Asheem Chakravarty’s death robbed the iconic band of much more than a voice or his magic fingers on the tabla, says Samrat Chakrabarti
INDIAN OCEAN, the band whose music will be the soundtrack to many a college memory for those who graduated this decade, lost its voice and a big chunk of its heart recently. Asheem Chakravarty, percussionist, freak talent and co-founder of the band, whose soaring vocals echoed down college corridors and whose tabla kept beat to furtive college romances and breathless canteen conversations, lives no more. On December 25, 2009 his 50-year-old heart stopped and many younger ones missed a beat.
The future of the band — for they’ve decided to continue playing as Indian Ocean — now rests uncertain. To understand Indian-Ocean-without-Asheem, “the next phase” as Susmit Sen (the guitarist who, along with Asheem, started the band in 1984) calls it, one has to begin by acknowledging the void that needs filling. One has to start by understanding Indian Ocean-with-Asheem.
A laugh riot as it turns out. As one watches the band talk of Asheem, one senses in their reminiscences the happy cadences of their association and the important part he played in their ecology. He had been the heart of their band. Indian Ocean’s music comes off the chemistry of its members — the music is simply a by-product of their camaraderie. And it’s in this that one senses their greatest loss because the picture that emerges is one of an unusual mind. A man who loved math and had an ability to make it interesting to those who hated it. A man with a deep love of seeking explanations to the cosmos, whether they be from science or the occult. A man who loved to play — with music, people and life. But above all, someone with a tremendous life force and an ability to pass it on to the people and the atmosphere he was a part of.
Nikhil Dutt, lighting designer for the band and often Asheem’s roommate on the road, says, “Singing was a minuscule part of him. He had a great sense of humour. Life with Asheem was often like living inside a mad cartoon strip.” Nikhil describes him as a man with a lightness of touch that reminded you that life wasn’t such a serious business after all. “He lived with great passion and made his music with great intensity but he did not equate this with seriousness.” Asheem’s earthy humour suffers in translation and many instances that the band recall cannot be rendered into English. Like when he told his son’s school principal that she might want to smile more because it would make the children happier, or when a fan met this retort to a remark on Asheem looking older, “Have you ever seen an ageing donkey? Wisdom brings age.”
Asheem had a habit of trying to make people whose job required them to be intimidating, like a US visa officer or security guards, smile. “When he failed, he would always blame this on a hypothetical stomach problem,” says Rahul Ram, bassist and often the front man for the band.
Completely untrained, Asheem’s uncommon talent was nurtured in an atmosphere filled with an enthusiastic love for music. He never formally learnt to play the tabla but taught himself instead and as a result played the instrument differently, informed by his own aesthetic and intuition. That same sense of play that he brought to life, also taught him the rare ability to sing while playing the tabla.
RAHUL SAYS, “It’s not so easy to think as out of the box as he did. He’s the most out-of-the-box thinker that I have known. And this used to reflect in his compositions. I would often wait for Asheem to start singing because I knew that his singing would give me ideas.”
Asheem, in contrast to his easy attitude towards life and never one to bear the burden of needing to be consistent, was very finicky about the sound on stage. Rahul says, “He oscillated between two moments during the sound checks. The ‘bell moment’ or ‘the stick moment’. Either his tabla sounded like a bell or it sounded like a stick.” A complaint that would often disappear without any actual meddling with the sound instrument panels.
Asheem had a habit of trying to make people whose job required them to be intimidating, like a US visa officer or security guards, smile
Samir Kripalani, sound engineer for the band and someone who stopped playing chess when Asheem beat him in two moves, says, “He was the only one who had issues with me on stage. But he was the kind of man who would come and personally thank me after every show. Even though he gave me the most amount of grief, I felt like he was the one who most appreciated my work.”
Samir finds it difficult to imagine the band without Asheem. “The drummer is usually the backbone of the band, and Amit does that well in keeping the beat. But Asheem held them together vocally.”
Susmit says that the band will now have to reinvent itself and evolve into something different while still keeping its essential DNA. The band has decided to keep a royalty share for Asheem in perpetuity — not just for live gigs, but also for all future compositions, in recognition of his contribution, to that very DNA. Rahul sums it up, “I am very curious to see what happens now. It’s a big challenge, but I am sure something interesting will result. I am curious.”