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Where Is Indian Ocean Headed?

The Delhi folk rock band’s new guitarist Nikhil Rao steps into Susmit Sen’s shoes to carry forward the sound that took shape 23 years ago

Megha Mahindru Jul 18, 2013
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From top left: Nikhil Rao, Tuheen Chakravorty, Rahul Ram, Himanshu Joshi, Amit Kilam. Photo: Shatabdi Chakrabarti

From top left: Nikhil Rao, Tuheen Chakravorty, Rahul Ram, Himanshu Joshi, Amit Kilam. Photo: Shatabdi Chakrabarti

While the location may have changed from their 16/330 Khajoor Road address, Indian Ocean’s jam pad has never been so hectic. At least not in the last couple of years. At their new jamming space in Ghitorni near Gurgaon, the Delhi folk rock band has been putting in over five hours every day, running through their two-decade old material. Says the band’s bassist, Rahul Ram, “We are revisiting a lot of our older material and reinventing it. It’s the way we used to practise earlier. Even the other guys [Tuheen Chakravorty and Himanshu Joshi who stepped in after Chakravarty’s demise] haven’t seen this kind of jamming.” Since guitarist Susmit Sen announced his decision to quit the band, the band has been working with his 29-year-old replacement, Nikhil Rao, to bring him up to speed.

After Asheem Chakravarty succumbed to a fatal cardiac arrest in December 2009, Sen’s exit in June signaled the departure of the two founding members. Says Ram, “In my head, what happened is that Indian Ocean formed in 1990. I joined in 1991 and Amit (Kilam) in 1994, so what does [the idea of a] founding member mean after 20 years, considering I wasn’t there for one year?” Kilam says that the band members were aware of Sen’s plans to leave the band almost a year ago. Adds Dhruv Jagasia, the band’s manager, “It [Sen’s departure] will affect the band, but unfortunately, the word ”˜affect’ has a negative connotation that I don’t agree with. Asheem’s death was something completely hard on the band because it was untimely. It can’t be compared to Susmit’s exit, something we all knew and planned accordingly.”

Their new guitarist, Rao, was born in 1984, the same year that Sen and Chakravarty met for the first time. Rao met the band in 2010 at their erstwhile jam studio in Karol Bagh during the time his brother Anurag began assisting Jagasia in managing the band. “I ended up jamming with them for an hour,” says Rao. Sen speaks in superlatives when he recalls this particular session: “I remember when he took my guitar and started playing, I was thoroughly impressed. Nikhil is the most apt choice because he has this Indianness in his style of playing.” For now, the guitarist, who cut short his PhD in Material Science in Singapore to play with the band, seems to be easing into Sen’s shoes. At concerts, he can be seen playing Sen’s iconic Yamaha Silent until he finds himself appropriate gear. Rao, who started out as a self-taught guitarist playing for metal band Swastika during his graduation days in Ahmedabad, says, “I think I’m still as much of a fanboy of Indian Ocean that I was when I first saw them. Susmit has this unique style, within 10 seconds you know he’s playing. So the first time I met Susmit, I asked him to teach me some techniques. Since I joined the band, he’s always been there to clear my doubts, like when I asked him to help me out with the intro of ”˜Kandisa’.”

Unlike most new recruits, there were no auditions for Rao and picking the young guitarist was a unanimous decision. Says Kilam, “We are the not the best musicians, you know, the best drummer or the best guitarist. What we are is a set of decent composers of music. So who are we to conduct auditions?” When Rao was initially invited to play in the band, the new guitarist assumed that the band will include two guitarists. Ram says he picked Rao for his unique style: “The desire was to find someone with a very different style and Nikhil has a unique style that we had all noticed three years ago when he first jammed.  He’s got a nice Carnatic influence and likes to play a range of styles that ends up making his own style.” Rao has already performed with Indian Ocean in Barcelona earlier this month and will travel with them for their upcoming multi-city US tour in September. But the guitarist admits that being on stage with Indian Ocean’s improvisational style of performing takes getting used to. Says Rao, “When I got the offer, I practised all the licks on every song of their albums. The only thing I didn’t realize was that they never play their material as it is on the album.” His next lesson was when he performed his debut gig with the band in Delhi in April. “I got to know that this band doesn’t have a setlist,” he says, “Before our first show, I asked them what we were playing and they said ”˜Let’s go and figure at the venue.’ Later, I realized that the only time one truly knows the song we are playing is when Rahul talks to the audience and arrives at the title. I freaked out thinking how this will work, since it gives me just a few seconds to prepare.” The rest of Indian Ocean, however, use phrases such as “breaking the monotony,” “buoyancy” and “breath of fresh air” to describe his entry into the band. 

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The question, however, is whether the lineup change will impact the band’s setlist.  Will tracks such as “Melancholic Ecstasy” or “Torrent” that put the spotlight on Sen continue to be part of the setlist? The band doesn’t have a definite answer. Although Ram believes that the addition of a young guitarist has already changed the band’s sound: “We are all turning a bit more rock. With Nikhil, you’ll also see this touch of Carnatic creeping into our songs.” On his part, Sen is firm about showcasing only his solo material at his gigs. “I have my completely new repertoire, so right now, I don’t need to [play Indian Ocean’s compositions]. If I were to play Indian Ocean songs, I wouldn’t have moved on. But at times, I might play a song or two if the occasion demands,” he says.

Like fans, Indian Ocean’s contemporaries too are optimistic. Subir Malik of Parikrama, the Delhi band that has been together for 22 years, remembers being “shell-shocked” when he first heard of Sen’s exit, but is now confident of the band pulling through: “People said that [the band will fall apart] at Asheem bhai’s sad demise as well, but Indian Ocean is a band of fighters. They never gave up and never will. They will come out shining.” Delhi band Euphoria incidentally shared a bandmate with Indian Ocean in Amit Kilam, who played with both bands for three years from 1995 to 1998. Says Euphoria’s founder and frontman Palash Sen of lineup changes, “The change is more emotional than one that affects the business of music. I feel every band member brings his value to a band, but in any band that has a standing of 20 years, the soul can’t change.”

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Although Palash is also of the opinion that bands with a singular voice are more likely to stick it out longer. “I’ve designed mine as a band with one leader, one brain and one source of fire. In such a situation, the leader has to ensure that the whole band comes together,” says Palash, who adds that Ram is now most suited to play the role of the bandleader. Palash elaborates, “He [Ram] has become the face of the band. He’s been on television shows and is the most affable to watch at concerts.” But since the start, Indian Ocean has maintained that the band functions as a collective, rubbishing the concept of a frontman. Says Ram, “If you see compositionally, each one of us contributed. So from the songs that we play on stage now, maybe we play only one song that was made before Amit and I joined.”

For now, the lineup change doesn’t seem to have affected their touring schedule. According to their longtime manager, Jagasia, there hasn’t been a decline or rise in the number of concerts. He says he has  already booked shows from October to February. Adds Jagasia, “It’s pretty much the same, so it hasn’t deeply impacted the band’s popularity. To give you a comparison, we’ve done the same number of shows this year as we did last year; and this being the lean season, we have had the same 4-6 shows in July, as before. I think the news has been taken with great stride with people believing that they will receive the same quality of music as they are used to from the group.” 

In fact, Parikrama’s Malik, who also organizes events in Delhi, recently booked both Indian Ocean and Susmit Sen Chronicles for a fundraiser show, which will take place tomorrow in Delhi. Says Malik, “The band is bigger than an individual and that’s the theory all should follow. For whatever reasons, Susmit is not together with Indian Ocean any longer, but the show must go on. In fact, when I booked both of them for the same show, which will probably be the first time they share the stage as different bands, I asked both if it was okay and they were absolutely cool. So it’s all good.”

Besides gigs, new material will also indicate how well Rao has settled into the band. The change, according to Jagasia, will yield a brand new sound. “An artist/ band is always yearning to reinvent themselves, but few can take this leap of faith ’cause they don’t want to lose their fanbase. Look at Pentagram, it was an out-and-out rock band until six years ago. Now they do this weird electronic rock music which I think is fantastic. With Nikhil, their sound is most likely to change. And in this environment, the only thing constant is change.”  

Indian Ocean and Susmit Sen Chronicles perform at United Unplugged Uttarakhand on July 19th at Manhattan, The Craft Brewery, Gurgaon. For details, click here.



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