Chandrika Tandon: If You Don’t Do What You Can Do With Your Money, What’s The Point?
By NIMMI RAGHUNATHAN
Most people you speak to have a job and probably a hobby making it easy to spread questions around whatever has made them successful. But Chandrika Tandon presents all kinds of challenges: One among just eight women in her class at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad; the first Indian American woman to become a partner at McKinsey & Company, founder of Tandon Capital Associates a financial advisory firm in the business of creating billions in market value for clients; philanthropist who gives away millions including, with husband Ranjan the founder of the hedge fund Libra Advisors, a cool $100 million to New York University’s School of Engineering; promoter of education and mentor to several students in STEM studies; writer and composer; singer with a Grammy nomination who has also previously been in leadership positions at the Berklee School of Music and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; spiritualist and meditator; wife; mother to one “precious” daughter who heads Sesame Ventures at Sesame Workshop and son-in-law a prosecutor at Southern District of New York; and more recently, a delighted grandmother of three to Kavi 5, Jahnu 3, and Amaya 4 months.
Important: each role is approached at full tilt.
While the material world is more easily quantifiable and visible, the other aspects are not so much…unless it is Tandon. She is remarkably grounded for someone who leads a life schmoozing with the rich and powerful. Beautifully dressed and coiffed, her best may yet be her eyes which crinkle and gleam. She smiles, cries (yes!), snows you down with her fluency, and through it all exudes a kindness that goes beyond mere words. She strives consciously to be this person, to make it her second nature; it would seem she is coming out a winner in this too.
So, where to go with this interview? What is there to ask that would be new for the reader? She has done so many over the years that like all those who frequently deal with the media, she too has the practiced ability to spin the same stories for varied audiences without giving much more away. Finally, you shrug and decide to have a conversation with her about her just-released music album Ammu’s Treasures, a collection of 35 children’s songs and 21 chants which she declares, is “a hug for the world.” And therein peeked through the woman she really is. Excerpts:
Why Ammu’s Treasures
When my first grandchild was born, I would sing lullabies to him. He would calm down so much that my daughter would tell me not to sing to him at odd times or he would fall asleep! He began to call me ‘Ammu.’ I would take him to the prayer room and sing little shlokas. When he was 18 months old, I caught him on his little bike reciting ‘Shamno Mitra,’ (a Shanti Mantra) in his own lilt, but the rhythm was right. He was hungry for more music, and I began singing my childhood songs. Bedtime became two hours long! Then my second grandchild came along and was drawn into what we already had. So, I thought I should leave this for them, even when I am not there. It is just me sharing my childhood. It’s intergenerational love and nostalgia in song.
On the making
I went to record with five musicians, but they said don’t you think we need a cello? Then someone wanted a tuba, then better drums. Each musician wound up calling other musicians and suddenly there were 17 maestros doing the recordings. One began by saying that he doesn’t usually do this kind of stuff but after hearing the tracks he said he didn’t care what anyone else said, he was in. Ammu’s Treasures became not just about my love for my grandchildren but everyone’s love for children.
Reinterpreting iconic melodies
I was just being me; it comes from the deepest recesses of my heart. When I am singing these songs, I am not channeling anyone but only what I am feeling. When I sing, ‘Hush little baby’ I really want them to quiet down. Same thing with arrangements. No musician was looking to imitate anyone. One might say how dare you change the classic ‘Scarborough Fair’ by Simon and Garfunkel. But I really wanted to sing it.
Reinterpreting traditional lyrics
‘I will bring you flowers in the morning’ is really a love song but I would sing it to my grandchildren like hey, don’t get mad at me and the next morning they would ask if I had got them the flowers! ‘Wish you could be here’ by Paul Simon became a love song between grandparent and child. Love after all is such a universal emotion. When I sang ‘Hole in the bucket’ I used the names Kavi and Jhanu instead of Liza and Henry.
Most people hear an air conditioner, I hear a tonic scale. Musical insanity! I remember being in a business meeting, fully participating, when one person turned to me and asked, ‘Chandrika are you humming under your breath?!’ I am composing all the time. While I didn’t compose many of the original tunes in this album, I spent an enormous amount of time putting the pieces of music together – do I use a piano or cello, what bars of the cello, where does the break happen? All my compositions are around ragas, (she has trained with several Hindustani masters) but I am not going to take raag Malkauns and go off on a scale, or if I do it, it will be a deliberate decision. Which is to say it allows me to meander in an informed way.
Attraction to a piece of music
I think I am drawn to ragas which speak to me lyrically. I am always looking for harmony.
We all have holes in our hearts. In some cases, the holes are bigger, in some cases we have found ways to close them. When we don’t find a way to close them, it turns into depression. People don’t always have the tools to clear the first levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy. My work is about economic empowerment and emotional empowerment. I involve myself in education which will get people economically powerful, and I have chosen hugging and healing through music. I say Ammu’s Treasures is for children but a very successful lady I met cried while hearing it and wished her mother had sung for her – that was the hole in her heart. Life is not just sweetness and light, and it was a difficult choice but I included the song ‘Polly Van’ which is about the tragedy of a gun accident, and ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone’ in which people go to war and die. Every song I have tried, in my notes, to draw a higher message. ‘The woodpecker’s song,’ for instance. Have you ever heard a woodpecker? It’s the most ridiculous sound! But the message is that nature has many sounds, and they are in harmony, so let’s not judge.
Spirituality & music
To sing well the mind has to be in a very quiet place. The concept of spirituality to me is to be in that space…music has helped me find that quiet space.
Chants in the album
When I was little, whenever you started anything you would always take a prayer to Ganesha. It wasn’t even so much a prayer as much as acknowledging there is something else guiding you. So, I started there and wanted to end the section with gratitude. The journey was through the chants of gods, goddesses, and guru. Raghavendra Swami was my father’s guru. Over 40 years we have been involved with the temple, built pilgrim dorms, and old age people’s homes. In my early stages, the image of this saint was very big, I could hang on to it when I needed support. Increasingly, as I have got in touch with my own light, it’s much easier to embrace something much bigger.
On what ‘light’ means
We spend our time calling out to different gods and people but ultimately, we have to open ourselves and find the light within us. We are fullness, ‘Poornamadhah Poornamidham’ and the more abundant we are, the more abundance grows. ‘Bhadram Karnebih’ is a plea to not see or hear evil, but to stay centered. A lot of problems in the world are of the mind. People who do bad things aren’t all bad people. They have had bad experiences and haven’t found ways to overcome them, whether it is PTSD or something else. What we need is a lot of compassion. And we can’t have compassion for others unless we have compassion and love for ourselves. Light is when you feel free and feel love.
On what guides her
I went to a Catholic school and at one point considered becoming a nun. I was deeply drawn to philosophy and studied the Testaments and the Gospels. Most of the class went to Moral Science, which was more secular, but I took this intense study. Then, a couple of decades ago I had what I call a ‘crisis of the spirit.’ I had to understand who I was and investigated for about two years. I studied everything I could, Christianity, Kabbala, I met Imams and of course many, many gurus. Then, as Rumi said, when you take one step, the Divine takes ten steps toward you. There was a universal synchronicity that worked for me. I rededicated my life; I said I wanted to be with music and service. I didn’t know what it meant. I went to NYU and said I wanted to help and… that’s how it all started.
How she practices her learning
I changed the way my life was. I have a very clear practice of meditation and a practice of expressing gratitude and that means different things at different times. When I sing, I am meditating, deep within myself. When I teach people to sing or am with students, I see God in them. That’s my spirituality. I don’t think of spirituality as reading a bunch of books or sitting on a mountaintop. I want to do things with a purity of purpose, not ‘lena-dena’ (transactional motive). It’s a privilege to be able to do that. When we lose that purity, we have to stop and rethink. I have done a lifetime of strategic reorientation of major corporations, but we don’t do strategic reorientation of ourselves. So periodic reassessment is critical for me. I don’t want to sleepwalk through life. Our runways are short. We might as well live like today’s our last. And be very intentional about it. Am I 100% there? No. But I am pretty high up there, I think.
Growing up & family
I was the oldest, so I had a very different experience than my siblings. Everything was a fight. I am from a very conservative Tam Brahm family. I was very controlled. We lived in Chennai in a large family. I left home really when I went to IIM Ahmedabad. I didn’t write home for so many days that my mother called my professor. It was my first experience of stepping away and it was an insane, incredible experience. After that, there was no question of anyone stopping me. When we siblings (a younger brother and sister Indra Nooyi, former head of Pepsi) get together we talk about our mother, we have war stories about family when all we cousins get together. There is so much laughter.
Kolhapuri chappals & McKinsey
While at Citibank, I was sent to Beirut, then I came to Calcutta, and then Bombay. I was always in a sari or salwar. I had gotten into many schools to do my PhD – Columbia, NYU, Univ of Chicago – when I met this lady from McKinsey. They flew me to NY in one of the worst winters. I still remember the sleeveless cream blouse and thin yellow saree I wore because for two days I shivered my way through the 16-17 interviews. To get to the office, I wore Kolhapuri chappals and a borrowed size 12 coat. I was size zero then. I was completely ridiculous but what was wonderful was that not one of them asked me whether I planned to change out of the clothes when I went to work for them.
I come from one of the simplest families, with the simplest middle-class values. Money was never my issue. When McKinsey gave me some $5,000 as my moving allowance, I spent it on a Martin guitar and stereo system. I was left with $100 to live on for the next month. I ate rice and coriander chutney most nights and I slept on a sheet, but I had a great guitar! It was a dream! I still have it. Everything I have got I have worked for. From my 20s to my 40s, I never saw the light of day, I just worked. When we got married, as we were putting our money together my husband asked how much money I had, and I really didn’t know. My mantra has been ‘impact.’ It was about what can be created with the institution we were working with. Money is wonderful, don’t get me wrong. It’s incredible to have, and it’s incredible to spend but after a point, it is not about counting. If you don’t do whatever you can do with it, what’s the point? We humans are crazy. We have x thousand and we feel poor, then we want y thousand. We must reorient our minds and say, ‘Stop it!’
I feel I have to use every single day, my time, talent, and treasure, in whatever combination the situation requires in the most impactful way possible. I cannot boil the ocean, but I can boil a couple of thimbles. I want to live an intentional life.
Life: A gift
Most important value: Integrity
Favorite Indian dish: Bisi Bela
Favorite Film: Sound of Music