Chandrika Krishnamurthy Tandon on trade-offs, spirituality and the mid-career pursuit of music.

Chandrika Krishnamurthy Tandon came to America at 24; the first Indian woman selected by McKinsey’s after more than 20 interviews.She made partner, then started her own company (Tandon Capital Associates), before turning, in mid-career, to pursue her passion for music. Her first recording — ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ — was a gift for her father-in-law. That led her to form Soul Chants, the company that produced her three albums. Her second album, titled ‘Om Namo Narayanaya: Soul Call’, was nominated for a Grammy. Her third — nine variations on ‘Raghupati Raghava Raja Rama’ — was launched recently in New York.

Over a vegetarian lunch, Tandon discussed her exceptional life.

How was it being a trailblazer — few Indians, no women — in the corporate world?

I interviewed in mid-winter, in a sari, chappals and a borrowed coat. I’d been working with Citibank after graduating from IIM-Ahmedabad. I had no American degree, no visa. McKinsey’s sent me to Japan, where I learned Japanese, discovered Kabuki and Japanese music.

Then, I had to adjust to life in the U.S. On my second day, I rented a car and left, nervously, at 4.00 a.m. for an hour’s drive to an 8.00 a.m appointment! I had no network, no family. I compensated by working non-stop. In five years, I made partner — one of two, out of 12. It was “move up” or “out.”

What prepared you for this experience?

We lived with my grandfather who read to us every night — Shakespeare, English poetry. He made you feel you can be anything you want. It was inconceivable that I’d apply to IIM, or get in. At my interview, they asked, “You perform on radio? You speak French? Sing us a French song.” So I did! What I got from my grandfather was inner unstoppability. Many people are smarter, more talented. I have inner strength. I fought to go to college, went on a hunger strike for business school until my mother agreed to let me go. At McKinsey’s, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But I wasn’t focused on the lack, I focused on the possibility.

How do you juggle being wife, mother, businesswoman, artiste?

I made major tradeoffs. Life as founder-chairman of my company was brutal: Restructuring an Australian company, I’d fly 32 hours to Brisbane, stay nine days, talk to my nine-year-old via nightly video-conference, micro-arranging her schedule. Returning home, I’d talk to my Brisbane team and work non-stop negotiating other clients. I wasn’t the emotionally available mother I wanted to be. Flying 32 hours every nine days took a toll. Then, I was offered a multimillion-dollar deal, spending four days a week in Europe. I considered it, crying non-stop. I had done mega jobs, working with billionaires, flying on private planes. It was emotionally and intellectually heady. But Lita’s my only child; I wanted to be home with her. I turned down that deal. Professionally and personally, it was catastrophic. Suddenly, I had no identity: a top businesswoman, unsure I even had a business. To quit travel, I had to restructure my company…I missed the excitement but I was there 100 per cent for Lita, everyday. I went into myself, came to a new way of seeing “success” as freedom to do what I wanted. I got into spirituality, searched for answers, for purpose. I’d followed my career mindlessly — among the youngest in my IIM class, accepted into Citibank (which took three out of 116 applicants), then McKinsey’s, and my own business. I never stopped. My life had been other-directed. I re-examined my values: What’s important?

Was music important?

My happiest times were around music. When I was travelling, I’d go hear music, alone, after work. In New York, I binged — jazz concerts, nights in a row. As children, we had lessons, music was always there; our mother turned on the radio at five! We lived simply: mother cooked, we cleaned. I’d sing as I did chores — Tamil and Hindi film songs, Dean Martin, Listeners’ Choices. At the Alliance Francaise, I sang French songs. McKinsey gave me $5000 to furnish my apartment. I bought an $1800 guitar, a $2000 stereo system, then had no money, so I slept on the floor of my empty apartment. In my only saucepan, I cooked rice and ate it with chutney and yoghurt for the first month. Years later, I requested T. Vishwanathan to teach me. I’d leave home at 4.00 a.m. for his 6-8 Saturday lesson, returning at 10.00 a.m. before Lita awoke. When Indian masters wouldn’t teach me, I found travelling masters. Finally, Girish Wazalwar worked around my schedule, teaching me intensively — all day, seven days at a time.

You teach devotional music...

I started a choir in our temple. Over 100 people come. I compose new music for them, adding verses to bhajans. We sing Shankara compositions. I don’t judge, we enjoy the process every Sunday. There’s no charge, it’s a circle of love, and I’m enriched by it. One woman takes four buses to get there!

A few words about your philanthropy.

I support education, wellness and arts. It’s about making life full and enriching in one’s days here. I’m happy I turned away from the work. I’m blessed to have the freedom to choose how I want to spend my days.