It is never easy to describe a two-decade-long journey, especially one that is still ongoing. Today, Indian Ocean, the band in which I play, is called various things by various people, but as perhaps best put by Amit Kilam, our drummer-vocalist-percussionist, we are at base the best accompanying artists for each other. As none of us was ever technically very competent, this is a band whose sum is truly greater than its parts.
It all started with Susmit Sen (guitar) and Asheem Chakravarty (tabla/percussion/vocals) as far back as 1983 or so, jamming on some elementary compositions by Susmit. After experimenting with various musicians, Indian Ocean was formed in 1990 as an almost completely instrumental band. The group already had a unique sound, given that Susmit’s guitar sounded like nobody else and, combined with Asheem’s highly unconventional tabla, produced a very Indian yet fresh sound. I joined a year later and played a significant role in incorporating vocals into the band’s sound. Asheem had a wonderful voice yet was not singing, and I definitely wanted to sing. And so, shortly thereafter, Indian Ocean’s first song was recorded – ‘Village Damsel’, with folk-based lyrics in Bengali sung by Asheem. Asheem was never very clear about where he got the lyrics from, but thought that they might have been from something he heard in the background score of a Gautam Ghose film.
Each others’; best accompanist: Clockwise from top, Amit, Rahul and Asheem
Photo credit: Sabarish Raghupathy
All these developments notwithstanding, something still was not gelling for Indian Ocean. Amit joined us in 1994 when our former drummer, Shaleen, left the band to work on film music in Madras. Shaleen left because, frankly, nothing much was happening with the band at the time. In the first five years of its existence, Indian Ocean had played only seven concerts, and the four of us made less money from concerts than we had spent travelling to practice. Yes, we had recorded an album, and had been told that we had sold more cassettes than any other Indian band while receiving some great reviews, but this had not translated into more concert opportunities. As a result, all of us did music for TV serials, documentary films and ad jingles. I also used to play with another band and with a ‘jagran party’ – a group that performs at popular all-night community celebrations in North India – the latter fetching the princely sum of INR 250 per night.
All through this, I was deeply involved with the activism of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). A lot of this work was in Delhi, interacting with the press, bringing out a newsletter, and analysing the voluminous technical information on the Sardar Sarovar project. But every now and then I would go to the Narmada Valley itself, in the thick of the struggle, and it was this experience that was to transform my life. Some of the first ‘political’ songs performed by Indian Ocean came out of my time spent in the valley.
This amazing thing
Indian Ocean is not a ‘political’ band. The four of us come from very different political approaches, and while we may discuss issues, we never make songs directly about them. For example, we sang ‘Hille Le’, Gorakh Pande’s stirring revolutionary song, primarily because it is a great song – the revolutionary import was almost secondary. ‘Ma Rewa’, the folk hymn to the Narmada River, eventually became the NBA’s theme song, a song with no political lyrics but rich in implied context. When Indian Ocean rearranged and performed it, that was a political act; but again, it was the beauty of the song itself that attracted us.
A third song that came directly from my NBA experience is ‘Boll Weevil’. This is a song by Adivasi activist and poet Vahru Sonavane of the Bhoomi Sena (from Thane, in Maharashtra) that was translated into Bhilali by Shankarbhai Tadavale of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh), an independent trade union working to organise the Bhil and Bhilala communities in central India for rights to land and forest. The lyrics go:
Nakedar aave, kukdi maange re,
Heenvi zooni aaptara,
Vaghne vaasda, amuy adivasi ra.
Literally, this means: The policeman comes and asks for a chicken as a bribe, but we won’t give it to him like we did earlier (because) we Adivasis are the cubs of tigers. The song is a very strong, beautiful statement against corruption and about Adivasi self-identity, but I am quite convinced that most of our listeners have no idea what the lyrics actually say.
If Indian Ocean is not necessarily a political band, it does have what can be thought of as a ‘common minimum programme’, in that each of its members have had in common a liberal humanist approach. So, for example, we hate communalism; caste is not a conscious factor in our lives; and we are against discrimination. Thus, a song such as ‘Bandeh’ resonates strongly with each of us, as this is an appeal to stop the cyclical religious violence that has scarred India and other countries of the region for so many decades. A different type of song is ‘Des Mera’, a celebration of India that is applicable to all ‘third world’ countries: ‘India, sir, ye cheez dhurandhar, jeb daliddar, dil hai samundar’ (India, sir, is this amazing thing, our pockets are empty but are hearts are as big as the ocean).
The last song that Asheem – who died on 25 December 2009 – was part of composing, singing, playing and recording is based on a poem called ‘Darte Ho’ by the famous Pakistani poet N M Rashid. Like all good poems, the words are open to interpretation, but our reading of it suggests that the work is addressed to those who use religion to suppress dissent:
Tum yahi samajhte ho,
Tum magar yeh kya jaano,
labh agar nahin hilte haath jag utthte hain
haath bol utthte hain, subah ki azaan bunkar
You think that this silence is the road to godliness,
but you do not know that when lips are sealed, hands rise,
hands speak to become the herald of a new dawn.
We all fell in love with the poem, and today it is perhaps the best example of the ‘political’ songs of Indian Ocean.
Asheem composed music for a street-theatre group during his college days, and political statements are an integral part of the lexicon of that genre. He would tell us stories about getting stuck in Bombay during the 1984 riots while he was taking part in a street-theatre festival, and the amazing plays that the groups ended up performing essentially for each other due to the imposition of a curfew. In later years Asheem’s life became quite a struggle, and he came to see political action as a luxury, realising that just making ends meet took up all the energy of most middle-class lives, leave alone the poor. He regarded my work with the NBA with affection, but refused to get drawn into arguments on the merits of the high-dam project. A healthy cynicism informed his views on political issues, but I feel it also prevented analysis.
Susmit, on the other hand, has always maintained that politics played no role whatever in his music. He feels that lyrics are too ‘easy’, constituting something of a shortcut in expressing emotions – and that emotions can be expressed by music by itself, without the crutch of lyrics. Susmit has regarded comments about the political nature of Indian Ocean with suspicion, and over the years this has led to several arguments within the group. When India celebrated 50 years of Independence, several people asked why we did not make a song about it; Susmit was the first to reply, noting that we have always loved India, and there was no need to express our emotions just because it was fifty years since Independence. The whole band agreed wholeheartedly.
Recently, though, Susmit has tweaked this understanding a bit. He has come to accept that the personal can also be political, and that it is perfectly legitimate that one’s personal convictions can inform one’s music. And so it was that he produced a solo album of old Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) songs sung by Sumangala Damodaran – clearly a significant turnaround from decrying political songs.
Amit is much more complex. His family was forced to leave Kashmir, and they lost everything. The resentment from what has happened in Kashmir will remain, he says, but the hope that it does not lead to violent communalism is good enough for him. In fact, an Indian Ocean song called ‘Kaun’ has Kashmiri lyrics written by Amit’s mother, which say, ‘Keen dafna, gil mashraav, dyotsi dyotsi meli bahaar’ (Bury your sorrows, put aside your suspicions and fears, and gardens will bloom again). His father wishes that we could one day perform this song on the banks of the Jhelum River in Kashmir, and help all Kashmiris to move on from decades of agony and violence. Amit is probably the most ‘capitalist’ of the band members, and also a much more modern individual, whose sense of social responsibility lies in the desire to foster civil society and a strong belief in making the world a kinder, gentler place through his daily actions.
From Khajoor Road
I, Rahul, have mellowed over the years! I used to describe myself as a watermelon – green on the outside and red inside, reflecting longstanding interests in environmentalism and communist revolution – but over the years the red has faded to a dull pink. The green, however, remains strong. I never thought I would become a professional musician; though, actually, of the band’s members only Amit was always focused on making music for a living. My political education accelerated with a trip to the Chipko Andolan, in the Garhwal hills, when I was 17; before that, I was part of a student environmentalist group in Delhi.
My green convictions, ironically, acquired a reddish hue while studying in the US. On returning to India, I was immediately immersed in the NBA. There I met some outstanding individuals, who had devoted their entire lives to grassroots people’s movements for justice, equality and sustainability. I had all the fanaticism of a new convert at the time, and would rail against the inequities of state and society to all and sundry. I put my research skills to good use, too, providing analysis of the Sardar Sarovar project and developing a critique that tried to highlight its inadequacies.
I was also passionately interested in music, and the songs that I heard and sang in the Narmada Valley inevitably found their way into the music of Indian Ocean. In addition, our band is such that people want us to compose music for themes that are often political, such as the entire soundtrack for Black Friday, a film that looked at the Bombay blasts of 1993, and the songs for Bhoomi (yet to be completed, such is Bollywood), a film that examines the increasing disaffection and inequalities in rural India. For this latter film, we composed a song called ‘Sone Ki Nagri’, whose lyrics go:
Sone ki nagri ke sau sau hain raja,
Andhey rajaon mein kana maharaja,
Yahan daku ki raksha daroga kare mere bhai,
Aur goonde-malang hain minister ke ghar jamai …
Bhrastan ke hum hain aur bhrasth hamare,
Ek hi thali ke chatte-batte saare,
Jungle mein mangal ki reet hai hame pyaari,
Aur kalyug mein kalki sambhalenge naiya hamari.
The city of gold has a hundred kings,
among all the blind kings, the one-eyed king is supreme.
Here the dacoit is protected by the policeman,
and goons live in the houses of ministers …
We are all from corruption, and all ours are corrupt,
All of us eat from the same plate and when Armageddon comes,
the god Kalki will steer our boat.
Bhoomi may or may not be released, but the song has become part of our new album, 16/330 Khajoor Road. The band decided to release the album free on the Internet, releasing one song every month, with the physical CD to be released early this year. This decision was prompted in part by the realisation that we did not particularly want to deal with music companies any longer, coupled with the fact that almost all professional musicians in India today make most of their money from live performances, not from royalties.
The album is named after the house in Karol Bagh, in Delhi, that we have been lucky enough to have as a practice space for 14 years. This space seems to almost have a spiritual quality, and a lot of Indian Ocean songs are strongly spiritual – another strong trend that runs through our music. This spirituality is definitely not religious, but focuses on looking inward and finding solutions to problems from within rather than seeking external solace. This type of approach is mistakenly referred to by many as ‘Sufi’ – or, perhaps anything ‘Sufi’ just sells well nowadays – but I feel that this approach typifies the band’s outlook on our music generally.
People ask us how we have stayed together for over fifteen years, or want us to characterise the ‘struggle’ of the early days of Indian Ocean. But the truth is, we never thought of the long years when we had no recognition as a struggle. Rather, at nearly all times we have been pleased with the music we have been making, and the public reaction at our occasional concerts validated our belief in our music. It is quite possible that it all could have come to nothing, since luck does play a great part in the life of any moderately successful artiste. Nevertheless, we pushed on regardless – very bad at marketing and trying to ‘sell’ ourselves, but having a lot of fun and gaining some satisfaction along the way.
Today, it is very pleasing to have people tell us that they, too, have decided to follow their passion and to abandon the humdrum, as a result of seeing us do our own thing. I do have one very large regret though. Our bandmate Asheem has now been gone for more than a year, and I wish he was around to share the journey, especially as 2010 turned out to be the most successful year ever for Indian Ocean. But we shall, as is our wont, bash on regardless.
Rahul Ram is the bassist for Indian Ocean, and is based in Delhi.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
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