Inspired by life
“Aalam balam aalam,” the chorus echoes within my head, as Indian Ocean’s Kandisa clears my mind of all unnecessary thoughts. As the music fades away, I’m brought back to the moment in hand. I’ve been struggling through this paragraph for most of the day, writing and rewriting words that never seemed quite right, altogether deleting whole paragraphs to find myself back at square one. I give up eventually, wondering what it was that was holding me back from writing about the band, especially after having had an enlightening telephonic conversation with one of the band members a little while back.
“Aalam balam aalam.” The chorus repeats as I now have the song on loop, hoping perhaps that the Aramaic lyrics would inspire me to write. I flip through my notes, wondering if my conversation had no inspiring starting point or a quote that would make for a good beginner. But everything I’ve written seems fluid and continuous, like they’ve started elsewhere, a decade ago maybe. And then, I spot a flowery doodle framing the words ‘Indian Ocean’ at the top of the page, and right below it is the number, 1997: the year this story actually began.
Theirs has been a long journey of evolution and progress. Initially formed by Sushmit Sen and Asheem Chakravarthy, the band’s founding members, the group had its initial eponymous album release in 1991. However, it was only in 1997, after the release of Desert Rain, that they found their footing in the music industry and made a breakthrough. By then, the group composition had slightly altered; the band consisted of Sushmit, Asheem, Rahul and Amit. While this has been the line-up for the longest time, nature eventually had its way and rather shockingly took away Asheem from the group in 2009.
“As with everything, musicians and their musical styles evolve over a period of time,” says Amit, “but we’ve made sure to maintain our sound; there has been no deviation.” He excuses himself at one point to place a coffee order; I spend the moments of static silence imagining this conversation against the backdrop of a coffee house and mugs of macchiato or latte, if you prefer. I’m brought out of my coffee-scented daydream as he continues, “We’ve evolved in the sense that we’ve progressed from being a mostly instrumental band at the start to releasing an album, the latest one especially, with a strong vocal score as well.”
He’s, of course, referring to 16/330 Khajoor Road, an album whose songs were released, one by one, as free mp3 downloads on their website, from mid-2010 to early-2011. I need a refresher, and so, I hop on to YouTube, and go on an Indian Ocean spree, starting with Desert Rain, with its single lyric that repeats through the course of the song, to Shoonya, one of the songs in 16/330 Khajoor Road, which, in comparison, is riddled with lyrical variety.
The band is known for having borrowed most of its lyrics, from poems they might have come across at some point in their lives or perhaps, a prayer they might have heard in one of their many travels around the world; slogans and shlokas all come together to give verbal form to a soulful, musical rendition. In a way, their music is a fusion a sorts, of elements of rock, classical, ghazals, sufi and more. Every piece I’ve read about the band offers varying terms to define them, to straitjacket them, into a category: folk-rock, Indo-rock and fusion-rock being popular references. To which Amit counters, “But what is pure music and fusion music anyway?” He goes on to explain that these labels only serve a marketing purpose, “It’s difficult to categorise music, but when a name has to be assigned, it’s usually done from a seller’s perspective.” I mull over what he’s just said and realise that this holds true for many kinds of music. Bollywood music, for instance, can have heavy doses of classical or ghazal; it can be infused with brief interludes of rap, or slathered with heavy undertones of pop and hip-hop. And, that’s just a sliver of the various styles that come together to form popular Bollywood numbers.
So, abandoning my initial inclination to stick this group with a fusion tag, I attempt to cull out a definition through their music itself: if they had to choose one song that describes them best, what would it be? But even this, I realise, is impossible, as the band is a work in continuous progress. They’ve sung about social issues and they’ve exhibited a sense of sufi and folk in their tunes, but essentially, their definition cannot be restricted to any one song in particular. “But the songs certainly define the people behind the music,” quips Amit.
I glance at my watch and realise that I have eaten well into his lunch time. He makes no mention of it, however, and I hurriedly continue, signalling their tryst with Bollywood as the next topic of our discussion. Black Friday, in 2004, was their vehicle of entry into film music. “Bollywood, especially Bandeh from Black Friday, has helped us reach out to everybody and to every household,” Amit explains, “but we’ve never had to change the style of our music to suit the industry’s requirements.”
“Aalam, balam, aalam,” the Kandisa chorus plays again for the nth time. My iPod eventually dies, drained of all battery and lulled into silence. My ears are ringing with over three hours of Indian Ocean music and I finally realise why I’ve struggled to write this piece all along, for, the Indian Ocean story is a story best heard, not written, not read.