I ring the bell of room 602 in a suburban Bombay hotel. No one answers. I ring again. Still no answer. Then I call Firstpost.com’s producer (we’re recording for the site as well); he tells me they’re standing outside room 602, looking for me. I quadruple-check the room number, then look around me, just in case they had somehow slipped past unnoticed. A few minutes of interrogation later, we realise that Indian Ocean’s publicist had sent me the wrong address: There are two hotels from the same chain within a few hundred metres of each other, and I’m in the wrong one. When I sheepishly ring the doorbell of the right 602 ten minutes later, Indian Ocean welcomes me not with grumbling at my tardiness but with a stream of ribbing that flows smoothly, each riffing in what the others had said. It’s clear I’m with what is arguably India’s best live band.
Indian Ocean’s brand of fusion music has been captivating audiences in India and abroad for over 20 years now. But, over the last five years, the band has gone through a period of flux. In 2009, co-founder Ashim Chakravarty, who played tabla as well as sang (which is rare), died after a sudden and short illness. His place was taken by singer Himanshu Joshi and tablaichi Tuheen Chakravorty, at first temporarily and then as full-time members. 2010 turned out to be, as bassist-singer Rahul Ram told me in another interview, “One of the biggest years for Indian Ocean. Several projects came to fruition. Peepli Live released. [IO had done some tracks for the film.] Leaving Home, a documentary on the band, which 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 projects he was part of.”
More upheaval was on the way. The other co-founder, guitarist Susmit Sen, had begun working on a solo album in 2007. The super-busy year after Chakravarty died, meant Sen had little time to work on it. In 2011, he told the band that he would be taking time off to concentrate on the project.
Ram, and drummer-percussionist-singer Amit Kilam, both of whom joined IO in the early ’90s, sensed that Sen had been gradually growing in a different direction; that he was dissatisfied with ‘poppy’ stuff for cinema, that he wanted to do more guitar-centred music, mainly instrumental. As Sen toured to promote his album with the band he’d formed, there were the inevitable date clashes. And practice sessions suffered. In fact IO barely met as a band. “Essentially, we just marked time for two years,” Ram says of the period between 2011 and 2013. They brought in Nikhil Rao, to understudy Sen and play shows when he was unavailable. When Sen decided, in 2013, to leave the band, Rao joined full time.
“In the time between Ashim’s death and Susmit’s leaving,” Ram says, “we made two-and-a-half songs. And even those were ‘on demand.’” [For a TV show and for a film.] Rao’s entry meant they had to quickly get him up to speed. “We started practising again the way we used to practise. Himanshu and Tuheen had never seen us practise like this.” Kilam agrees that for a while before this, “We were just rehearsing for concerts. Not making anything new.”
Kilam continues, “Also, somewhere down the line, we changed the approach. We started making the tracks… The idea was to make half the track and then leave it, so that the collaborator could then come in and fill in their bit. Otherwise they would have wound up being Indian Ocean songs with the other people being featured just as a player. By that time Vishal [Dadlani] had agreed too. We had him, Shubhaji, Shankar, and we thought we should get some instrumentalists. So there was Karsh [Kale],who we knew, then Selva [V Selvaganesh]. Then we said we need other instruments, not just percussion.” Ram takes up the thread: “Then Kumaresh [Rajagopalan] came to our heads. He was the one person we knew the least. Amit and I had met him at one of those Vande-Mataram-sung-by-30,000-people things, and we got along really well and exchanged numbers and said, ‘one day we must do something together.’ And so the album was here, so, we asked him. And he said yes.”