Indian Ocean finds new shores

Indian Ocean (L to R) Amit Kilam, Himanshu Joshi, Rahul Ram, Tuheen Chakravarty & Nikhil Rao
Indian Ocean (L to R) Amit Kilam, Himanshu Joshi, Rahul Ram, Tuheen Chakravarty & Nikhil Rao.
Photo: Ashima Yadava

The new Indian Ocean album — Tandanu – will prove to all purist fans of the band a new era has begun for their music which retains the zest of the last 24 years in full measure. Many who mourn the loss of the maestro Asheem Chakraborty and regret the parting of ways with Susmit Sen will find that the inclusion of Nikhil Rao on guitars has opened up a vast array of opportunities for the band’s sound. The remarkable sound of Rao’s axe contrasts well with the seven great artistes featured in the trademark seven-song album of the band.

Apart from the seven greats, the album features the lead singer of Pentagram Vishal Dadlani, and Indian American music producer and percussionist Karsh Kale. All the artists contribute to the Indian Ocean sound, often “producing a third element not common to either Indian Ocean or the collaborating artiste,” as drummer Amit Kilam says.

This is the first time Indian Ocean has collaborated with artistes for an album. After managing to get sponsorships for the recording, they tied up with a label for distribution and are releasing one song per week. Each release is also timed with a film release of the song on MTV Indies. The films are directed by Spandan Banerjee, who, as the band says, played a “fly on the wall but captured exactly what we were doing.” The album will also be released as a CD in early June 2014, and a limited edition vinyl long-playing record will be released as a collector’s item.

The title track Tandanu, is eminently hummable and according to bass player and frontman Rahul Ram, has no meaning. However, Rao claims that ‘Tandanu’ and ‘Tandana’ are often used by performing artistes in Harikatha and Burrakatha. “In these traditional styles, a storyteller narrates a verse and two other performers reply with ‘Tandana’ or ‘Tandanu’ as exclamatory responses to show they are listening,” says Rao. Shankar Mahadevan leads the vocals in this song. “We had been toying with the song for a while and then decided we wanted him to sing it. And while he was singing it, we all realised his Carnatic music techniques could be incorporated into the song too,” says Ram.

There is also Padma Shri-awardee Shubha Mudgal singing the blues scale using an Indian classical music technique as she introduces Gar Ho Sake, a song of protest. “It is an old, Left-leaning anthem which many of my friends have been singing; a common protest song that everyone knows but no one knows where it came from,” says Ram, who learnt the song during his activist days in the Narmada movement of the 1990s.

“This song is unique to both Indian Ocean and to Shubha Mudgal. Neither had done songs like this and when we sat down to write it, a third element was born,” says Amit Kilam, the band’s drummer.

The song has a hard rock riff which Mudgal came up with herself. While they were rehearsing the song, she sang a tune, and the band decided to use a distortion guitar tone playing the tune as a riff instead of Mudgal singing it herself.

In about 1991, when Ram was part of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, his former wife discovered Cheetu Bhil, an Adivasi warrior who fought against the British. When Ram told fellow activist Shankar Bhai about Cheetu’s story, the latter immediately came up with lyrics in Bhilali and a tune about Cheetu. Ironically, within two days, Ram was actually singing the tune while under arrest in Cheetu Bhil’s Fort, which had been captured by the British and converted into the Sohrwa police station and serves as that till date.

The right notes Shankar Mahadevan, Amit Kilam and Rahul Ram share a moment
The right notes Shankar Mahadevan, Amit Kilam
and Rahul Ram share a moment

For another song, Selvaganesh came on board. “We knew this was the song for him. It is on a 10-beat cycle and who best to make something of this song but Selvaganesh,” says Ram. For the uninitiated, Selvaganesh is a Carnatic percussionist and also plays with the band Remember Shakti. Beheney Do is a song about the power of the youth, a most fitting song as the country goes to polls, banking heavily on youth power. The lyrics are by Sanjeev Sharma and are heavily political, which Ram says has never been intentional in their case. “We never sit and think we are going to write about a particular social or political message for some cause,” he says. The song was composed with an old tune the band had superimposed on a riff that Nikhil Rao and drummer Amit Kilam jammed on. Then they asked composer Karsh Kale to play drums and tabla on it. “We finished recording with him in no time and people do not realise it but he is a wonderful tabla player,” says Kilam.

In Charkha, Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, another Padma Shri awardee has collaborated with the band. He brings the song alive with his slide guitar, which he calls Mohan veena. “The song is based on more than one raga and I was able to try some of my musical innovations and also asked Panditji to stray from the raga and use notes outside of it,” explains Rao.

Roday is another song from Madhya Pradesh, about displacement of villagers and was used in the Chipko movement. Vishal Dadlani added lyrics about how Sindhis were displaced from Sindh and drummer Amit Kilam added lyrics about displaced Kashmiri Pandits. “The Kashmiri lyrics are about a tree that can only grow in a certain place and its branches cannot be forced to grow elsewhere,” says the band.

Rao’s musical experiment continues in the track Longing but this time with Carnatic violinist Kumaresh Rajagopalan. The tune is hummed by the band and has the signature drumming of Kilam.

“The songs are quite long. We have never played for the market, rather we play for ourselves. And when you play with a master like Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, you don’t restrict the song to five minutes but let it flow organically,” says Kilam.

Indian Ocean has kept well away from another genre — jazz. It is clear that Rao has broken on to the scene with a position at the top, and manages to bring a different flavour to the band without taking anything away from its original sound, lending a unique contemporary style. Since some of the songs were from much before his time, the guitar sound bears an influence of Susmit Sen at times. That should be reason enough for fans to not be disappointed with the lack of the folksy sound his predecessor brought to the spectrum of Indian Ocean’s music. Sometimes, it appears as if these seven giants of Indian music have been brought on board to try and fill the void of Asheem Chakravarty, the pivot of Indian Ocean’s sound for the first 20 years.

But after Susmit Sen’s departure, a new era has begun for Indian Ocean with the arrival of Nikhil Rao, and this transition is mellifluous, even from a purist’s point of view. Kilam observes it is not a new era, instead it is a new flavour which comes about because of the collaborations and adds: “Our next album, to be released next year, will have the usual Indian Ocean sound.”

So, for the next five Saturday evenings, be ready to download this new ‘flavour’ of Indian Ocean. If you don’t, you will only be left wondering what the source of these awesome tunes are that the rest of the world is whistling.

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