Copyright 2016, Forbesindia.com

Rendezvous with Indian Ocean's Rahul Ram

Rahul Ram talks to Forbes Indian about the passion that imbues his life and music


Rahul Ram is super-busy. The fatigue is audible, and you can believe he’s on the other side of 50, though the livewire red-bandanaed stage persona wouldn’t give you that impression. The Delhi upbringing is evident in the hard Rs and the seamless and frequent switches between English and Hindi.

We start, as these things do, with his early years: An idyllic childhood, running around, playing games, no major pressure from his parents—despite both being career academics—to excel at studies. Oh, and he lost an eye at age 11. This information is delivered only to explain why he didn’t take up sports and other things that require stereoscopic vision. How, I ask, horrified. He dismisses it with a laugh—another child’s toy arrow—and goes on to his college days at St Stephen’s.

Rahul had begun playing bass guitar in school, with a band otherwise made up of college students. Now he played with three bands, handled a heavy academic schedule, and volunteered with an environment action group, Kalpavriksh. And he had a girlfriend. How on earth did he fit all that in? He laughs. He just did.

Well enough to make it to IIT Kanpur to study chemistry. Back then, after IIT, everyone went to the USA. And so, in 1986, Rahul set off for Cornell to earn a PhD in environmental toxicology while music took a back seat. His girlfriend Amita Baviskar joined him—to do a doctorate too—and in ’88, they got married. In 1990, the freshly minted Dr Ram had a dilemma. “My wife was going back to India to work in the field for a year before returning to finish her thesis. I could either go back or find a way to keep going in the US for a year. I wrote to all the big environmental agencies—Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth—but nobody replied. I also applied to teach chemistry in high schools in the West Indies. I sent off 30 letters. And got three replies: One ‘no’, two setting up interviews. One of those never called, and the other spent half-an-hour persuading me that I didn’t want the job. I guess they were perplexed. You have a PhD from Cornell. Why would you want to teach here? Either you’re a CIA plant, or you’re mad.”

So he came back to India, with no idea what he would do. A friend from the Kalpavriksh days told him that the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA)—then in its infancy—needed a ‘campaigns co-ordinator’, salary Rs 2,000 a month. It dovetailed well with his wife’s research on the proposed dam on the Narmada river.

After a month, he returned to Delhi, then went off to Anjanvara, a remote village where his wife was doing fieldwork. Really, really remote: It took two days to get there; the last part a 20 km walk. “There was nothing. No piped water, no electricity, no school, no shop, forget health care.

“Four months earlier, I’d been in college in the USA. This was a completely different vision of life. For instance, those guys never hit their kids. And there’s awesome mahua to drink!”

Then he came back to Delhi—though his commitment to the NBA kept taking him back to the Narmada for the next five years—and Susmit (Sen, co-founder, with Asheem Chakravarty, of Indian Ocean), who he knew from school, got in touch. He had this band, and wanted Rahul to play bass guitar. “I didn’t even have a bass: I had given mine away when I went to America, and I had to get it back. I started playing with Susmit.” The band didn’t really practise at that time. “It was a band, but only in theory.” He also played with other bands—“I needed the money”—even a jaagran band. “Suddenly, from being this middle-class foreign-returned graduate, I was in remote villages looking at development’s dirty side. And playing at service sector shaadis!

“Then, in ’93, I went to jail for a few days.” Wait, what?

“In Narmada. They could put you in jail for no fault of yours.” Loud laughter follows. “It was an Adivasi jail, so there was lots of singing and dancing.” He then tells a hilarious tale of going out for his morning ablutions in the fields, while handcuffed to another man, with a gun pointed at their backs.

Rahul was also doing research into data around the Narmada project. “There was a lot of fudging! I’m still convinced that our analysis will be proved right.” He went back to the US with Amita when she was working on her thesis, “as support staff”, and wrote some papers while there.

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Along the way, Indian Ocean recorded an album (in ’92, called, simply, Indian Ocean) which came out in ’93. It sold over 40,000 copies within a year, the highest-selling record by any Indian band ever at the time.

They waited for their lives to change.

And, “nothing happened. Nothing. Four months later we got one show”.

In ’94, their drummer decided he’d had enough and went off to make a living playing music in Madras. Amit Killam, a drummer 10 years younger than the others, joined them. That line-up stayed unchanged for 15 years.

“In ’95, it began picking up, gradually. We had seven shows that year, as many as we had got in the first five years. In ’95, I also stopped working for the NBA. My wife’s thesis [published as In the Belly of the River: Tribal Conflicts over Development in the Narmada Valley] had come out. For some reason, those people wanted her to be hagiographic about [the movement]. And she wasn’t.” The disagreement created awkwardness for him, naturally, and he tapered off his involvement. Also, “the band had started picking up, and you can only do one thing with intensity. Music was it. But I was still way poorer than all the people I’d gone to school and college with.”

Didn’t he feel the pressure to settle down, start a family, have a bank balance? “Luckily, neither my wife nor I wanted kids. I didn’t have rent to pay: I was staying with my parents. Very important, because that kind of support sets you free to do things which you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. We remained poor. My wife and I used to go out to eat—butter chicken, daal makhani and naan—once in three months after saving up. By then she had a job, so the money situation got better. But I’d still leave the house with Rs 10 in my pocket. I’m not sure when the money became okay. It’s never been important enough for it to be anything I’d mark. But by the end of the ’90s, things started easing up.”

In 1997, Indian Ocean’s live album Desert Rain came out, winning them new fans and media attention. In 2000, they released Kandisa. In 2001, they played abroad for the first time, in London, and then at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In 2002, they had 37 concerts in four continents, including their first US show. “That’s when I started feeling rich,” he chortles. “In 2003, I bought my first car. Which I still have.” Jhini followed, an album which Rahul considers one of his favourites, and which also did well.

We talk about the Indian Ocean sound, how it started with the unconventional mix of Asheem’s tabla and Susmit’s guitar, how after the first album he, and then Amit, brought their own sensibilities to the mix, how “everybody was the composer and no one was the composer. It sounds contradictory—what is this, music by committee?—but that’s what it was; we would sit around and jam”.

Why did this eclectic mix wow audiences in different parts of the world? “Some of the songs were 400 years old. But we were playing them in a contemporary idiom, sounding Indian, but with guitar, bass and drums. We didn’t exoticise it, or explain the music, but I—I would do most of the talking—would set up the songs, tell stories. People loved that. It became part of the stage act. Then we started travelling with a sound engineer, a lights engineer. Sanjeev Sharma came into our lives; aside from the traditionals, he wrote all our lyrics up to Black Friday.”

Their soundtrack for Black Friday was done in 2003. The film, mired in censorship hassles, came out much later, but the album was released and one if its tracks, Bandeh, became a huge hit. They began getting invited to places they’d never heard of.

“It was a very sobering realisation: one [expletive] Bollywood song becomes a hit and more people know you than for anything you’ve done in the last 15 years. We never exploited it the way we should have, but our fees still went up by about 50 percent. Albums, films, we did get money there, but live shows were always our main income. I’ve just found out that a lot of singers do film music for free. Now I know why.”

Along the way, his marriage broke up. “It began in 2001. But we didn’t divorce for the longest time. Thing is, there was a lot of affection.”

That was a tough period. “Unusually,” he stresses the word, “I was depressed, for about a year. Then one day I was up in the hills, and it suddenly burst on me. Yaar, you were not made to be sad. If your wife wants to leave, let her go. If she’s okay, she’s okay; if she’s not, she’s not.

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“I came back, I got my bounce back. We only got divorced last year, but in 2005, I moved out, with perfectly amicable relations: We’re still friends. I’m sure there was bitterness on both sides, but we managed to put it behind us.

“And then, shockingly”—again the stressed word—“I fell in love again.” Why shockingly? “At that age, I didn’t expect to fall in love love again. Just finding sex would have been okay. And now, here I am, eight years later, and I’m still in love. I really lucked out.”

But with the band, the beginnings of cracks were showing. “The period 1999 to 2003-04 had been great. But even then, there were some problems; it’s difficult to point where and when. With non-IO music, Susmit always worked alone, and Asheem, Amit and I worked separately. This had been happening since the mid-’90s. Around 2005, Susmit told us he wanted to work on his own album. We said yes, of course, you should.” He doesn’t elaborate, but one gets the feeling that that’s when Susmit started drifting apart from the others.

Tragedy struck in 2009. En route back from shows abroad that September, Asheem went into a coma at Qatar airport. He regained some consciousness weeks later, was moved to India and then, still later, home. He even seemed to be recovering, very slowly, when he died on Christmas day.

“It was shattering. But in a way, the months in hospital had prepared us. Ironically, 2010 was one of the biggest years for Indian Ocean. Several projects came to fruition. Peepli Live [for which Indian Ocean did some tracks] released. Leaving Home, a documentary on the band that had been in process since 2006, released. We went on Indian Idol. Our album 16/330 Khajoor Road came out. We did 88 shows that year. We earned more money than we’d ever made in our lives. And it was the year after he died; all these were projects he was part of. But what can you do? This, damn it, is life.”

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Asheem had played tabla and percussion, and sang, so it needed two people to take his place. Himanshu Joshi (vocals) and Tuheen Chakraborty (tabla) are now part of the line-up.

“All of 2011, Susmit worked on his album. That meant he neglected Indian Ocean, and that meant we didn’t jam. Then he was travelling with his band, and we thought dates wouldn’t clash, but of course they did.” Indian Ocean began training an understudy, Nikhil Rao, to fill in for Susmit.

Then, in March 2013, Susmit told them he was leaving.

“And everyone is pleased. Susmit is pleased because he’s doing what he wants. We are pleased because we’re back to being the band that practises all the time. Nikhil has Carnatic chops, and he likes jazz, in addition to playing the kind of stuff that Susmit plays. Himanshu and Tuheen had never seen Indian Ocean practise. We’re revisiting all the old songs, trying to reinterpret them. Let’s see what happens.

“I’m sure there will be enough people who will say, without the founders, I won’t listen to Indian Ocean. But I think there will be enough people who say let’s see what it is. And there are enough people who don’t know who the hell we are.”

We shift to his stint as a talent show judge on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa this year. “I told them, you are a Bollywood-based show that finds playback singers; where do I fit in? They said that young people were listening to a lot of ‘band music’, and they wanted to widen their base. So I was the representative of the ‘non-Bollywood indie scene’. They told me that in a few months I wouldn’t be able to do things like have a chai at a roadside place without being recognised. And it’s true.” How does this feel? “I’d rather that it didn’t happen. You can’t be yourself.” 

Still, the experience has been fun. “You meet someone on the plane who says he watches every episode in California. And the baggage loader will come to you and say he enjoyed the programme. They told me they broadcast to 173 [expletive] countries and territories. That’s unbelievable!”

And what’s next? He’s working on a concept for an album: “Political songs by and about women. We’re also doing the music for a pretty big film. We’re touring the US. I do think the music will, quote unquote, evolve. Susmit’s guitar was a key part of our sound, but I do feel that people listen to us for the songs.” Pause. “I have nothing but excitement about the future.”