music.
The choir itself has been a bonding of the community. The seniors show up every Sunday in the harshest of weather, sometimes taking many forms of transport in an unfamiliar country. It makes you appreciate the awesome power of music to bind and heal. We have included everybody. There are no judgments on whether anyone is good or not. Everyone is perfection. Everyone is there to experience the Divine through music. But they work very hard!
We have worked on complex texts—from the Navagraha Stotra (a prayer to the nine planets) to Devi Sutras, Ashtakams, Shatkams and chants. Now these are sung all the time by the members. Singing makes it easier to remember. It is truly enthralling to hear a group of dedicated non-singers, 50-85 years old, sing with enthusiasm, devotion and utter joy. A community of love is born. What a gift to be able to be able to teach and share, and be enveloped in this love!
What’s the outlook for Indian music in the West? Indian classical music is a very nuanced and complex topic. There are different levels of understanding and appreciation one can have. On one hand, you can lose yourself in the experience when you hear the great masters. But it takes years to understand the subtleties and appreciate the mastery of notes, rhythm and improvisation that goes into a brilliant performance. We need to create music appreciation courses to explain, simplify and make it accessible to the West—even though already there are many thousands of aficionados. This is particularly true of vocal music. Even after years of training, I still learn so much when I sit with seasoned musicians. It is a vast ocean.
Both here and in India there is a crop of talented young musicians who are rocking the world of classical music. Some have had the traditional gurukul upbringing with their masters for years. Then you have a few that were born in the US and have made Indian music their passion and career. It will be exciting to see what these people produce in the years to come—as their prism is a world where much more of the global music is integrated through YouTube and Facebook. The more popular genres like Bollywood music are much more accessible to the Western audiences, and interesting collaborations are happening. Exciting times are ahead!
What was the inspiration behind Soul March? I have always loved the traditional bhajan “Raghupathi Raghava Raja Ram,” so beloved in India and associated with Gandhi’s Salt March of 1930. The Salt March—a ten-day nonviolent protest made by thousands of people to challenge the British salt monopoly in colonial India—sparked a revolution of freedom-seekers in India. It is an inspiration for everyone, from every walk of life, from every part of the globe. It inspires a universal message of freedom, that we are all seeking freedom in ways big and small, from different things.
A few years back, Chandrika decided to balance her business life and religious life, a decision that bore fruit in a successful side career in music
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In the Indian Vedic tradition, aspects of Divinity are brought to life through personification. Each aspect has a name and a description. Most people have their favorites. The aspect of Divinity that is perfect wisdom, goodness and a perfect human being is typically called “Rama” or “Ram,” a popular name, which means the light within (ra—light; mama—within).
My quest, particularly with Soul March, is part of my own journey inside to find my light and to inspire listeners to find the light within themselves. It is also an expression of my musical freedom to take a much-loved popular hymn and reinterpret it with different musical genres. Finally, in doing this I pay tribute to all the journeys of people who seek freedom and want to express their voice.
What is remarkable about this chant? The musical evolution on each track happened almost on its own. Though I have trained in Hindustani classical music under the greatest masters for years, and Carnatic masters as well, my personal musical world is full of many global rhythms and melodies. I live in New York City and have listened to jazz, classical, hip hop and, of course, rock and roll for years. I have also lived in Brazil and in many parts of Europe and Asia. I learned languages such as French and Portuguese through music. So I am always finding connections between ragas and tunes and creating my own when I hear amazing grooves. This composition journey was just that. Orchestrally and rhythmically I went for different genres. For example, we used the saxophone, piano, guitar and cello, but equally worked with ancient instruments like the dugdubi, ektara and esraj, as well as the traditional sarod and sitar. Over 75 musicians came together to record this, so you naturally see the richness of the sounds across the global panorama of music.
How have the Western musicians you work with responded to the challenges of Indian music, which is so much more complicated in scales and time? Have you dumbed it down for them, or are they rising to it? During the recording and the performances, the Western musicians would use words and phrases like “entranced” and “blown away” to describe their experiences. It was quite a challenge for them to create beautiful movements within strictly structured raga rules, and they did so beautifully. Our live performances are joyous events. Even the recording sessions were a blast! They would evolve into impromptu concerts.
My goal in Soul March and all my albums is to share the music in a way that reaches a lot of people and lets them sing along and find the light within themselves. I am not here to express my virtuosity by complex improvisations and movements that only the aficionados can grasp. I do not dumb down the music so much as arrange it simply so everyone can sing along. But I am a purist in my raga interpretations. My masters will tell you that!
Are you working a lot with improvisation, or is your music planned out in advance? The compositions I record are created, composed and arranged with a lot of thought before they are recorded. I look for interesting and unusual ways to compose the song while still keeping the raga essence intact. However, when I perform live, I take a lot of liberties with the melodies. Indian classical music is so beautifully sophisticated. You can express different moods when you improvise, and it is a joy to let the feelings of the moment take over and have a musical conversation with the instrumentalists as well.
How is music a religious practice for you? Music harmonizes me as a person. It is hard to be down when you are singing. Intensive practice is meditation. It is like quieting one’s mind and internal chatter for concentrated periods of time. It permeates all aspects of my being. Keeping a focused, calm and centered mind is, to me, the most important attribute of living my everyday life. Music enables me to get there most of the time.
The best music comes when I don’t exist. I see this again and again—in myself and others. I am on a quest to lose myself. It is accelerating the inner transformation to find the light inside, and stay in. And it affects all parts of my life—my business, my family, my friendships, everything.
Music has made me understand perfection in a wholly different way. Having spent a lifetime striving for perfection, you really understand you are perfection today, right now, right here—that different people make different forms of music, and they are all beautiful and perfect. If the forest were only filled with nightingales, it would be a very boring forest indeed. This has become the prism with which I view my whole life and others around me—there is no judgment!
Also as I have been doing research for my music—to find verses, prayers, mantras and correct translations for my albums, my performances and my choir—I have now embarked on an intensive study of the Vedic scriptures and Sanskrit. It has been an extraordinarily enriching process of discovery—to dig deep into the works of Adi Sankara, or the Vedic mantras, or the major samhitas and slokas. I am definitely connecting with my roots in a much more spiritual way through my music.
LAVINA MELWANI is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications and blogs at www.lassiwithlavina.com. Follow her on Twitter @lassiwithlavina.