You see pictures of oceans in travel magazines all the time: glossy photographs of unending stretches of white-flecked blue, lapping lazily at the edges of stunning shores. In these pictures, oceans look calm. Inviting. Eternal.
Calm, inviting and eternal may also be the best way to describe Indian Ocean. Not the mass of saltwater that lurches and heaves at the foot of our subcontinent, but Delhi's iconic folk rock band. After all, in this world of short attention spans and brand new devices that are outdated in five minutes, Indian Ocean (the band) has consistently been making waves with their music for 25 years (think of songs like Kandisa and Arre Ruk Ja Re Bande). And this year, with the release of its seventh studio album, Tandanu, Indian Ocean has clearly made a statement. It's going to be around for a long time yet.
Life's a beach
"Smooth." That's the word 40-year-old Amit Kilam, drummer with Indian Ocean since 1994, uses to describe the band's journey over all these years. Amit was the last to join Indian Ocean's most recognisable line-up, which consisted of the band's founder Susmit Sen (guitar), Asheem Chakravarty (tabla and vocals), Rahul Ram (bass) and himself.
"In all these years, I have never felt like missing practice even once," says Amit. "If we missed it, it was only because it was unavoidable."
"Asheem's singing was completely unparalleled. People called him the man with the golden voice," says Rahul Ram, bassist with Indian Ocean and a singer himself, having sung two numbers for Anurag Kashyap's movie, Gulal, and a song in both Hindi and Bengali for the recent film Children of War.
16/330 Khajoor Road, an album that released in 2010, was the last Indian Ocean album to feature Asheem. The album was named in honour of a dilapidated bungalow at 16/330, Khajoor Road, Karol Bagh, which was where Indian Ocean had rehearsed in all its years before its owner put it up for sale. Songs like Kandisa and Arre Ruk Ja Re Bande were composed at 16/330, Khajoor Road, and the band loved the fact that it used to be the home of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz before partition.
Lights, camera, action
Indian Ocean made its name with indie Hindi music, but the big world of Bollywood soon took notice. Not quite Bollywood, Bollywood though. Indie filmmaker Anurag Kashyap was the first to be intrigued by Indian Ocean's kind of music, and signed the band for his movie Black Friday. "When people approach us for our music, we are given complete freedom to compose it," says Rahul.
"In recent years, background music in movies has changed drastically and finally it's getting its due. Musicians usually compose the background music for a film within a week, but we took over three months with Black Friday and the response was amazing."
The band went on to sing two songs for actor and filmmaker Aamir Khan's Peepli Live!, one of which, Des Mera, was an adaptation of a song from the album Jhini. "We used the basic melody and chorus of that song, because that was what Anusha Rizvi, the director of the film, wanted," says Rahul. "And Sanjeev Sharma and Swanand Kirkire added some lyrics. The other song was based on a poem by Pakistani poet NM Rashid."
And the band also has a film about itself. Well, a documentary. Released about five years ago, Leaving Home - the Life and Music of Indian Ocean, charts the journey of the band in its first 20 years. "Produced and directed by Jaideep Verma, the film showcases our journey through concerts, stage performances, casual performances and rehearsals in 16/330 Khajoor Road," says Amit.
But that was then. That was, though the band did not know it at the time, Indian Ocean Ver. 1. Indian Ocean Ver. 2 came into being in 2013, when Susmit - only the founder of the band!- decided he wanted to go solo, leaving Indian Ocean in somewhat turbulent waters.
Could the band work without Susmit? Amit and Rahul thought it could. "We were sad when Susmit left, but the band as a whole did not suffer," says Amit. "In fact, his departure actually had a positive effect on us. We started meeting more often to practice and are more united now."
That unity led to Tandanu, Indian Ocean's first album without Asheem and Susmit and its most ambitious so far. The word 'Tandanu' has no particular meaning. It was chosen as the album's title purely for its rhythm, but then rhythm is what this new album is all about.
Because Tandanu has a twist. It consists of seven new songs, each one featuring a musician that the band admires and respects, including Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Vishal Dadlani, Selva Ganesh, Karsh Kale, Shankar Mahadevan, Shubha Mudgal and Kumaresh Rajagopalan. The music ranges from the classical to the contemporary, and the band has produced short films for each of the tracks that show the process of composition and recording and the fun the band had had while working with their collaborators.
"The moment I heard Tandanu, I knew I wanted to be a part of it because the song has a very unique, catchy kind of a lyrical rhythmic quality to it," says Shankar Mahadevan, one of Indian Ocean's collaborators on the album. "Indian Ocean is very original and the first band to do music like this, so I'm really happy to be part of it."
A new beat
As the songs from Tandanu released online last month, one every week, the response made Indian Ocean gladder than ever that they'd not only stayed together, but also added freshness in the form of three new band members. While Himanshu Joshi and Tuheen Chakravorty have been playing with Indian Ocean since 2010, 29-year-old Nikhil Rao joined last year after Susmit's departure, abandoning his PhD in Material Science midway just to be part of the band.
"One of the reasons why Indian Ocean has been going strong for the last 25 years is the fact that the band is bigger than any individual in it," says Rahul. "Even the fans know this, which is why they have welcomed all the new band members with open arms."
The fact the new band members are very good at their jobs has helped too. As Subir Malik of the rock band Parikrama says, "The transition from Susmit to Nikhil, the new guitarist, has been pretty good."
Choosing Nikhil to replace Susmit was a unanimous decision by the band members, says Rahul Ram, a decision based on the 'Indianness' of his music. "The desire was to find someone with a very different style and Nikhil has a unique style that we all noticed when he jammed with us the first time," explains Rahul. "He's got a nice Carnatic influence and likes to play a range of styles that ends up making his own style."
Susmit had also liked Nikhil's style, offering the young guitarist advice and encouragement. "He even offered me his guitar to use till I got my own equipment, which meant a lot to me," says Nikhil. "It is amazing to be part of such an iconic band and its fans have also welcomed me with open arms."
'Amazing' is also how 27-year-old Tuheen Chakravorty describes his time with the band. "Our practice sessions are great fun and I have learnt so much from everyone. It's incredible," he says.
And at 51, filmmaker Himanshu Joshi, a regular with the band for the last four years, finds that he still has much to learn. "This album, Tandanu, was a huge learning experience for me and the fact that I was interacting and collaborating with so many great musicians gave me a very big high," he says. "These people are not only great musicians but greater human beings. There was absolutely no baggage or ego, so there were no constrictions as far as the music was concerned."
For Rahul Ram too, Tandanu is a very special album, not only because of all the great musicians who worked on it, but also because it's Indian Ocean's first album in its new avatar. "But the real test for us will be our next album, which will be purely the band's album in every sense of the word," he says.
From HT Brunch, July 13
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