“INDIAN PRINCESS” (WRITER: MARTIN SMITH)
RELEASED 1982 ON 7” 45
In the times before “world music” was even a buzzword, artists such as Sheila Chandra—who happened not to be white or easily pigeonholed—were viewed almost as a curiosity.
Ms. Chandra, of Indian heritage but born in 1965 in England, was known at an early age both for her beauty and her acting. At age 14 she was cast in a British TV drama, where she remained until 1981.
When she left the series, she fell right into pop music. Steve Coe, head of Indipop Records, apparently found an old demo tape of hers and recruited her to front his Asian fusion group Monsoon.
The group's first single, “Ever So Lonely,” featured beguiling instrumentation and Chandra’s crystal voice. On its re-release as a 12” single, the song was a surprise hit, rising to #12 on the British pop chart.
Sheila Chandra, 20 years old when “Ever So Lonely” charted, seemed to tire of the pop star whirl pretty quickly. After three further Monsoon singles, all less successful than the hit, the group dissolved. Three members of Monsoon (Coe, Martin Smith, and Chandra) chose to play the long game, retreating into studio work and allowing Chandra to develop herself creatively.
In 1984 she released her first solo LP, Out on My Own. Over time, working closely with Coe, she ventured further into experimental vocal territory, releasing several albums/CDs worth of chants, folk melodies, and drone pieces before really hitting her stride with a trilogy of influential and utterly singular CDs (Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices, The Zen Kiss, and Abonecronedrone) for Peter Gabriel’s Real World label between 1992–96.
Following a break, Chandra released the excellent This Sentence is True, in 2001, in a partnership with the Ganges Orchestra (which included Coe). She spent the next few years touring solo as well as singing with various ensembles including Imagined Village and Ancient Beatbox.
Unfortunately, in 2010 she began suffering from burning mouth syndrome, a rare but awful malady especially devastating to a singer. She is not expected to sing again, as doing so causes her extreme physical pain. Sadly, Coe, an extremely successful musician and producer in several genres, passed away in 2013, ending a great musical partnership.
Sheila Chandra has found a new career as an organizer, writing two books: Banish Clutter Forever and the new Organizing for Creative People. She mentors artists, advising them on their career choices and in how to work creatively in a world that doesn't encourage such pursuits.
This is a long, roundabout way of getting to today’s song, “Indian Princess,” the b-side of Monsoon’s third single, a cover of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Martin Smith wrote “Indian Princess” and it’s both a perfect vehicle for Monsoon’s sound and for Sheila Chandra’s then 21-year-old pipes.
A luscious production, “Indian Princess” begins softly with sitar, tabla, and (probably) tanpura then adds slowly—a piano here, some extra percussion there—before cresting into a gorgeous flute solo. The music and lyrics paint a dramatic, downcast picture and the song is performed nearly perfectly by all concerned.
Even if she eventually chose not to, Sheila Chandra sure could sing pop music.