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Collective Soul

Eighteen years on, India’s most original rock band Indian Ocean is still riding the high tide

Aug 09, 2008

Sanjoy Ghosh/Outlook

The Delhi soil is fantastic, says Asheem Chakravarty, pointing to a construction site on the way to Indian Ocean’s Central Delhi jam pad. “25 per cent silt, 15 per cent sand and about three to four per cent clay. It’s very good for construction unlike the Yamuna sand.” Chakravarty, 50, is the nihilistic tabla force behind Indian Ocean, the iconic Delhi band known for its genre-bending sound. So it’s tough to imagine the musician poking around construction sites and making notes on soil samples; it’s like a scene grab from that job portal ad which shows people stuck in the wrong career.

The sun is slow-roasting everybody on Delhi’s wide roads. It’s half past noon and every visible surface seems to be reflecting the white, blinding glare. Chakravarty, who’s behind the wheel for this ride doesn’t look like he’ll last out the scorching July day. All along the drive, the musician is extremely chatty in a rant-y sort of way.

Chakravarty, a math grad, began his career at 23 as a soil investigator at a salary of Rs 450 per month. His work involved gauging the bearing capacity of the soil. That’s how the system was then, spits out Chakravarty, referring to the Sixties when the nation was seemingly obsessed with turning its youth into either doctors or engineers.

The car gets besieged by kids selling books and magazines at a traffic jam. Chakravarty rolls the window down and tells them he’s shed the habit of reading a long while ago. “As kids we were only told to study or go to hell. Nobody told us to become football players, cricketers or a chess champions. My parents were fantastic but even they wanted a readymade career. Why isn’t everybody taught that if something as basic as your fingerprint is different from everyone else, then the grey matter would be infinitely different?”

The conversation veers from non-government organisations and street kids to his son’s school principal’s complaint about kids not showing interest in music. His 14-year-old son has just begun showing interest in the drums. Like a doting father, Chakravarty has bought him a kit, but says he will draw the line at hounding him into playing it. “Tell me who makes music at school fun? Many give up on music because they’re criticised. My teachers didn’t let me sing. Fankaar bahut hain lekin fun nahin hai [There are several entertainers but no fun],” he says twisting prefixes around to refer to musicians who prefer rigid music structures to innovations. It’s this easy wordplay that landed him a job as a copywriter with Delhi-based National Advertising in the early Nineties. But he chucked it all up for music and “his own sanity.” This was the second time that Chakravarty was giving a band a shot. Niharika, his first, was a short-lived contemporary Bengali band formed in the Eighties. Susmit Sen, then a budding guitarist, who forged a firm friendship with Chakravarty teamed up after Niharika folded in 1984.

Two years later, Sen was convinced that they had a good thing going. But Chakravarty was not so sure. “I was a fatalist but I was hardworking,” says Chakravarty, “It took a long time to frame the whole band, to make them stick to the basic skeleton before I could think of vocals. And I didn’t have a home or parents whom I could live with.” Sen and Chakravarty spent a good six years forming a band and then realised that the hardest part was keeping it together. For almost half a decade until 1990, there was no Indian Ocean, only a slew of musicians walking in and out of ”˜a band.’ Chakravarty’s former Niharika bandmate and lead guitarist Indrajeet Dutta, made an effortless transition as Indian Ocean’s bassist, but then chose a career as an architect at the Central Public Works Department over the band. Chakravarty remembers going up to Dutta’s office with folded hands, along with Sen, pleading with him to rethink. But Dutta was firm. “It’s damn difficult to form a band but very easy to break off. And you feel very low when a band member leaves. It was pathetic,” recalls the tabla player. There were others, too, who hung around for a while and then left. The band even had a keyboard player ”“ Sawan Dutta ”“ another architecture student. “She was the only woman in the band filled with a bunch of single men. Everybody wanted to take turns to pick her up or drop her. Everything but music happened. Eventually she left the band on her own. We also realised that we didn’t want to add too many instruments,” says Chakravarty, who was by then desperate for a close, tight circle of musicians.

Their hunt for a bassist ended when an eagle-eyed man with a red bandana and a scruffy beard walked in. Rahul Ram, then a 27-year-old Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) activist, was Sen’s friend from school. Shaleen Sharma, an engineering graduate from Rourkee on the drums, followed Ram – who has a PhD in environmental toxicology from Cornell University – into the band. The nerd cool was complete but by this time the rest of the band stopped showing up for practice. “For months on end only Rahul would show up and he hadn’t seen the rest of the band together,” remembers Sen. The lead guitarist had a day job then ”“ as a marketing executive with one of India’s biggest labels, HMV (now Saregama). It was Sen who convinced the label to sign on Indian Ocean. They recorded their debut at HMV’s studio at Dum Dum, Kolkata, in the winter of 1992. The Babri Masjid had just fallen and the recording deal that was pushed from October to December almost didn’t materialise. The debut had seven to eight minute instrumentals such as ”˜Village Damsel’ and ”˜Melancholic Ecstasy’ two of the band’s biggest concert hits, much in demand even today.

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