But since the mid-1990s when Asheem Chakravarty began singing seriously, that magnificent raw texture would reach out for something beyond the realm of mere musical skill. Drawing from his deep interest in Hindustani classical, that voice began to transform mundane sound waves into soulful forays.
Somewhere up there, God is on the floor, with tears in his eyes. He's laughing helplessly — Asheem has worked his charm on yet another stranger.
All that was special about Asheem could be seen when he met someone for the first time. He reached out with genuine warmth — for him, the person was always innocent until proven guilty.
With a unique capacity to look at things from utterly weird angles, and the ability to express that weirdness with a pointed directness, Asheem had the greatest sense of humour I have ever experienced.
He would make the strangest of pronouncements, sometimes randomly, and then find utterly ingenious ways to achieve some kind of coherence that was in itself delightful to behold.
Laughter must have been the background accompaniment during most of Asheem's talking life. Interestingly, you often felt his incredible warmth without necessarily ever getting particularly personal. There was something else at work here — maybe, this is what human chemistry really means. This chemistry was perhaps the secret to his art too.
Untrained and unpolished, his voice was never “technically” accomplished. He did not even sing much in his younger days — with Bangla band Niharika in the 1980s and even during Indian Ocean's early years.
But since the mid-1990s when he began singing seriously, that magnificent raw texture would reach out for something beyond the realm of mere musical skill. Drawing from his deep interest in Hindustani classical, that voice began to transform mundane sound waves into soulful forays.
As he gained in confidence, and as vocals became integral to Indian Ocean's music, his vocal chords found an individuality that brought shivers despite their familiarity. There was deep empathy in his voice, which came, perhaps, from the life he had led.
Asheem used to always stress that he was from a “lower middle-class” background, and he was reticent about his childhood and early youth, as those were years of alienation and loneliness. It was only during the shooting of the film on the band that he opened up and spoke candidly about it. I had approached Indian Ocean in 2006 to make a full-length non-fiction feature on them, with absolutely no commercial plan attached to it.
They were all keen, but Asheem was the most fervent about it — his childlike enthusiasm was complemented by a touching generosity as he opened the doors to his home and his heart when we interviewed him.
We eventually had about 18 hours of interviews with him, taken over just two days. Editing that was very difficult. It is absolutely heartbreaking that he will not be there when the film finally releases next year — it would have made him so happy.
Asheem primarily saw himself as a percussionist — his tabla playing was innovative (as it had to be while playing with Amit Kilam's drums) and his rhythm structures imbued by that same ingenuity and energy.
As he settled into his role as vocalist (being that very rare artist to play the tabla and sing at the same time) and became more and more assured (especially in this decade), his compositional creativity also came to the fore in a big way. It is this quality that the band will perhaps miss the most about him now.
Indian Ocean is quite simply a national treasure that has not been properly excavated yet. Susmit Sen, Rahul Ram and Amit Kilam are too accomplished to not take Indian Ocean forward — instead of Asheem as a participant, they will now have him as an inspiration.
I feel privileged to call Asheem my friend. I will miss his warm hug every time we met, his gentle words of encouragement during my darker moments; I will miss the way my energy used to tangibly change around him, how much more optimistic he made me feel.
Despite his hyper restlessness, there was also a centred calm about him, perhaps rooted in a kind of individualistic spirituality.
It informed some of his most memorable musical moments, such as the tears-inducing aalaap in “Kandisa” or the spine-tingling tempo-changer in “Bande” (which the band jocularly used to call his “buddha baba” moments). So, may be God won't be a stranger to him after all.
(The writer has directed the non-fiction feature film Leaving Home — the Life & Music of Indian Ocean, which will release in 2010).