After 20 years, five albums and 700 concerts around the world, the members of Indian Ocean are the first to admit they’re fed up of each other.
“No matter where I go in the world, I have to wake up to these faces every single day. It’s as terrible as being married,” says 48-year-old Susmit Sen, dressed in a full-sleeve T-shirt and corduroy pants, clouded in a haze of cigarette smoke.
Bandwidth: (clockwise from top left) Lead guitarist Susmit Sen, drummer Amit Kilam and bassist Rahul Ram; the trio at a concert in Singapore on 3 July; and the original line-up (vocalist Asheem Chakravarty is in white) at their practice pad in Delhi’s Karol Bagh. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
The Indian Ocean guitarist, short hair parted neatly sideways, is lounging backstage before a concert at Dr DY Patil College, Nerul, Navi Mumbai. It’s a rare quiet moment for the former advertising executive, between hours of tedious sound checks and a live show.
His bandmates, 36-year old drummer Amit Kilam and 46-year old bassist Rahul Ram, are watching the fashion show from backstage, while a crowd of 20-year-old college students drifts in and out of the auditorium. In spite of being India’s biggest independent band, their entourage is minimal, and they’re more than happy to blend in with the crowd.
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The concert, held on 20 January, was the band’s second after vocalist Asheem Chakravarty’s untimely demise on 25 December. When Chakravarty was taken ill on the final leg of their 2009 world tour, the band had been hopeful of his recovery. His loss was sudden, and the band members answer questions about him matter-of-factly, in short, curt sentences.
“It’s a huge loss,” says drummer Kilam. “But we’re doing concerts, so we’re already getting used to not having him perform with us.” Experimenting with a new line-up, Indian Ocean went on to play in four Indian cities across February and March, before taking a break to finish their upcoming seven-song album 16/330 Khajoor Road, their first in five years. After numerous delays, the album is due out on 25 July, and with typical Indian Ocean commercial indifference (the band makes most of its money from concerts), will be free for download from their website.
Age is on Sen’s mind. The band has gone through much emotional turmoil over six months—a flux that has threatened their stoic two-decade existence. Between the distant din of pounding bass music and the occasional spikes of loud cheers from the audience, he says: “There’s this dialogue in the film Jalwa where Naseerudin Shah tells his senior, ‘Aadmi aur achaar mein farak hota hai’. I love this line. Age has nothing to do with maturing. I’m not sure if I have matured with age.”
For a band that doesn’t shy away from exploring complex political and environmental themes, their irreverence is just as famous. Ask their manager, or the bands that have travelled with them in the past, and they all say the same thing: Here’s a group that can be profound and silly in the same breath, a group without “an iota of seriousness”. Serious debates at their practice space in Delhi’s Karol Bagh (whose address is the new album’s title) can descend into farce at a moment’s notice, and nothing is beyond the reach of a bad joke.
The phrase “chilled out” is evoked often, even though the band still does close to 80 shows a year, with about 30 of them outside the country. “People say that art comes out of 5% talent and 95% sweat,” says Sen. “But for creativity, I think the most important thing is to relax. I wouldn’t call it inspiration but just the ability to relax to allow self-expression.”
There’s an age-agnostic timelessness about their music as well. The fan favourite Kandisa, from the 2000 album of the same name, channels a millennia-old Aramaic hymn, while the politically charged Bandeh, one of the few Indian Ocean songs to receive healthy radio airplay, ends with a loud, raucous, distorted electric guitar solo.
“Being part of the band makes me feels like I’m enjoying youth again. And this time without any inhibitions,” Sen says, shrugging. “I guess when you’re creative you don’t grow old.”
The story of how Indian Ocean came to be involves the pre-Partition Delhi mansion on Khajoor Road in Karol Bagh where Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz attended poetry sessions, a man with a mosquito swatter, and an errant South African emu.
Sen met Chakravarty in 1984, and the duo jammed and built their sound over the next few years, playing the occasional small gig. Chakravarty was a mathematics graduate who became a soil investigator for construction sites. Sen, who’d studied economics and management, worked with an advertising firm and left his job only after Indian Ocean’s first album was released many years later. “I did pretty well. I would have been one of those successful types. Richer but unhappy.”
The name Indian Ocean, suggested by Sen’s father, stuck in 1990, and the band recorded a demo tape with a line-up that then consisted of Shaleen Sharma on drums, Indrajit Dutta and Anirban Roy on bass. The tape impressed HMV enough for it to agree to an album. By this time, bassist Rahul Ram had joined the ranks, and the album, simply called Indian Ocean, was recorded with the help of “crummy mikes” and a “sozzled sound recordist” in Kolkata.
The album’s release, however, was mired in a Byzantine bureaucratic web, and got pushed back continuously. When it finally released in 1993, it was a rare moment—a cassette of original songs by an Indian band that was devoid of covers or Bollywood histrionics.
“When Asheem and I started out, we were convinced it would last. We were told that bands can’t do original numbers, that if we needed to survive we’d have to play famous Hindi songs. Perhaps we were the first to compose our own songs. For us, music was always more important than churning out songs,” says Sen.
The band has always tightly reined in their output, not releasing songs until they’re deemed “ready”. Indian Ocean’s collective output has resulted in about 30 songs in 26 years.
The band’s signature line-up—Kilam, Ram, Sen and Chakravarty—was finalized in 1994. Kilam, then only 20 and still juggling exams with drum practice, joined after Shaleen Sharma’s departure. A few years of touring later, their Desert Rain album was released in 1997, a live recording of the 1997 Sahmat concert at Mandi House, which the band had actually recorded to listen to for mistakes.
Sanjoy Roy, a director with independent production company Teamwork Films, was managing the band at the time. He’s not sure of the year he started, but says it was around “15-16 years ago”. “Desert Rain was a fresh new sound, it was experimental—so we had only one record label willing to distribute it,” he says. “After it became popular, for the band’s second album a whole bunch of them turned up.”
This behaviour, he says, was symptomatic of the recording industry at the time. “Record companies were not willing to experiment. If (Alisha Chinai’s) Made in India became a hit, the next 10 albums they cut would sound exactly like Made in India,” he says.
Roy remembers a concert at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre around that time. One record company executive pushed his way through the crowd to meet the band. “He said, ‘I love the music, great concert. We should cut an album. But we need to, you know, jazz it up a bit, and play a few Bollywood songs.’ Can you believe that?” The band’s Bollywood debut was nearly a decade away at this point, and they’d evolve a simple rule on film projects: “Most directors come to us because they want ‘Indian Ocean’ music, and not the other way around,” Sen says. The band has contributed the song Des Mera from their 2003 album Jhini to the soundtrack of the upcoming Aamir Khan-produced film Peepli Live.
The band’s signature sound—driven by Sen’s acoustic guitar and Chakravarty’s percussion (the vocals weren’t so prominent back then)—made the band hard to classify and pigeonhole. “I call it music from the roots,” Roy says. “It has a heavy classical component. Not rock, not pop.”
But the rock music landscape at the time was challenging, dominated by a few big bands. “It was difficult in the early days. It was Parikrama yay, Indian Ocean, who? Also, they weren’t a great act…it was great music, but not a great act,” Roy says.
The need to create a stage show evolved through constant touring, and Indian Ocean’s music matured just as their underground reputation came to the fore. Parikrama, on the other hand, let their songwriting stagnate, and Indian Ocean soon overtook them in both popularity and critical acclaim.
Times Music signed the band in 1998, and they stepped into a professional studio, minus the sozzled recordist, to record their second album, Kandisa. Released in 2000, the album marked a turning point in the band’s fortunes. It was this album that saw them tour extensively throughout the world.
“We performed this one gig in Kalgoorlie, Australia,” says Roy. “It was a real one hick town…with, like, one road going through it, and the concert was scheduled at an open park right next to the local zoo.
“So the guys start playing, and meanwhile, this emu in the zoo, presumably grooving to Indian Ocean music, breaks free of its cage,” he says. The errant emu charged through the crowd and jumped on stage. “So the audience is watching in shock as the emu, for some reason, starts chasing Susmit.” After a short chase and an impasse, Susmit and the emu began sparring in front of the crowd, Sen jabbing at it with his guitar. “Let’s face it, he didn’t stand a chance. The emu is a no-nonsense animal. It wasn’t going to just let Susmit off easy!” Thankfully, before any further damage to the emu or Sen, the zookeepers arrived and took the animal away.
Kandisa was a commercial success, and also features most of the band’s trademark tunes—Ma Rewa, based on a paean to the river Narmada, Hille Le, a protest song penned by activist Gorakh Pandey, and Khajuraho, an 8-minute song first performed for then president K.R. Narayanan at the Khajuraho Millenium Festival. It was also the band’s first collaboration with lyricist Sanjeev Sharma.
Sharma can’t answer any of our questions just yet. At his Mumbai bungalow courtyard, the theatre director is constantly distracted by a swarm of mosquitoes milling in the evening air. He excuses himself, disappears into the house, and reappears with a look of studious calm—and a mosquito electrocutor shaped like a tennis racquet. Two minutes of slaughter later, in which Sharma waves the bat as if invoking the spirits, he turns and says, “You’re always going to associate me with this picture now, no?”
Sharma first met Indian Ocean in 1997, when he was directing a musical for Company Theatre. “I wanted someone to compose the music for the play. A friend suggested Indian Ocean. “That’s the first time we worked together and we clicked,” he says. “Offstage, they’re complete lunatics but onstage, they’re ace performers. They’re like those Kathakali artistes who get intoxicated, perform pujas and then transform themselves on stage.”
Till then, the band was mostly instrumental, occasionally throwing in a folk song or two. It’s only after Kandisa, Sharma says, that they started using, and paying so much attention to, words.
The album-opener, Kya Maloom, was written after the Kargil war. “(The opening line) Teevra Aandhi Mrityu Gaami comes from Krishna’s philosophy in the Mahabharat,” Sharma says. “Krishna tells Arjun, who is reluctant to fight the war with his own family, that if you’re detached enough, you can see beauty in the blood that has been spilled.”
The band composes the arrangements first, before Sharma starts work on the lyrics. “(The music) has got a certain intoxicating quality to it. A certain earthiness that tugs at your basic instincts. The appeal is something similar to that of folk singers—they act as mediums to connect to your own core.”
Sharma’s favourite is the song Bhor in the 2003 album Jhini, originally intended for a song in a film by director Ajay Rana. “The brief Rana had given me was that the character was looking for awakening and union at the same time.”
When the film got canned and Indian Ocean showed Sharma the music they’d composed for what would become Bhor, the lyrics “just tumbled out”.
But in typical Indian Ocean fashion, about four years after the song had been written and performed many times, vocalist Chakravarty asked him what the song meant. “We burst out laughing. Asheem always sang the song so soulfully. It’s just one of those mystery zones with them, they hardly understand what they are doing,” he says.
Then and now
By 2006, Indian Ocean were indie superstars. The Anurag Kashyap film Black Friday, featuring their music, was in theatres, and the band had successfully played at concert venues around the world. It would begin years of routine for the band—consisting of film projects, world tours and special concerts. The band has also stayed fiercely independent, never letting the gravitas of stardom get between their music or audience.
“We’ve survived this long because we were mature enough to know the difference between getting along as people and getting along with ideas,” says Rahul Ram. The band still enjoys playing at small college venues and one-off gigs. “We don’t mind whether we’re playing in an opera house or college auditorium,” Ram says. “In an opera house, the audience is quiet but you know they’re concentrating a lot more on your music. In a college auditorium, there’s more frenzy; it encourages you to be more energetic.”
Current manager Dhruv Jagasia recalls a story that he says best exemplifies Indian Ocean’s spirit. In 2007, a student from a metallurgy college in Bihar (whose name Jagasia can’t recall) came knocking on his door. “He told me that the students of his college had been saving Rs100 a day for two years to be able to collect money to call Indian Ocean for a performance.” They had saved Rsl.5 lakh and asked Jagasia if it was enough to get the band to perform. “I was so touched by it that I agreed to get the band for that much money. As part of cost cutting, we even travelled by train and asked friends in Bihar to donate lights and other equipment.”
The band played there for 3 hours. The boys of the core committee, in charge of this plan, stood as security guards since they couldn’t afford security. The band, moved by the whole experience, played exclusively for the committee boys after the main concert. “We even treated them to booze later. We ended up spending more than earning. Things like these humble me,” says Jagasia.