We spoke with Chandrika Tandon about the common ground between Eastern and Western musical traditions, why fear is at the root of insecurity, reconnecting with one’s body and making oneself a servant to others.
How can you even talk of peace and harmony for the world if you aren’t peaceful and harmonious inside yourself?
It’s been noted that you’ve been immersed in all kinds of music since your upbringing in Chennai, India. It would seem that Duke Ellington, Ray Charles and the Beatles would all owe themselves to the omnivorous muse as much as Indian classical music. I’m curious about your idea about a common ground in music – what’s the common ground in any style, from east to west?
I come from a basic training in Indian music, so what happens is that I listen to a lot of the Western music, too. Whether it’s jazz or classical, I’m looking for the notes and connections with all the different modes and what we call the ragas, in the Indian tradition. For example, the Phrygian dominant scale, which is a beautiful Western mode, is an exquisitely beautiful raga in the Indian scale. As is the Dorian scale, which is a very, very beautiful Western scale that they used in ancient Gregorian and Byzantine chants and is also a very prayerful Indian scale.
It’s very interesting to look for commonalities in how the notes move. The notion of a tonic bass note versus being able to more freely move into melodies and compositions. The other thing is the whole improvisational technique. There are a lot of differences between what jazz does and what Indian improvisation techniques do. It’s very interesting to observe what the differences are and how to observe them, then bring them together in some way that doesn’t jar and honors each of their spaces, but allows them to come together. You have to know both to play in both of those spaces.
I understand that the title of your latest album Shivoham simply means “I am Shiva,” correct?
I was just thinking about that, because it’s very spiritual music and we currently live in a quite anti-religious time. It seems like we’d rather leave those thoughts with wingnuts and extremists than consider any kernel of truth in it ourselves. What do you think about that subject?
That’s a very important question, and thank you for asking it! When we speak about our body, mind, spirit, how we feel and what perspective we have, we are not talking about religion. We are talking about the essence of who we are. So when you speak about the body, you’re not talking of having a Hindu body, Christian body, Jewish body or anybody – you are the body. So to me, finding your essence, your own self, there isn’t a religious piece to it, though there are many religions that have spoken about it at different times throughout history.
I think the most important quest for me is to find that place of light in which I could operate in. A place that brings me utter joy and radiance, where I feel the joy inside and can radiate it to other people. How can you even talk of peace and harmony for the world if you aren’t peaceful and harmonious inside yourself?
But the religious part comes in, because if you look at some of the ancient, ancient, ancient religions, they all spoke about a state that’s higher than yourself. Don’t you have ups and downs, Morgan, in terms of things that you do in your everyday life? So do I! We all do. We all want to be in a place beyond, a better space so we are not a football going up and down every moment about something good or something bad that happened. We want to be deep below, in a place that is just joyous. Wouldn’t you love to be in that space?
That, to me, is not a religious quest. It’s a quest for myself. It’s a quest for yourself. It’s a quest for all of us. It’s mankind’s quest. People have wanted this forever. That is why some people call it peace, some call it happiness, some call it money. We keep chasing it; I’ve done it for years. But I just didn’t quite know what I was chasing.
I’ve been very touched by your acts of charity and humanitarianism. What do you think is the solution to our current political horrors and global acts of violence, hatred and intolerance?
We relate back to our core issue. All these great leaders have said things like “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If you look at many of the acts of hatred and violence, inside someone who perpetrates that or believes something so fanatical lies a tortured person. A lot of what we really want is how to raise ourselves out of the torture, because sometimes what was a small torture ends up being something where you just lose yourself if you don’t have the tools, techniques or conditioning.
I would like to see two or three things happen. One is, I would really like to see people reclaiming their highest selves. As a nation, in schools and everywhere else in a globalized system, it’s “Your way or the highway.” There are so many parts to reclaiming your spirit and they’re all equally valid. There are so many practices, but you have to quiet the mind and quiet yourself down to know who you are.
So if I had to have a big wish for the planet, it would be that we are able to allow people or give people the tools and techniques, different menu options that people can just understand who they are. Because once you do, you’ll see that all you’re doing is wearing a series of bandages that all just need to be shed. These bandages keep us all separate from each other. Inside, we are one, we are so connected. I cannot truly be happy if the planet’s unhappy. You cannot truly be happy if the planet’s unhappy. We depend on each other. Peace and harmony are not something we do, they’re something we are.
What I say and think about and want so much for myself is that I can remove these bandages and shed the fears. Fear is at the root of a lot of our insecurities. You’re afraid of something. You’re afraid people won’t think you’re good enough if you don’t have enough. Fear is in all these negative, base emotions. We are so tortured by all of that that we forget to bask in ourselves.
A lot of my work over the last 44 years has been about making companies perform better. For each one, it’s a different set of tools. It’s like being a doctor, almost, for a company. That’s what management consulting is. Sometimes the company is very troubled, in which case the work as a doctor might just be to slim it down so that the troubles can be consolidated and some part of the company can be saved. In some cases, it’s finding a way for the company to find new avenues or new businesses to grow whatever business there is. In other cases, it’s merging with someone else so you can build a stronger team. There are so many solutions depending on the starting point of each institution.
But over the years, I’ve worked with over 60 financial institutions and other companies to essentially work with the management team, CEO and the boards to be a doctor or advisor while they are trying to get it done. You can’t do it for them as a consultant; you are not running the company. But you’re an advisor who spends a lot of time understanding the institution so that you can be helpful. The longer you do this, the more wisdom you accumulate yourself because you’re not bound by all the inside turmoils, politics and complexities. You’re able to have a very, very pure-eyed view of what is needed.
Please tell me about your upbringing. What were you like as a child, and how do you relate your experience then to your adult life?
What a great question! It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. When I was little, Morgan, I sang before I could speak. We came from a very simple family. My father worked for the bank and we had a lot of jobs to do in the house. I can’t remember a single job I did, but all I remember are what songs I was singing while I was doing the jobs. So music was everywhere. We had one radio station. You couldn’t pick and choose, saying “Oh, I want to listen to the jazz or the classical station!” It was one station. You heard whatever was played.
I would hear music going to and coming home from school. I was very regular in my studies, I did very well. But I was expected to be married when I was very young. I was the oldest child, which came with a lot of burdens and expectations, and because I was a woman I’d be married off at a young age and my parents would discharge their responsibilities. We weren’t allowed to go out. We didn’t have playdates. We didn’t have any of that. We were just at home. Our lives circled around our home.
I’ve been given a lot of gifts by the universe at this stage, and as long as I have them, my job is to serve.
I left Chennai 40 years ago, so it’s been a long time I’ve been out of there. But when I was growing up there, it was a very small town where it was safe to walk to school. You knew every family who lived there. I couldn’t take a different route coming home from school because somehow, somebody would have walked home and told my mother about it. It’s a very small town where everybody knew each other. Everyone was in each other’s business, in a good way. We had a very extensive family. The landscape of it was simplicity.
In the south of India, particularly Chennai, it never got quite Westernized. It stayed so traditional and pure in its rituals, customs and traditions. Women would still go to work with flowers in their hair. A very intense set of traditions were maintained because they didn’t have to change at all. Over the years, now if I were to think of India, there are so many beautiful things about it and so many complexities. You have a landmass with over a billion people living in a very small state, and that causes a lot of issues with the climate – pollution, garbage, dirt and all of that.
On the other hand, it’s also a place you can walk in and be enveloped in love. There are always exceptions to the rule, but in general, the ethos of the place is that of welcoming you and making you part of the family. When people come to see you, they never leave without food. The guest is more important than yourself. Family, sacrifice and community building are all important values that are woven into the ethos of the culture. When I came to America, I brought that with me. My home in New York is a very welcoming place. We’ve tried to bring that element of my environment back here.
The other thing I want to say, which is a central point because I think of the core spiritual and religious underpinning: there is such a sense of acceptance even with people who have had very, very tough lives. There’s a sense that it’s a trajectory; what goes around will come around. If I’m having a bad time now, it is the result of something I’ve done or it will get better. The sense of acceptance of one’s fate or of one’s life stream is much more profound than in any other place I’ve lived in the world – and I’ve lived in a lot of places!
I think the purpose of my life is to serve. I’ve been given a lot of gifts by the universe at this stage, and as long as I have them, my job is to serve. What I do through my music, board positions and giving back is not for me. I’ve spent a lot of time examining my purity of purpose. I ask myself “Why am I doing this?” and I check myself when I get off the rails, which I do sometimes!
If somebody proselytizes to us about anything, neither of us is really going to listen, but one experience is worth a billion words.
And I think that willingness to be in last place is often missing from human society – treating oneself as a servant. Would you agree?
It’s all happened as a result of my quest. The more you understand what it is to be in the light, you then see how formless and big and grand you are. Your needs will be taken care of, so your fear starts to lessen. In a lot of cases, people are awful a lot because they are afraid. You’re selfish and you want more because you’re afraid that somehow you’re not going to have anything for tomorrow. If you look at this through the lens of compassion, you see that there’s a very good underlying reason why people behave a certain way.
I kind of look at it and say “Let’s not even go there. Let’s not even worry about where we are. Let us focus on the root cause and see how people can start to get the noise down so they can understand who they are.” People don’t need to take anybody’s word for it. Don’t take my word for it. Don’t! Experience your own practice and understand who you are. Because I’m telling you – you’re a very smart guy, obviously, and I’m a reasonably smart person – if somebody proselytizes to us about anything, neither of us is really going to listen, are we? But on the other hand, one experience is worth a billion words. My fervent desire for the planet is for us all to experience a sense of being in the light. That will just change the way we are.
I’m going to give you an analogy. Imagine you were wearing glasses your whole life that were thick with five inches of dirt. Your whole life, you’ve been wearing them. So you’ve been looking at the world a certain way, yes or no? So for one day, if you could take off those glasses completely but then you had to put them back on, what would happen to you if you had to put them back on? Your perspective on an alternative reality would be completely different, wouldn’t it?
All these very important questions that you’re raising, about your attitude toward the world, your compassion, your humanity would start to shine through because that’s who you are. That’s who I am. We are beings of light. We are beings of utterly beautiful spirit with a lot of bandages and a lot of thick, covered glasses on us.
My whole album is about that, Morgan. It’s about finding that light. Not that I stay in it every day and every hour and every minute, mind you. It’s so hard to not get wrapped up in other things as human beings. But it gets lesser, and you’re more aware. It’s not like “I saw the light and now I’m there forever!” No way. No way. But instead of thinking you are all those negatives, you suddenly know there’s another thing.
So it’s like, today I’m being an absolute pain in the backside to everybody or not my best self, but you know there’s another higher self that you can go to, that you have been in before and you can be in again. You then have to say “Wait a minute, let me take myself down.” And that’s what happens.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: October 11, 2017
Total questions: 8
Word count: 2719
Reading time: Thirteen minutes
bandages, being, board, Byzantine, CEO, Chandrika Tandon, charity, Chennai, climate, conditioning, Dorian, Duke Ellington, gift, glasses, Gregorian, harmony, improvisation, India, jazz, light, management consultation, mode, New York, peace, philanthropy, Phrygian, pollution, proselytization, Ray Charles, scale, Shivoham, technique, The Beatles, tool, universe
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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