When percussionist Amit Kilam joined Indian Ocean in 1994, he was the band’s youngest member — 16 years younger to its then-eldest member and founder Asheem Chakravarty. Twenty years later, at the time of launch of their seventh album, the age difference between the band’s eldest and youngest member stands at 23, shared by two of its newer members — Himanshu Joshi, 51, and Tuheen Chakravorty, 27.
It is amazing how the 25-year-old folk-rock band has kept its open-ended ethos alive even after losing half its defining line-up — Chakravarty, Susmit Sen, Rahul Ram and Kilam. Nikhil Rao, 29, from a non-professional music background, has replaced the band’s co-founder and one of the main forces, Sen, but their genre-defying compositions have remained just as free-flowing as before.
Tandanu, their new album, is not just Indian Ocean at its newest — the current line-up is Kilam on drums, vocals and percussion, Ram on bass guitar and vocals, Joshi on vocals, Tuheen on tabla and percussion, and Rao on guitar — it is also the band’s first truly collaborative project. For its seven songs, they have collaborated with as many artistes. For the last three weeks, one track has been launched every Saturday on MTV Indies through a 15-minute film on its making.
“Indian Ocean has always been kind of an insular band. We weren’t competing with anyone and we didn’t even realise it. We were in a world of our own,” says Ram. Arguably one of the most popular Indian rock acts, Indian Ocean is known for their blend of folk, rock, Indian classical and jazz. Among its well-known albums are Kandisa (2000), Jhini (2004) and Black Friday (2004). Their first album, Indian Ocean, came out in 1993.
The idea of collaborating was long brewing. It is not the impromptu jammings they indulge in during live shows and rehearsals, or the “conscious” kind as in Star World’s The Dewarists, for which they teamed up with Mohit Chauhan for the single Maaya in 2012. Instead, it is a full-blown collaborative project with Shubha Mudgal, Karsh Kale, Shankar Mahadevan, Kumaresh Rajagopalan, Pt Vishva Mohan Bhatt, V Selva Ganesh and Vishal Dadlani. “It’s a new sound but still retains links to Indian Ocean’s previous work,” says Ram, frontman of the Delhi-based band.
With its Indian folk-rock grounding, the band keeps its “environmental, non-communal, non-casteist, gender positive, liberal” kind of music-activism intact in Tandanu. Roday, featuring Dadlani, is a song picked up by Ram during the Narmada Bachao Andolan in 1993 and talks about displacement. Gar ho sake toh with Mudgal is a song with a strong subversive message against an oppressive state.
The album is a product of a rejuvenated Indian Ocean that started rehearsing in full zest in April 2013 after the appointment of Rao, ending a two-year lull. Sen had started losing interest in the band after Chakravarty’s death and his dilemma on whether to continue or pursue his personal projects stagnated things for Indian Ocean.
“That was the phase of least productivity. We were waiting for Susmit’s decision,” says Ram and adds, “Amit and I discussed that we won’t be cash cows, resting on past glories. We had to create new music.” Sen’s decision to quit helped the band move on, says Ram, Sen’s schoolmate at St Xavier’s, Delhi, who joined the band as a bassist in 1991. He sees Sen’s leaving only as a natural progression of a musician. “We can’t expect someone to stay all his life with a band, which is a democratic space where musical feelings are expressed,” Ram says.
Rao — Sen’s replacement — came into the picture by virtue of being the brother of their erstwhile assistant manager Anurag Rao, and is an Indian Ocean fan who happened to jam with them a couple of times. Sen and Kilam both recommended his name. “Apart from heavy metal, jazz, blues and rock influences, he picked up a fantastic Indian style also, especially Carnatic, which is suited to Indian Ocean’s music,” says Sen, who, before leaving the band, played a few sessions with Rao to get him accustomed to the band’s environment.