Light and Soul: Chandrika Tandon rocks Kennedy Center with world premiere of ‘Shivoham-The Quest’

Chandrika Tandon making her debut at the packed-to-capacity Eisenhower Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Nov. 22. (Yassine El Mansouri)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Chandrika Tandon, the Grammy-nominated artist, business leader, philanthropist and humanitarian, took the cognoscenti of the arts in D.C. by storm on Nov. 22 with the world premiere of her magnum opus “Shivoham —The Quest,” with her soulful voice accompanied by a ensemble of instrumentalists and New York University choir. It was the culmination of a spiritual journey which she described as a 20-year “search for the light.”

Making her debut at the packed-to-capacity Eisenhower Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Tandon wove a universal harmony of ancient Sanskrit mantras and English prayers, Indian ragas, African and Spanish styles, jazz, Gregorian chants, and personal stories, taking the audience on a musical journey, as the Kennedy Center had predicted, “radiating peace, love, and blessings for the planet.”

“Shivoham—The Quest,” “is an extraordinary work that balances voice and music on one side and emotion and faith on the other.

The music is skillfully woven from a vivid, universal cloth,” noted music critic R.J. Lannan of Artist and Music Reviews, who blogs for The Sounding Board.

While acknowledging that “it’s a musical expression of my journey towards the light,” Tandon struck a chord with the audience, declaring that “it is everyone’s journey. We are all looking for that light. We call it love, we call it peace, we call it happiness. We call it success. We are searching for something beyond, and that state of beyond is what I call ‘Shivoham.’”

The 90-minute-long performance, comprising of three movements and 12 songs, had the audience mesmerized, particularly since the amalgamation of so many different genres and schools of music made “Shivoham” truly unique in its form of rendition.

Responding to how totally the performance resonated with the audience and imbued a sense of empathy, Tandon told India Abroad that “I wanted it to be a shared journey, a shared experience.  Not a performance. That’s why I kept the house lights on so I could see the audience. And I wanted them to join me in singing.

“I also felt total surrender and wanted the music to flow through me with no judgement,” she said.

“I was there to share my journey, and hoped it would strike a chord of ‘something’ in others. Those who needed it would get it.” 

Tandon added, “I felt the deep silence and meditativeness of the audience a few minutes in — like they were all points of light really. That feeling deepened as the journey went on — it felt like we were all silently communicating with each other.”

She said she “could also feel all the musicians on stage being in that serene and sacred space,” and believed that the sustained, standing ovation she received at the end of the performance, “was really because people felt something deeper in themselves.

“The outpouring of messages has been stunningly gratifying.  Almost everyone has also talked about what it made them feel and experience. And, I am thrilled to have had those moments of time ...” Tandon said.

Priya Damania, in expressing her appreciation, told Tandon, “The journey you took us through last evening and connecting us to yours, superseded an experience of words and emotions. I felt uplifted and weightless!

“The music, the energy of the choir, your voice and presence was not only touched by the senses but to something else I can’t describe,” she said. “At points we felt closer and exclusively with you, at other point very distant and alone, then at one point it was just grace and feeling of floating.”

Ranvir Trehan, a noted McLean, Virginia-based entrepreneur and philanthropist, who was appointed to the Kennedy Center board by President Obama, told India Abroad, “When the Kennedy Center initiated the ‘Discover India Series’ nearly two years ago, it was my thought that we should have a performance that is soulful and brings out our oneness with the all-pervasive ultimate reality.”

Trehan said, “The audience was immersed in a transformative journey, as she challenged each of us to start or continue our own quests. Her narration, chants, and songs, woven in a tapestry of many faiths and genres of music, transported us into a meditative state.”

Light and Soul: Chandrika Tandon rocks Kennedy Center with world premiere of ‘Shivoham-The Quest’

David Good, erstwhile U.S. Consul-General in Mumbai years ago, and a self-confessed aficionado of the Eastern arts, told India Abroad, “Chandrika Tandon obviously has a large following in the Washington area — the audience filled the Eisenhower Theater and included familiar faces from the Indian cultural community as well as many young and old attendees who were obviously attracted to her spiritual message.”

Prior to “Shivoham” the Chennai-born Tandon had released three albums, and her debut album “Soul Call” (2009), released under the banner of her label Soul Chants Music, earned a Grammy nomination in the contemporary world music category.

Her second and third albums, “Soul March” and “Soul Mantra” released in 2013 and 2014, respectively, also received critical acclaim.

In an interview with India Abroad, on the eve of her performance, Tandon spoke about how she felt about making her debut at the Kennedy Center. “This was the most exciting opportunity and what was interesting about this was that we were able to put together a fabulous ensemble of musicians,” she said.

“So, it was a great opportunity to present this music live in one of the most iconic venues,” she reiterated, “and by the way, we are presenting it on the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and so, it’s a particularly poignant moment to do that and to talk about this message of light and love and laughter and harmony and peace, which our country and the whole world now needs more than ever.”

Tandon said, “It’s important in any environment, but at this moment we need it more than ever, and what makes me proud is that we are able to draw on the wisdoms of all these ancient traditions and bring it together in a modern way in a musical expression to the world.”

As to how it all came about, Tandon, who brought out her “Shivoham” album last year, recording it with over 270 musicians in four countries — the U.S., India, South Africa, with the famous Soweto choir, and in the iconic Abbey Road Studios in London — said, “For two years, the Kennedy Center has been inviting me to perform there and somehow the moment just happened that we were able to do it now.”

After her performance, she provided India Abroad with a few of the messages she received with one saying, “What a brilliant and mesmerizing evening.  You are a Shining Light of the Divine. Your efforts and voice are such a great endeavor to lead the way.”

Another said, “Through you, the Divine blessed your audience and, I believe with my whole heart, all of Washington DC.... thank you,” while yet another declared, “What a wonderful, beautiful and inspiring celebration of life and voyage.”

“Seeing and hearing you tell your stories, spoken and sung, was a blessing I shall carry inside me forever. I listened well. I will take action to make you proud. You were aglow last night. And brave to reveal yourself so deeply,” wrote another person, who added, “Your voice was exquisite, and your musicians, singers, and music director world-class. I marveled at your poise and clarity. Everyone knew we had a trusted friend on stage revealing her truth. I sang along joyfully, and I always will.”

Andrew White, in a review for BWW Review on Nov. 24, described “Shivoham” as “a fascinating, musical, spiritual Oratario.” He wrote that Tandon’s “song-cycle,….  is part oratorio, part jam session, part spectacle, and organized around the many steps to enlightenment she experienced. It’s not prescriptive-not a ‘how to’ manual, as much as a travelogue, with a number of beautiful stops along the way.”

White noted that “this being a musical performance, the more striking elements-apart from the projections-lie in the variety of musical genres evoked here. There’s a distinctly Medieval quality to the opening chant, ‘Song of Beginning,’ then the Celtic riffs of ‘Song of the Worldly Dance,’ not to be outdone by jazz solos provided by Kenny Werner, which find Tandon leaning on his grand piano, as if she were at a cabaret.”

He added, “This, combined with satellite images of the earth and scenes from nature and the stars, is another testament to the all-encompassing vision of Tandon’s work.”

Tandon, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1979, is the founder and chair of Tandon Capital Associates and Soul Chants Music.

Prior to founding her own financial advisory firm in 1992, she was the first Indian-American woman to make partner at McKinsey and Company. 

With her first paycheck from McKinsey, she purchased a guitar and stereo system, and after training to become a musician, she recorded her album, “Soul Call,” which was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Contemporary World Music. 

She has released four albums under her nonprofit label, Soul Chants Music, which donates all proceeds to support community building, education, the arts, and other philanthropic endeavors.

Tandon has performed many benefit concerts to support organizations such as the Smithsonian, Lincoln Center, Wellness and Global Peace Initiatives, and the World Culture Festival. 

She serves on the Board of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and at the Berklee School of Music, where she serves on the President’s Council, and the Berklee-Tandon Global Clinics connect underprivileged talent to distinguished faculty worldwide. 

As chair of the Krishnamurthy Tandon Foundation, Tandon has supported more than 30 institutions which work in education, the arts, wellness, and community building.

This also includes serving as vice-chairman of the board of trustees and chair of the President’s Global Council of New York University, with additional governance roles in NYU schools of Engineering — for which she and her husband Ranjan donated $100 million, the NYU Stern Business School and the Langone Health System — NYU’s hospital and medical school.

She also serves as an advisor to the presidents of Yale and Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.

Tandon admits that music came late in her life although it was always burning inside of her but had to be relegated to the back burner because she was an unrelenting, extremely driven, type-A perfectionist.

“I was hard on others and myself, always striving to do my best for clients, family, friends —the bar of perfection was always rising.”

But despite having “all the trappings of success, material and physical,” she felt “oppressed,” in that she couldn’t give vent to her love for music —and not just any music but what she created and composed — till late in a her career about two decades ago when she was well into her 40’s.

An alumna of Madras Christian College from where she received a Bachelor’s of Commerce degree, Tandon was actively involved in many of the cultural and leadership events on campus, and was a popular president of women students.

After graduation at age 18, she was one of the youngest in the class when she enrolled in the competitive Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad and by age 20, and her career took off with one of her earliest stints being working in Beirut with CitiCorp during the height of that country’s civil war in 1975.

When she came to New York City and landed a job with McKinsey, she was the first immigrant and minority women hired who didn’t have an American graduate degree and continued to create history when she was one of the earliest women to make partner in the firm.

Tandon turned to serious music only in 2004 when she debuted with “Soul Mantra: Om Namah Shivaya,” an album which was also a gift to her father-in-law for his 90th birthday.

This was followed by “Soul Call: Om: Namo Narayanaya” in 2009 and “Soul March” in 2013, and she was knee-deep on her fourth “soul” album, when the epiphany to make “Shivoham” consumed her.

In 2016, Tandon received the Gallatin medal, NYU’s highest honor — for her contribution to education and society.

In 2009, she received the Walter Nichols medal from NYU Stern for representing the highest ideals of business, service and integrity — whose prior recipients include Rockefeller, Greenspan and Welch.

The very next year, Tandon was inducted into the Harold Acton Society of NYU and as a Sterling Fellow at Yale in recognition of her efforts on behalf of higher education. 

Additionally, in 2011 and 2013, she was named an Inaugural Distinguished Alumnus of both her alma maters — the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad and Madras Christian College.

In October 2015, NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering was renamed the NYU Tandon School of Engineering in recognition of the Tandons $100 million gift.

In addition to NYU, the Tandons have endowed faculty chairs and student scholarships at Harvard, Yale, the Berklee College of Music, MCC, and IIM-A.

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