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Starting Over Again

India’s biggest band is back playing to packed houses after having dealt with the loss of their larger than life singer-tabla player Asheem Chakravarty, who died in December last year. A new album which is being distributed free on the net, and the publicity surrounding their song in Aamir Khan’s new film Peepli Live is providing Indian Ocean a new sheen, and generating a whole new generation of fans for the aging rockers (Photographs by Muneesh Tarsem)

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Bobin James Aug 10, 2010
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Tucked away between two fairly modern houses in a middle-class locality in Delhi’s Karol Bagh area is the bungalow we have been looking for. After fifteen minutes of driving around up and down the crowded Khajoor Road we were finally at its rusted gates. The sprawling old house, surrounded by what must have once been a blooming garden, obviously had seen better days. Old flower pots with dried remnants of rose bushes lie around untended. The paint ”“ different shades of blue ”“ is peeling off the walls. You would be forgiven for thinking that this place is unoccupied. Yet, this is the place where some of the best rock fusion music to come out of India has been composed over the last two decades.

16/330, Khajoor Road is the address where the country’s arguably most successful and pioneering rock fusion band, Indian Ocean, has rehearsed and composed since the 1990s. “We were offered this house by our friends, Gurpreet Sidhu and Orijit Sen, who were living there at that time, and were quite cool with having a band share their living space,” the band says about the house on its website, “Kb, as we call it informally, became a home away from home, where our albums were conceived and polished. Hundreds of our friends have visited us here, had chai and spirits and Rim Zim with us, played cricket with us, sung with us, partied and contributed to the spirit of this amazing house. “Susmit Sen, the co-founder and guitarist of the band  tells me that the Faiz Ahmed Faiz, one of the giants of Twentieth Century South Asian Urdu poetry, used to frequent ”“ and perhaps live in  this 100-year-old house during his stay in Delhi. “There are fairly reliable reports that say he was often seen reciting poetry in this courtyard,” says Sen. He along with tabla player, Asheem Chakravarty, who passed away on Christmas Day last year, founded the band in its earliest avatar in 1990.

16/330, Khajoor Road is also the title of Indian Ocean’s sixth album, their first after 2003’s Jhini and 2004’s soundtrack for Black Friday. “This new album is going to be the last seven or eight songs that Asheem was part of, in composition, in performance and in recording,” says Rahul Ram, the band’s bassist and vocalist. “16/330 Khajoor Road is where we have been since 1997, and it’s been a great space for us. And we’re probably going to lose this space soon. So [this album] is a tribute to Asheem and a tribute to this wonderful space.”

Apart from the music itself, the unique thing about this seven song album is that it is being distributed free on the band’s website. One new song will be available for download every month for the next seven months. “It’s kind of like Harry Potter, where you keep waiting for the next book to come out,” says Ram, “We won’t be telling which song will come out next month. You come to the website and check it out, and if you like it, take it away.”

”˜Chand,’ the first song which went live last week saw nearly 9000 downloads in the first four days, which already makes it a hit by Indian standards. With Ram’s low throbbing bass riff, Chakravarty’s gloriously soaring vocals, Sen’s sparkling guitarlines and Amit Kilam’s deft drumming, this odd-time-signature song is vintage Indian Ocean. The other tracks span a range of sounds. The lilting ”˜Bondhu’ is reminiscent of a Bhatiyali (traditional boat songs from Bengal). ”˜Jogiya’ features a hypnotic bass groove and some throaty singing from Rahul Ram. ”˜Sone ki Nagri’ is a boisterous look at the state of affairs in the country, in the vein of the band’s old hit ”˜Hille Le.’ “I keep wondering why people ask if we’re going to change our sound,” says Ram. “Indian Ocean managed to get what most bands spend their whole life searching for – a unique sound – early on in its career.”

Simultaneously with the release of the album comes the huge amount of publicity generated by one of Indian Ocean’s old tracks ”˜Des Mera,’ (from their 2003 album Jhini) which has been reprised by the band for the new Aamir Khan-produced film Peepli Live, set to release this month. The movie, the song and the band are all enjoying the relentless media hype currently, typical of the Aamir Khan style of pre-release movie marketing. (The actor even showed off his skills on the drums by jamming with the band at the movie music release event in Mumbai few weeks ago.)

From the packed houses that the band has been drawing for its concerts over the last few months it is quite clear that Indian Ocean fans are not ruing the absence of Asheem Chakravarty, the band’s much loved percussionist-singer. From the band’s earliest days, Chakravarty has been an overarching presence on all its tracks, the man primarily responsible for the band’s unique fusion sound. With his innovative tabla playing and soulful vocals (he was that rare musician who could play the tablas and sing at the same time), he provided the Hindustani classical music backbone to the more rock sounds of Sen’s guitars, Ram’s bass and Kilam’s drums.

A master at vocal improvisation, Chakravarty also played the tarang and an array of percussion instruments. Many considered him the indispensable soul of the band. He can be heard at his glorious best not just on ”˜Chand,’ but also on rest of the tracks on 16/330, Khajoor Road, all of which were composed and recorded when he was alive. So in many ways, the new album represents the end of an era for the band and a watershed for the future. The challenge would be to find someone of equal calibre to replace him, for the vocals, the tablas as well as the compositions.

For the near term, the band is touring with two sessions musicians, Tuhin Chakraborty and Himanshu Joshi, the first a percussionist and the other for the vocals. “At this time 40 per cent of the band is new,” says Kilam. “There are now five people instead of four.” The new musicians have not been elevated to full membership, as the band tries to figure out the ideal replacement for Asheem. “It will take time, maybe a year or even two, for a completely stable new line-up,” says Kilam. The sessions musicians, selected after an arduous round of auditions, were needed urgently for Indian Ocean’s relentless schedule – they do upwards of 80 live shows a year. In August, they leave for a three-week tour of the US followed by a week in China, a week in Malaysia and then Europe.

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The challenge, of course, would be when they start work on new material sometime in the future. Without Chakravarty, would it sound like the Indian Ocean of the past or would be it a move in a new direction?

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Reminiscing about the time when Indian Ocean first came to him in 1998, Promod Shanker, the then-Vice President-A&R, for Times Music, says, “If you were musically exposed, at the first instance you would know that [Indian Ocean’s] music was brilliant. It was something unique and extraordinary that they had designed.” The band was relatively unknown at that time, with two releases behind them ”“ 1992’s Indian Ocean, and 1997’s live Desert Rain. Desert Rain’s popularity was their calling card with which they approached labels for their next album. “Unfortunately ”“ and fortunately for us ”“ those labels didn’t understand what Indian Ocean was,” says Shanker who wasted no time in signing them on for 2000’s Kandisa.

Kandisa spawned some of the most popular hits for the band. The title track, sung in Aramaic, the 3000-year-old Semitic language said to have been spoken by Jesus, is an ancient prayer that generated a huge following for the band, the language barrier notwithstanding. In May this year, when the band performed at their two sold-out shows at Mumbai’s Blue Frog, one of the high points was when the 1,000 plus audience starting chanting the chorus of the song, turning the club into a church for a few minutes. “Yeah, that song does something,” says Ram. “When we played Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival, we’ve had this cynical, hardened Scotsman come up to us and say [putting on a Scottish accent], ”˜Ya fucker made me crrry… I felt like I was in a churrrch… I haven’t been to a churrrch in forrrrty fuckin’ years.’”

The song, along with other tracks like ”˜Ma Rewa’ (an exuberant eulogy to the Narmada sung in the folk style of Madhya Pradesh) and ”˜Hille Le’ a protest song written by Bihari poet Gorakh Pandey, made Kandisa Indian Ocean’s defining album and also their best-selling ever, having sold over 200,000 copies. That, along with their high energy live shows polevaulted them to a position on the Indian rock pantheon, which no band is unlikely to match in the near future. “What probably set us apart was that we did not disregard our roots,” says Sen. “Ultimately, if you can actually feel your roots and express from there, a lot can be done”¦ [more] than going by the typical rock & roll format.” Ram speaks about the time he played in rock bands while in college. “A lot of people in those bands would pretend that they haven’t even heard Hindi film songs. How can you live in a country and pretend to be divorced from its ethos?” he wonders.

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One young band that follows this mantra of ”˜respecting the roots’ is Swarathma, the folk-rock outfit from Bengaluru. (Incidentally, their debut album was produced by Amit Kilam.) “As a band, we look up to them”¦ how they play their music, how they’ve been together as a band for so long. That’s a great inspiration,” says Swarathma frontman, Vasu Dixit. He speaks of an occasion when they two bands appeared together on a television talk show. “Asheem had said, ”˜Fusion has to happen in the minds and the hearts. Music toh koi bhi bana sakta hai, anybody can do it. But it’s only when there a fusion of minds that your music will also find that fusion’.”

Kandisa was followed up by 2003’s Jhini, another successful album with over 100,000 copies of sales. Besides hits like ”˜Bhor,’ ”˜Jhini’ and ”˜Nam Myo Ho,’ this album also featured ”˜Des Mera,’ which will be heard in Peepli Live. The music in Jhini was earlier heard in Swaraj: The Little Republic, a cause-driven feature directed by Anwar Jamal and produced by the Institute of Social Sciences, which was released in 2002.

Indian Ocean’s biggest success with films came with Black Friday, the 2004 Anurag  Kashyap film about the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts. Its haunting songs and the gritty background score made the music as big a star as the movie itself. Released as a full-length album in 2005, Black Friday turned out to be almost as popular as Kandisa. Says Piyush Mishra, the lyricist for Black Friday, “Indian Ocean’s music, for me, can be described in just one word ”“ wild. Their music is a mix of diverse sounds. After all, who else would have thought of picking up Gorakh Pandey’s verses and turn it into a rock composition [referring to ”˜Hille Le].”

Despite the popularity of Black Friday, Indian Ocean’s experience with Hindi cinema hasn’t been the best. While some of films did not see a theatrical release, others disappeared without a trace soon after they were released. The list of jinxed Bollywood projects got just a bit longer on July 27, with the death of Ravi Baswani ”“ the band was working on the soundtrack for Baswani’s directorial debut. All of this meant that the band’s music after Black Friday remained largely unheard. A crucial gap that 16/330, Khajoor Road is now bridging. The tracks on the album were originally composed for various films. Chand, is from a short film by Anurag Kashyap, ”˜Shoonya’ from Arindam Mitra’s film by the same name, ”˜Sone ki Nagri’ from Jaideep Varma’s Hulla, and rest from a shelved film called Bhoomi. “We told the director, ”˜If your film releases, we will license it again to you’,” says Sen.

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Indian Ocean were initially planning to release the songs on 16/330, Khajoor Road as paid digital downloads. But many rounds of discussions and deliberations later, they came to the conclusion that ”˜download for free’ was the way to go. “The internet is on the rise; piracy is on the rise,” says Kilam. “What numbers [of albums that would sell] are we talking about after all? We are not going to become rich overnight on the basis of album sales, unless something earth-shattering happens.”

Despite its huge success, Kandisa their best-selling album, according to the band, has earned them just Rs 10,00,000 in royalties over the last ten years. So that ruled out their getting into a similar deal with any label for Khajoor Road. And self-releasing a physical CD ”“ atleast in large numbers ”“ was also ruled out. “We simply don’t have the wherewithal to do that,” says Kilam. “And honestly, nor do we have the inclination.” Then there was the copyrights factor. As Sen says, “We realised that if you are creating something, ultimately, you should be the owner of your own creation.” Singer Shubha Mudgal, who has collaborated with the band in the past, says, “This is a brilliant concept as it not only allows them to connect directly with their fans, but will also ensure that equal attention will be paid to each of the songs from the album.”

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The band admits to being very poor at marketing themselves, so the one-song-a-month tactic is also to ensure a steady traffic every month to the website. “In India, artists have always made money from live shows,” says Kilam. “So if there is no money to be made [from songs and albums], let it go to the fans for free. Why let someone else make money on it?” he reckons. When we spoke in May, Kilam had said that the band was trying to get sponsors to cover the costs involved, but promised that “come July 25, the first song would roll out. With or without a sponsor. With or without money.” But they did find a sponsor in Johnnie Walker, and the money involved, according to industry insiders, would make it the largest deal of its kind signed by an Indian rock band. At the end of seven months, a physical CD will also be made available for listeners who want it. “There is still an emotional value attached to a CD,” feels Kilam. “With a digital file, it’s hidden somewhere on the computer.” They will press only about 8,000-10,000 copies, though.

Pushing the DIY nature of things further will be another initiative on the band’s website, where they will be promoting one new artist every month. “We are looking for artists. They can send in their music and we just host them on our website, linking it back to theirs,” says Kilam. If the number of hits reach the few lakhs that he is expecting, it would turn out to be great exposure for these new bands. The featured band for the first month is Swarathma. “Young bands these days have pride in themselves”¦ they are sorted. “Swarathma ”“ they really know what a stage act is and should be,” explaining the choice.

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During the course of one of our interviews at Khajoor Road, the three band members excused themselves to meet a vocalist they were auditioning. He looked like he was in his early twenties, and was evidently overawed by the fact that he is sitting in the same jam-room as three of the biggest musicians in the country. The band members tried their best to make him feel at ease ”“ constantly offering encouragement and appreciation. “That is a big problem,” Kilam tells me later. “When these people come in, they look up to you. You know what”¦ we might have been playing for fifteen years, we might be Indian Ocean. So what? Now they are going to be part of Indian Ocean too. So we would want them to be friends and equals.” Sen tells me how he had, for a while, even toyed with the idea of getting in a female singer, Anusheh Anadil ”“ vocalist with Bangladeshi band Bangla, who’s sung with them earlier ”“ into the band. “Then there would be no comparisons to Asheem. Because, eventually, the comparisons will get to us.”

In the weeks and months after Chakravarty’s illness, the band had to fulfil existing concert commitments. And it meant making sure that the sessions musicians who came in as replacements were doing a good job. “You had no time to sit there in the middle of a show and say, ”˜Oh, I miss him,’” says Ram. “Somewhere in the back of your head, of course, you are missing him.” He recalls the one time he felt his former bandmember’s absence strongly: Octoberfest, in Bengaluru, the second show they did without Chakravarty (who was in hospital at the time). “There were some 5,000 people there and they loved the show even though we didn’t do a particularly great job. I felt sad… ”˜Yaar, he’s not there and it seems to make no difference to them.’ It’s like you take away one of my limbs and nobody notices.” But, he says, he had people tell him that this was perhaps the audience’s way of showing their love for the band. “I was told, ”˜They want you guys to go on… they want Indian Ocean to keep performing. So give in to the love, take it’,” Ram recalls.

From the few hours I spent with the band at 16/330, Khajoor Road, the band still comes across as a bunch of college friends hanging out and jamming together. They are having fun and you can see it. The earlier audition with the singer had ended in an impromptu jam to ”˜Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyaar Ke Charche.’ Kilam regales us all with his tales of being caught between mating elephants and wild tuskers in Corbett recently, and his Bollywood versions of Indian Ocean classics. Ram’s got the Amitabh Bachchan song ”˜Mere Paas Aao Mere Doston…’ stuck in his head and he’s constantly whistling the tune. There is good natured ribbing, and a general sense of bonhomie all around.

So what has kept the band together for so long? “Ultimately, it’s the love for the music,” says Sen. “You know, when we are not on tour or not composing, our social lives are very different. Our friend circles are completely different. Otherwise we are spending so much of time together… on two-month long tours and all. Can you imagine waking up to see the same faces everyday and there is no sex?”

16/330 Khajoor Road: The Songs

”˜Chaand’
”˜Bondhu’
”˜Jogiya’
”˜Sone ki Nagari’
”˜Shoonya’
”˜Bula Raha Hai’
”˜Hulla’

Home

Indian Ocean Discography

Desert Rain (1997)
Kandisa (2000)
Jhini (2003)
Black Friday (2004)
16/330, Khajoor Road (2010)

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