By Faiz Ullah,
Alternative was cool. At that time we didn’t know that alternative isn’t quite alternative. That alternative fed off the mainstream. That alternative existed because mainstream required it to. That was the time when I discovered Indian Ocean. They played live at the Ramjas College grounds, in 2001 if I remember correctly, at a concert sponsored by British Council and I listened to their rendition of Gorakh Pandey’s Hille Re and folksy Maa Rewa possessed. These two songs then meant the world for me. Poetry of resistance set to alchemy of earthy sounds. The following years were spent chasing Indian Ocean across Delhi. Somewhere during these years the dreamer, the rebel, the volunteer inside me died. But my fascination with Indian Ocean didn’t. I’d still go to their concerts and see familiar faces in the crowd. We’d not really know each other but we’d give each a nod of recognition when our eyes met. Though the meaning of some of their songs eluded us, for they borrow material freely from as diverse traditions as Kabir and Syrian Christian hymns in Aramaic, we’d sing along at the top of our voices. Together. It was a community cemented by our passion for Indian Ocean’s music.
Indian Ocean is a different band in that it loves to perform live and connect with the audience. The energy levels of their performances are directly related to that of the crowd. Seeing us losing our heads they’d improvise and pull off some really mind blowing sessions. Amit would come out with his gubgubi and jam with Rahul, or Asheem would get up and use Rahul’s guitar as if it was a percussion instrument. Once during a concert at Hamsdhwani at Pragati Maidan Asheem even invited Shubha Mudgal up on the stage for an impromptu jam session. A song would never sound the same ever in their concerts. They’d introduce a new instrument; infuse new lyrics (Aara hile, Chhapra hile, Baliya Hile lag; Dilli ki saari sundariyaan hile to saara jagat hile lag) and just go with the flow. Their banter in between the songs just added to the experience. A friend whom I was trying to initiate into the music of Indian Ocean once said that he could sense ‘homoerotic tension between the four members. They’re playing as if they’re making love!’
We were/are all Indian Ocean junkies. I and some of my closest friends used to kick start all our drinking sessions with their music. Songs from Desert Rain, Kandisa and Jhini were put on loop and would play till the wee hours. We couldn’t really bring ourselves to like Black Friday soundtrack somehow, perhaps because we’d associated a different imagery with its music. That of the film.
I heard them live earlier this year in Mumbai and the performance was awful. They were playing to the top executives of the Indian automobile industry at the Autocar Awards ceremony. They looked quite out of place. As soon as they took on the stage a lot people got up and headed towards the bar. Those who stayed apparently couldn’t really connect to the music. I walked up to the stage, stood right in front of it, and sang along for old time’s sake. I remember Asheem smiling at me. I’d like to believe that he recognised the crazed out fan from Delhi. Perhaps.
On 25 December 2009, I got a message from a friend informing me of Asheem’s death. I reached home late and longed to hear Asheem’s massive voice, especially in the title track on Jhini. Since I have just shifted into a new place I couldn’t locate the disc. But, while I was going to sleep I remembered an exchange that I had with another friend years ago after getting sufficiently drunk. He said, ‘Rahul is the face of India Ocean. Susmit, the blood and Amit, bones.’ And Asheem, I asked? ‘He’s the soul saale!’
(The writer works with the School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences. (TISS), Mumbai and blogs at ullahfaiz.wordpress.com)