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

Lalitha Suhasini Aug 09, 2008
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The album sold all over India but the label, says Sen, found a reason to not push sales or even distribute the debut album in Kolkata. The common refrain was: “What can Bengalis who are not from Bengal achieve?” That ”˜outsider’ bias was followed by another blow ”“ Sharma’s decision to move out of Delhi to Chennai for a lucrative career in recording. The band approached Amit Kilam after watching him at a gig with his classic rock band, Gravy Train. The inside-joke is that Kilam was cradle snatched in college and wasn’t even given an opportunity to find a ”˜real’ job.

We reach 16/330 Khajoor Road, Faiz Road, which has been the band’s second home since a decade courtesy the Sidhus, loyal Indian Ocean fans and founders of the Delhi-based studio store People Tree. Ram comes up to the gate to greet us. The 44-year-old bassist is the original Mr Nice Guy who always has an easy, good line to cheer upcoming bands and the heart to play on all tracks for a contemporary’s debut album ”“ Silk Route’s Boondein. He’s also the man who brings his own style of Indian reggae, with open-chested vocals that you might hear in the middle of an Indian desert, a bustling open field or a rousing Syrian Christian parish.

The building is an old beauty with fissures running across walls, broken lattices and an inviting veranda where the dogs Kaju and Chikki flop out. If the band’s isn’t jamming inside, they’re glued to cricket on TV or out playing the game, catching a smoke or throwing back a drink or two.

This is where Indian Ocean hit upon ”˜Khajuraho,’ ”˜Kandisa,’ ”˜Jhini’ and ”˜Bandeh’ that altered the psyche of Indian rockers. In another century, Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz after whom the road is named, is said to have recited poetry in the courtyard.

Ram hands out a round of chilled RimZim, a cumin-flavoured soda the colour of mud. It’s been a month since the band hung out together. They’d been on the road for five months and took off separate ways for a quiet recharge. This month they head to South Africa – their first tour of the safari country – followed by a tour of America. It’s a leap for the band that did all of five shows in first seven years of its existence and now does about 70 – including 30 international shows – in a year.

An Indian Ocean show turns social consciousness into visceral world music. Elements of jazz, rock, classical and folk converge in their compositions. On stage, Sen, 45, usually meditates on a blizzard of a lead while Chakravarty might move away from the tabla for an interlude of slap beats on Ram’s StingRay as Kilam lets the thunderbolts strike. His Ian Paice-influenced boom shows up on tracks such as ”˜Torrent’ and ”˜Jhini,’ but for the most part Kilam doesn’t conform to any school of playing like the rest of his brotherhood. The youngest in the band, Kilam, 35, is a self-taught multi-instrumentalist who’s currently onto a Turkish string instrument called the Baglama, and the clarinet and flute. On ”˜Ma Rewa,’ the band’s bhajan rock tribute to the river Narmada, he’ll swap his roaring drum kit for the tiny gabgubi that’s slung around his left shoulder and step in front of the stage.

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Unlike the rest of the band, Sen prefers to stay rooted to the spot and surrender to the sound with head bowed to his open-bodied Yamaha Silent Guitar or one of the acoustics. Sen can proudly call the genre-bending technique which makes the guitar cross over into sarod territory his own. The sharper, silkier notes are easier to hit because Sen also tunes down an entire octave, a guitar maintenance lesson he learnt in his teens after a steel-stringed classical guitar from Czechoslovakia, a gift from his father, turned into a weather-beaten wreck.

We settle down in the rehearsal room and the men switch the Asia Cup broadcast to mute ”“ very reluctantly. There are two crucial elements that have kept the band together ”“ several cups of syrupy black tea and cricket. “That’s it really,” adds Ram, “We’ve never had a rough patch when we wanted to forget it and throw it all up.” Not even when the band was making Rs 5,000 a head on an average or when they played merely five shows during the first seven years of their existence from 1990 to 1997.

Ram keeps a handwritten record of the band’s live gigs till date in a tattered Raj Hans notebook with a scraggly graph that charts their performances since 1990. They made their debut in 1990 at the innocuous-sounding Indian Institute of Foreign Trade and were paid Rs 2,000 for it. “In the initial days, when we did shows we didn’t have too much to play. We were not very tight. When somebody made a mistake, the whole band noticed,” says Ram. Today, if one of his strings snapped on stage, he’d coolly go about changing it while the rest of the band would carry on as if nothing has happened. And sometimes the act performance is turned on its head. Kilam remembers a gig at Habitat Centre in Delhi where he and Chakravarty took turns playing bass and Ram swapped bass for drums. While some parts of their shows are improvised take-offs, some of it unravels right here on Khajoor Road. “The evolution of the stage act began sometime in 1998 and we were ready with an actual act by the time Kandisa released in 2000,” says Ram.

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The tide turned at the 2001 Edinburgh Festival when the band was chosen to play at the The Pick of The Fringe segment during its second week at the festival. With 1,300 acts vying for attention, the Pick of The Fringe, a special show, featuring all of five acts that are allowed to perform one piece each, is held at the Pick of The Fringe theatre and is most likely to draw the attention of festival directors who come talent hunting at Edinburgh. “Susmit broke his guitar knob and everybody tuned down to him. And we played ”˜Kandisa’ three down,” remembers Ram. ”˜Kandisa’ on C sharp was what got them their next international show in New Zealand. “Nothing can be as chaotic and exciting as the Edinburgh festival,” says Kilam, who has always been pushing the idea of recording a live performance and finally managed to capture the mad rush of an Indian Ocean gig on DAT tapes two years ago. Launched last month, Live in Delhi was recorded at the capital’s Garden of Five Senses – which was packed beyond capacity – during a November 2006 concert. Eight cameras recorded 14 tracks, 11 of which made it to the final DVD and the band went down to meet their old friend Manoj Kumar, who mastered 1997’s Desert Rain and 2003’s Jhini at his Varadayapalem studio in Andhra Pradesh to lay down the final mix.

The band also plans to put up all its songs up online as paid downloads soon on its website. “All the backend work is done. We only need to sort out marketing and distribution,” says Kilam. When the band first hit upon the idea a few years ago, a major internet music store shockingly wanted 60 per cent share in sales, so the band felt that a DIY plan would work best. The band has been dirt broke during its early years to know that their life’s work is worth more.

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