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New sounds, new audiences

Our bands are in the experimentation stage, trying to marry technique with expression. Discerning listeners can play a crucial role, writes Susmit Sen.

india Updated: Jan 01, 2012 00:42 IST
Susmit Sen

I do not consider myself a part of the music industry. The moment you industrialise an art form, you kill it. I do use the basic networks of a music company, but I do my own thing — I have been doing so for more than 20 years. Someone recently said, “You, of all people, should be able to do a pop album.” Yes, we could, but won’t. That wouldn’t be Indian Ocean. An Indian music community? There isn’t one to talk about. It’s cutthroat out there.

So I’m not speaking for any of those formations. Having said that, I can say there’s palpable change in Indian music today. I consider myself lucky to have heard classical musicians such as Ali Akbar Khan, Mallikarjun Mansur and Bhimsen Joshi at their peak a number of times in the 1980s. What’s missing today is the meditative quality of their music. It’s not about mere technicality; it’s about poise. This poise has gone out of our classical tradition, almost without exception, even among elders.

There’s change in non-Bollywood music, too. You hear shouts for “band sound” everywhere. What’s “band sound”? Every band has its own sound. What a band can do is create a synergy of sounds. Again, it isn’t merely about technicality — it’s about expression. That’s the difference between creativity and application. I can learn to play a certain way and play well, but I may not be creating music. Even after all these years, we as a nation of musicians are still in the experimentation phase as far as that synergy goes. It’s like the first few crappy movies made when the world moved from black-and-white to colour. It’s like the early compositions on the synthesiser; before Pink Floyd, everyone was just experimenting. Expression takes time.

In coming years, if not in 2012, we will see more of that meaningful expression. But we need help to do that. For one, we need media support. Today, the media doesn’t give us news, it sells news to make money. If there’s a small show somewhere with interesting music and a Bollywood show close by, the media will report the Bollywood one because “that’s what sells”. It’s not a complaint about the media in general — it’s been extremely kind to Indian Ocean. We could sell our first few albums without visuals because of the press’s support. But if you really want to look at the country’s cultural landscape, please attach the correct weight to everything.

One thing that’s likely to change things for musicians in 2012 is the Copyright Act amendment. The current act isn’t bad, but we aren’t good at implementation. Even if a musician faces enormous hassles to pursue a case against a plagiarist, the latter, if convicted, can get away with a fine of a few thousand rupees. I haven’t sued some offenders for this reason. The musician’s intellectual property rights will also be recognised.

A change in sound is more difficult to pin down. A whole lot of bands aren’t making good music, but people still want more of them. They want a certain kind of attitude; that’s what they are getting.

That’s changing too. Pune, a city that used to throng the Sawai Gandharva classical music festival in lakhs, is turning up for NH7, one of the best-organised rock shows in this part of the world, in the tens of thousands. It’s a sign. In the past two years, Indian Ocean has played to rapt crowds in places such as Dehra Dun and Bhopal, without compromising on the set songs. A few years ago, we played in Diphu, a small town near the Assam-Nagaland border, to a ticket-buying audience of 13,000. Of them, more than 2,000 had bought tickets worth Rs 1,00m, 0 each.

Is this new? May be not. May be we just didn’t see it. May be the companies who put in the money were looking only at bigger centres till now. Or may be there’s a new crowd. And may be, a new music is possible, after all.

New Delhi-based Susmit Sen founded the band Indian Ocean in 1990. His first solo album, Depths of the Ocean, was released last month.