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Collective Soul

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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Most of them spent their money travelling from home to rehearsal place. “I didn’t have money for petrol,” says Chakravarty. “Amit was studying. Asheem and Susmit were working. I was broke. Asheem lived by himself most of his life and the rest of us lived at home. In fact, I still live with my dad,” says Ram. For the eponymous debut, the band practised on Sen’s in-law’s terrace in South Delhi’s Anandlok residential complex.

Chakravarty, who didn’t have a home then, crashed at the Anandlok apartment, which was a functional crèche by day. “The kids used to come in by 6 am and then I would scoot to work at National Advertising,” says Chakravarti, who made a trip back from Noida everyday to practise. By the time he arrived on the terrace, the band would have finished one set. A friend’s place at Greater Kailash II turned into a practice pad for four or five years. The neighbours complained about noise levels there, remembers Ram, but the band could do little about that until they met the Sidhus, owners of the Khajoor Road property and loyal Indian Ocean fans. Now the neighbours have other plans for them, jokes Ram. “They see so many people walking in and out of the house with recording equipment and have no clue what we’re up to. One neighbour, who assumed we’re filmi types, suggested we use his space to shoot and added, ”˜Bedroom scene bhi shoot ho jayenge’,” he says.

And it’s taken a long time for the band to put down songs. “We’ve made all of 30 songs in the past 18 years,” says Ram. Every single composition has been based on a collective thought.

Composing and structuring draw the soul out but it has to be a collective decision ”“ with no moderators and the most important rule ”“ no bandleader. “We only end up fighting. It’s as normal as anything else in life. But no one person takes over. Ever,” says Chakravarty. Kilam has a simple explanation too: “If three of us don’t like a tune, then most of us may not be able to contribute to it, so that’s easy to decide.” With tongue firmly in cheek he adds, “Ek coalition sa hai [It’s like a coalition].”

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“Even marriages don’t last more than three years. Give it five. But there isn’t even a sexual interest here. We only have bearded men walking into this room,” laughs Chakravarty. As if on cue, Sen walks in and sits down on a stool. Sen is the controlled, extremely polite side of this rambunctious group.

Most musicians find it hard to tell the story of how a song is born. Songs are not made, according to Chakravarty, they just come to be. The thought of a peaceful one kilometre walk to the bus stand turns into ”˜Going to ITO’ and what sounds like a damn dopey imagination that pits a racing train journey against snail-paced thought process inside the head is what ”˜Leaving Home’ is.

Recording is the easier bit. Ten days to record Indian Ocean, two hours for Desert Rain, the live album, 13 days for Kandisa, 42 days for Jhini, and “a long time for Black Friday,” says Kilam.

More films have come Indian Ocean’s way since Black Friday in 2004. The band has composed for the soundtracks of Shoonya, a cricket-centric film, Hulla, a comedy and Bhoomi, a film on the naxal movement in India.  “Sab aise hi filme hame milti hain jahan bomb phatte hai, log mar jaate hain (We seem to draw films like these where bombs go off and people die),” jokes Kilam.

We break for a photoshoot and the band does a quick costume change. Ram, the self-crowned king of tatters off stage, brings out the silks. Chakravarty has lasted the day and is sporting in spite of the heat when we hit the Lodhi Road signal ”“ one of our locations for the day. A stern-faced traffic cop softens up after Ram whispers something to him. “He was trying to tell me why we shouldn’t be shooting here and I told him he doesn’t know meri kitni phat rahi hai yahaan,” says Ram.

On the way back, I bring up songwriting and seem to touch a raw nerve. Most Indian Ocean tracks have referred to Indian folk or sought the help of famous poets like Kabir or even Gorakh Pande. Chakravarty is bristling with rage and cools off only the next day to discuss why the band doesn’t write its own songs. “We didn’t write our own lyrics simply because we knew we weren’t good at it. We haven’t even attempted to because we know our limitations. Besides I can never imagine writing like Sanjeev Sharma – “Dhoom machi/Har nav mei phoote/Ras ki poohare” – I can never write like this no matter how good I am in Hindi.” Ram seconds that. “We’re not claiming to be songwriters.”

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Like in the case of most songs, the compositions come first and the lyrics are written later. Piyush Mishra, who wrote the lyrics for their Black Friday anthem ”˜Bandeh’ sat in on one of their jam sessions along with film maker Anurag Kashyap. He came up with the lines “Arre Ruk Ja Re Bandeh/Arre Tham Ja Re Bandeh/Ki Kudrat Has Padegi,” from ”˜Bandeh’ right here on Khajoor Road. “All we can say is that Indian Ocean isn’t inspired by borrowed angst,” emphasises Chakravarty. When the band decided to include more vocals after Desert Rain, their songs looked to themes that touched them ”“ NBA in ”˜Ma Rewa,’ Buddhism in ”˜Nam Myo Ho’ and an average Indian in love with his country in ”˜Des Mera.’

At night, we ease into the cane chairs with a bottle of rum and some hard truths. One, there are no longterm plans although Bollywood could be a retirement option. “Money is a relative thing. And none of us have ever been ambitious about making money. But yes I’d like it if we could play at more world music festivals,” says Ram. Two, Kilam is unashamedly squeaky clean ”“ he’s a non-smoking, non-doping, teetotaller – but gets all the girls. Kilam, we’re told is the “chick-magnet” at all concerts and had a tough time playing the drums with women latching onto his legs from the back of the stage at a show in Bandu, Indonesia. “The most embarrassing thing is being asked, ”˜Can I touch your hand?’” says Kilam, with a deadpan expression.

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