CHANDRIKA TANDON: CONNECTING THE DOTS OF COMMONALITY
Chandrika Tandon, successful businesswoman, singer, composer and philanthropist, shares her philosophies on living a life that is reflected through a prism of spirituality, mindfulness and deep kindness.
Every once in a while, we meet someone who is new to our circle of influence, a person whom we’ve neither previously known about, nor met or talked to before. But once the introduction is made, that person becomes a welcome beacon of light, a spark of inspiration that resonates on a spiritual plane and motivates us to break through and beyond our barriers, to rise above and do better. And not just for ourselves, but also for all of those we meet along our path.
Chandrika Tandon, highly successful businesswoman, composer and Grammy-nominated singer, is such a person, one whose inherently intimate philosophy and intrinsic motto on life is centred on a triangle of three key attributes: love, light, laughter. “This is what my life is about, what I am about,” she says. “I am love; I am in the light; and I always want to experience this sense of joy, this sense of laughter.”
Born in Madras, south India’s hub of culture, economics and education (the city is now called Chennai), in 1954, Tandon’s upbringing was rooted in the formalities of a traditional Indian home and immersed in the intricate mosaic of rituals that are handed down from generation to generation. “As the first child and the first girl, all of my family’s hopes were pinned to my success, especially as it related to a successful arranged marriage. My earliest memories are of my mother buying my trousseau,” Tandon says. “As the first daughter of a very large family, there was a lot of pressure to make a good marriage; it was an important issue for my family. If a good marriage was not made, everyone would be affected. Any friend of mine who came to the house was told that I would be engaged by the time I was 17 and married by the time I was 18.”
Contained but not subdued by this milieu, Tandon created her own dreams, ones that were wrapped in a world of poetry and a multitude of books. Sitting often with her elderly grandfather, who lived with the family, Tandon was exposed to many diverse and vaulted authors. “I had read most of the works of Shakespeare by the time I was 14,” she says. “I memorized several hundred poems in long form, many of which I still remember.”
At some point, however, Tandon rebelled against the all-encompassing rules of her traditional upbringing. Not even sure what the boundaries were, she wanted to break them. She wanted to study commerce at school, and even more shockingly, she wanted to attend a men’s school, her father’s alma mater, in fact, to do so. But that option, at least in the beginning, was not available to her
The principle of light
Horrified by her daughter’s burning desire to attend a school full of boys (girls and boys were not allowed to mix in those days), Tandon’s mother adamantly refused to cede to her daughter’s wish. But Tandon, who was determined to actualize her dreams and break away from her family’s confining rules, went on a hunger strike. Her lobbying efforts were aided by Sister Mary Nessan, the headmistress of the Catholic missionary school that Tandon attended. “Sister Nessan, dressed in a white habit, came in a little black car to my house and spoke to my mother, begging her to let me go to the prestigious business program at Madras Christian College,” Tandon says. “‘This child will not grow wrong, you shouldn’t worry,’ she told my mother. Sister Nessan was definitely a mentor to me.”
Allowing their daughter to attend a co-ed college was a huge concession and a significant departure from the rules for Tandon’s parents. But between their daughter’s hunger strike, dramatic crying and Sister Nessan’s encouragement, they finally relented: Madras Christian College it was. To understand the significance of this accommodation and just how unbending the rules were in those days, the cycle of family pushback was repeated all over again when Tandon later wanted to attend the Indian Institute of Business Management. At this school, Tandon, who had been awarded several scholarships and was one of only a few hundred selected from the thousands of applicants (being accepted was like winning the Nobel Peace Prize), was also one of the youngest in her class.
“When you start to look at boundaries, your whole world vision changes,” Tandon says. “But when you don’t look at boundaries, everything seems connected, everything seems possible.”
After graduating, Tandon started to branch out. Armed with an MBA, she arrived in New York in 1978 for an interview at McKinsey Consulting Firm (now McKinsey & Company) in the middle of one of the city’s worst snowstorms on record. Never having seen snow before, Tandon had to borrow a winter coat from a professor’s wife. As a naive and hopeful immigrant, she had only brought three saris with her. “I weighed only 110 pounds at the time, and the coat I borrowed was a size 12,” Tandon says with a laugh. “I went to a series of interviews in one of my three silk saris. I don’t think that the people I was speaking with had ever interviewed anyone who had not had an American education before, especially at my age.”
Interviewing successfully, Tandon accepted a position at McKinsey, where she specialized in transforming and rebuilding businesses, improving them from top to bottom. Highly successful in her role, Tandon became the first Indian- American woman to be elected partner at the firm. “Transformation became my mantra, my obsession,” she says.
After many years of hard work and a burgeoning and deep-seated interest to invest in the companies that she was transforming, Tandon left McKinsey and created her own firm, Tandon Capital Associates, in 1992, where her phenomenal ability to create holistic transformation with measurable impact created billions of dollars in market capital. “My mission was to invest in these businesses, where we affected transformation for long-term value,” Tandon says. “Basically, I would pack up and go and live with a company’s CEO for six to eight months. Name a place, and I have lived there.” (Tandon, who is somewhat proficient in seven languages, is fluent in three.)
But in 2002, just as Tandon was about to sign a seismically significant deal, one that would have taken her to a whole new level of material success and verification, she was paralyzed by what she calls a “crisis of spirit.” In the centre of the storm, there was a vortex of unrelenting questions that demanded spiritual answers. “I couldn’t sign the contract; I was completely paralyzed,” Tandon says.
While Tandon’s at-the-crossroads-of-life crisis was theoretically not a breakdown, it was close enough to it that she was motivated to take stock of her life, to take an honest and probing look at the direction her life was going. “For 24 hours I could do nothing,” Tandon says. “I couldn’t even sign the major deal that I was supposed to. While I had everything I could possibly need, inside there were a lot of ups and downs, a criss-cross of emotions — a constant judging of myself that I was not good enough, a constant sense of not doing enough and doing too much,” she says. “This crisis of spirit, as I called it, made me evaluate what I was about, why I was put on this planet. That began a whole exploration into what made me happy.”
“I CREATED A PLACE FOR MYSELF WHERE I COULD CONNECT TO A MUCH BIGGER PLACE, A PLACE WHERE I AM MUCH MORE THERE THAN I AM NOT THERE”
From the eye of the storm, Tandon asked herself the hard questions: What made her happy? What excited her about life? What did success really mean to and for her? And most poignantly, if she died tomorrow, was she doing exactly what she should be doing? Those were the questions that needed to be answered honestly. And it was from this new place of rectitude and light that Tandon realized that she wanted — and needed — to rejig the way she was spending her time, especially as it related to her role in the business world.
“I created a place for myself where I could connect to a much bigger place, a place where I am much more there than I am not there.”
The tenets of light and love
As a child, Tandon had many jobs, but she remembers none of the details. What she does remember, however, are the songs that she sang. In fact, as a child, Tandon won a host of prizes for her singing. But that was before she got immersed in her high-profile, day-to-day deal-making, which allowed very little time for passions and intimate pleasures. “As I began to examine my life, to reevaluate the direction I was going, I realized that the times when I was happiest were the times when I was singing. And with that realization came the earth-shattering question: ‘If singing was what made me so happy, why wasn’t I doing it?’ I realized that I just wanted to sing,” Tandon says. “I decided to take singing lessons to get better for myself. To sing just to sing. I also started to read voraciously and to ask questions of my friends and colleagues to further myself forward.”
And as is usually the case when we come to a place open-hearted and ready to embrace new experiences, when the student is ready, the teacher appears. A series of unexpected events presented themselves to Tandon: teachers — masters, in fact — who Tandon would not normally have had a chance to meet, people with such mastery that their time cannot be bought in the classical “lessons” sense, suddenly presented themselves through what seemed like a happenstance of serendipitous circumstances. Her passion to actualize her “soul call” was so great that Tandon would regularly get up at 3 a.m. to drive to singing lessons and then return home to be with her infant daughter, Lita.
It all came together in a dovetail of destiny when Tandon, flummoxed for an idea as to what to buy her father-in-law for his 90th birthday, decided to record (over two days) a CD for him, Soul Mantra (2006 and reissued in 2016), which unwittingly launched her music career. This was followed by Soul Call (2009), which was the product of Tandon’s deep spiritual work. At the time she was creating this music, Tandon was memorizing and digesting sacred Sanskrit prayers, including an important chant from ancient Indian texts — the eight phonemes: Om Na Mo Na Ra Ya NaYa. “This is a powerful healing mantra that works to cleanse the eight vital centres of the body,” Tandon explains.
Her aim has always been to convey joyous, universally appealing music by using her Indian roots as a basis. Soul Call went on to garner, through a series of organic circumstances, both a tsunami of positive attention and a Grammy nomination. “I was blown away; it was amazing. I was in the Grammy box with my heroes, Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66,” Tandon says. “If I started to connect the dots right now, I can’t even begin to imagine what the universe made happen.”
The prism from which Tandon views the various parts of her life has changed efficaciously. While the early days required a lot of hard work to uncover her spiritual core, Tandon’s connectivity to her spirituality is now the norm, one that is deeply and fundamentally tied to her meditation and breath work. After immersing herself in a series of 10-day meditation retreats, Tandon’s focus on garnering deeper insights into herself was sharpened. These were skills that would deepen this singer and highly successful businesswoman’s spiritual resolve and spiritual lightness. “We don’t understand how damaged we are as we go through life’s ups and downs, and our emotions,” Tandon says. “But I connected with my unbounded self, the pathway to light. I think one of the biggest losses for all of us is that we don’t explore all the dimensions of our form.”
In fact, meditation, which Tandon is extremely scrupulous about, is the gateway to her musical pathway and intent. “My meditation practice is profound for me,” she says. “You cannot sing well in Indian music unless your mind is quiet. There is a great deal of focus on being tranquil. I have a strong yearning to learn songs that call on a higher power. I have wanted it so badly, and the music is my vessel to get there.”
Continuing to collaborate with a huge breadth and musical diversity of musicians
Tandon’s quest is centred on connecting the dots, the different parts of her musical life. Shivoham — The Quest, released in 2017, is a musical expression of Tandon’s entire journey. She performed it at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in November 2019. It features world-class instrumentalists and choirs who weave together a harmony of ancient Sanskrit mantras and English prayers, Western modes, Indian ragas, African and Spanish styles, jazz, Gregorian chants and personal stories. “It is a musical journey to transcendence, one that radiates peace, love and blessings for the planet,” Tandon says. “I am very curious to explore the commonalities that bridge different cultures and different works. I want people to be able to sing along. We are all on the same journey toward the continuous light, toward a higher light, a higher point. The music is a reflection of that.”
Tandon’s voice, resonant of wind chimes gently tinkling in the air on a breezy spring day, is one that is poised to awaken a sense of peace, serenity and new life in those who are spiritually connected.
And while music is an overriding passion and purpose in her life, Tandon continues to stay connected to both her businesses as well as her philanthropic endeavours. In 2015, she and her husband, Ranjan, gifted New York University’s Polytechnic School of Engineering (now called NYU Tandon School of Engineering) with a $100-million endowment because of their attitude toward helping people actualize their dreams.
“I was in New York in 1977, and I called the university to enquire about their PhD program,” Tandon says. “I was so blown away with how welcome, inclusive and open the people there were. They invited me to study with them. The school has a high proportion of first-generation students and women, and I am committed to helping transform generations by investing in education, especially technology, to help create solutions for society’s biggest global challenges.”
Describing herself as a super type A and highly analytic, Tandon feels her spiritual journey has opened up many more personal dimensions. She is vice-chairman of the board of trustees at New York University and chair of the board of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. She also serves on the NYU Business School and NYU Langone Health System boards. On the artistic side, Tandon is a member of the board of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the Berklee College of Music’s Presidential Advisory Council.
A recipient of many awards for integrity and leadership, Tandon has received the Gallatin Medal, New York University’s highest honour for outstanding contributions to society; the Walter Nichols Medal for leadership and integrity; and the Polytechnic Medal, recognizing her involvement in science and engineering.
The axis of love, light and laughter
Tandon’s daughter, Lita, whom she refers to as a “whole person” and the love of her life, is one of her greatest gifts. “She has become one of my greatest teachers; she has helped me see a lot of dynamics and has helped me become a better mother,” Tandon says. “My grandson, Kavi, who is 19 months old, is the other love of my life.”
The gifts and the teachings that Tandon espouses are centred in the concepts of living a conscious life, of stepping back to ask ourselves the questions that will in turn provide the definitive answers to our passions and purpose in life. “The chores of life are overwhelming, so to step back to ask the questions takes a lot of effort. But you have to explore all the dimensions of yourself. You have to ask the questions — ‘Why am I here?’ – and have a deep curiosity about those questions. If I hadn’t asked those questions of myself, my life would have been very different,” Tandon says. “We all have the opportunity to explore great extensions of ourselves. I wish this so deeply for every one of us, to get to that freedom that gifts us with love, laughter and light. We can change more than a single generation — we can change several,” she says. “The prism through which you view your entire being is very powerful. It has been a profound journey that I am so grateful for.”