The very beginning Indian Ocean’ was officially formed in 1990, when guitarist Susmit Sen and percussionist Asheem Chakravarty decided to release an album of their unheard-of classically-influenced rock sound. “I stopped listening to Western music for 2-3 years, and listened only to Indian classical,” recalls Sen. “I realised a new sound was developing and I wanted an Indian touch in my guitar.”
At a time when bands were considered ‘good’ if they played covers of English rock music well, Sen admits, it didn’t even strike him once to cater to the sound the audience would like. “People said we’d fail if we don’t stick to covers. But we knew an intrinsically Indian sound like ours had never been attempted.” Band shapes up In the first few years, I’d have the hardest time calling our original band for rehearsals,” laughs Sen. “I’d tell people I had a band, but no one would turn up for practice.” That’s when Sen met his schoolmate, Rahul Ram, after 10 years at a concert. “Susmit told me he had a band, and I thought, ‘Big deal!’” chuckles Ram. “He asked me to hear his music, then I didn’t meet him for three months. When I finally heard the music, I really liked it, and that was that. So, a concept of the band existed, but funnily, I didn’t meet any of the members!”
The band’s self-titled debut album was recorded in 1992, with them having to carry their admittedly “second class musical instruments” to a Kolkata studio and finally released in 1993, after much struggle.
Even though the album sold 40,000 copies, an incredible number at the time, there was no immediate impact on the band’s popularity. “For the first five years of our existence, we played only seven shows,” says Ram.
Meanwhile, the band’s drummer Shaleen Sharma quit. The band replaced him with 21-year-old Amit Kilam, who was 10-years younger than Ram and Sen, and 17 years younger than Chakravarty. “I knew nothing about Indian Ocean but the age difference was never an issue for me in joining them,” Kilam says. “I just heard the music, and I didn’t need to think twice.”
Slow and steady
The first gig of the four-member Indian Ocean, in the form we know it today, was a small affair, but it was the second gig that instilled some faith in the band. “We got a chance to play at IIT Delhi, but we didn’t even have a place to rehearse,” says Ram. “Four days before the gig, we requested the college to allow us to use their Student Activity Center.”
“Unbelievably, we played to a packed audience and they seemed to love our sound!” Sen says. Despite playing gigs with the band, Kilam remembers how he couldn’t keep up with the improvisational structure of the band’s music – the factor that, Sen admits, has helped the band find something fresh in each of their over-700 shows across the world, with a catalogue of around 30 songs.
Another seminal moment in the band’s history is when Chakravarty and Sen decided to quit their jobs and take up their cause seriously. “For six months, I didn’t have any work, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do because I considered working for TV or ads or films as prostitution,” says Sen.
“Thankfully, I got a part-time job in January ’95, a month before my wife delivered twins. When the money came, I sighed in relief, because our band wasn’t making any.”
By 1995-96, word of mouth about the band’s music spread, and they starting getting gigs across India. And in 1997, Desert Rain happened.
The band’s second album, and India’s first-ever live music album, Desert Rain, Ram confesses, happened by mistake. “We were playing a show on New Year’s, 1997, at Mandi House, Delhi, and we found a DAT recorder there,” Ram says. “We recorded the concert, and when we later played it to one of our friends, he said it could easily be an album.”
Though the band gave a complete, recorded product to music companies to sell, they were “categorically told that the first album was a fluke, and the second album will flop,” Sen reminisces. “We didn’t give up, and got a retailer-whole seller friend of ours to help distribute the album,” says Ram. “And before we knew it, it had become a success.”
The last chapter
But the band does realise the poignancy of the documentary, as it chronicles a time in their lives when Chakravarty was still with them. Having passed away at the age of 52 in December, 2009, Chakravarty has left behind a legacy that will live on for generations to come, and shoes, that will take a long time to fill.
“Asheem can’t be replaced,” Ram says. “His contribution to the sound of Indian Ocean, and to Indian music, is too huge, for his shoes to be filled.”
The band’s next album, which releases in July, and Aamir Khan’s next film, Peepli Live, will feature Chakravarty’s last recorded tracks. “That would be the last you hear of Indian Ocean as you know it,” Ram says. “After that, another Indian Ocean would be born, and like you, even I’m curious to know about the next chapter in the story of Indian Ocean.”
Kandisa and beyond
The band was offered a three-year contract by Times Music subsequently, but the company took over two years to release the band’s third album, Kandisa, in 2000, with zero publicity.
“Music companies really sc**wed us over,” Ram says. “Nobody helped us take our music forward. It only reached across through concerts.”
Around the same time, Indian Ocean became the first Indian band to be offered concerts internationally. After the success of their global tours, and their world music-friendly sound, the band spoke to EMI International for a world music album release. “They loved our sound, but when they contacted EMI India, they were told that we were some small local band with no potential,” Ram says. Of course, as is the success story that follows every worthy struggle, in five years, the band’s albums went on to feature regularly in iTune’s world music top 10 charts. worthy struggle, in five years, the band’s albums went on to feature regularly in iTune’s world music top 10 charts.
Then, and now
The band’s fourth album, Jhini, released in 2003, and won various awards, while the soundtrack that the band composed for Anurag Kashyap’s movie, Black Friday, in 2005, went on to achieve cult status thanks to the phenomenal reception to the song, ‘Bandeh’.
And after twenty years of fighting the system, today, India’s greatest band has got some well-deserved respect, as Jaideep Varma’s documentary on the band’s slow, but sure, path to success, Leaving Home, has hit BIG cinemas across Mumbai.
But the band doesn’t consider this as a ‘vindication’ of sorts. Like the various milestones in their life and times, the band only sees this as another small drop in the vast ocean of things yet to be done, and miles, yet to be covered.
“It’s a great, great honour, and I just hope this helps in the making of future documentaries on great musicians of our country who deserve it much more than we do, like Zakir Hussain,” Ram says.