Musical originality, the trait that made Indian Ocean pathbreakers, was also a reason for their break.

By the time Susmit Sen, founder of Indian Ocean, started strumming his guitar in high school in the late 1970s, the band revolution had had quite a play in this part of the world. The first non-military ensemble to use both Indian and Western instruments was Allauddin Khan’s Maihar band, set up in 1918. But the phenomenon of modern non-Bollywood bands as we know them today took off in the early 1960s.

Among the dozens of early bands were the Trojans led by Biddu Appiah from Hyderabad, which played in Bangalore, Calcutta and Bombay; and the Savages from Bombay, led by Bashir Sheikh on drums, which did a five-city tour in the late 1960s, says Joseph Clement Pereira, an Indian-origin author and music historian based in Singapore. In 1970 and 1971, ITC sponsored an all-India bands contest called Simla Beat, in which the finalists’ songs were recorded on vinyl. There were several talented musicians around, but very few originals were recorded — and no band played only originals. The other thing that stood out was that singing in any language other than English was taboo for bands even in the 1980s. There was just one exception. Calcutta band Mohiner Ghoraguli, which recorded a Bangla album in the mid-1970s. But Sidharth Bhatia, journalist and author who is researching bands from the era, reminds us that even Gautam Chatterjee, chief instigator of Mohiner Ghoraguli, performed with an English-language band called the Urge earlier.

In Delhi, it was the time Susmit was teaching himself to play his brother’s acoustic guitar. Influenced by a curious mix of Indian classical and classic rock, he started composing his own guitar-led numbers. The basic structures of songs such as ‘Melancholic Ecstasy’ and ‘Torrent’ — which were eventually recorded by Indian Ocean — were set down in this time. He struck up a friendship with Asheem Chakravarty, singer and percussionist in the Delhi-based Bangla band Niharika. Their first show together as a duo was at the Roorkee Engineering College in 1985. Between that first show and the naming of the band (by Susmit’s father) in 1990, there were just a handful of gigs and invites to musical soirees.

A number of musicians passed through the band in years of its naming. There were bass players R.C. Joshi and Anirban Roy, keyboardist Sawan Dutta, the only woman in the crew ever, and drummer Shaleen Sharma. Susmit sold a guitar to make up the money for a demo tape. According to Susmit, Anirban doubted whether the band could ever stand on its own without playing covers and he left. When Shaleen quit in 1994 to pursue his own music in Chennai, he harboured similar doubts.

The doubts were not unfounded. Between 1990 and 1994, Indian Ocean was called to just seven shows. In 1995 alone, there were nine. Young Indians, who had been afforded unprecedented choices in entertainment following the entry of cable TV in the early 1990s, were ready to lend their ears to new sounds. There had been too much confusion in the name of fusion music; now there was something truly synergistically hybrid.

Two other things happened during this slow climb. First, Rahul Ram, Susmit’s school friend, came back from the U.S. after his Ph.D in toxicology at Cornell University and Susmit asked him to join as the main bassist.

“In 1991, there was a six-month period when only Rahul would turn up for practice at my parents’ place,” says Susmit. “He possibly didn’t believe me when I said there were other members, too — because for a long time he saw no one.” Those sessions paid off later in the musical ‘lock-in’ that Rahul’s playing would have with Susmit’s.

In 1994, when Susmit got Amit Kilam over from rock band Gravy Train to fill Shaleen’s seat, the band as we have known it for most of its existence fell in place. Today, Amit says, “I would like to believe that the band wasn’t really a band till I joined. It was not a stable entity... Then it clicked.”

A work ethic settled in: the band would openly discuss all songs and practise them — at times for years — before bringing it to the stage. In Leaving Home, the only band docu-profile released on big screen in India, Rahul calls it ‘Music by committee’. Amit credits Asheem for installing this sense of democracy.

The band’s first, eponymous album and the second, live one, Desert Rain, didn’t make much noise at the till. Kandisa, the third one, named after an ancient Aramaic hymn that no one in the band knew the meaning of, became a huge sleeper hit. It went up to No. 2 on the iTunes World Music charts years after its release. The band, which had already become known for their live performances, started touring the world.

At home, Indian Ocean’s tenacity inspired many more bands — Avial from Kerala and Swarathma from Mysore among them — to sing in non-English languages. Originals slowly became the bigger part of repertoires too.

But then democracy, that unruly beast, raised the pitch within the band. By the consensus of everyone but Susmit, Rahul, a quicker wit, started presenting the shows. It didn’t help that Susmit would sit down and play, while Rahul would stand up and jive to the rhythm, making him far more attractive visually. More importantly, rather than Susmit’s guitar, Asheem’s and Rahul’s voices started becoming the preferred lead melodic instruments.

Sanjoy Roy, managing director of entertainment company Teamwork, which managed Indian Ocean for almost a decade from the mid-1990s, says, “I think it started with the growing popularity of Kandisa, which made the vocal tradition the main motivating factor. And as they started getting enormously popular in the late 2000s, they started becoming more populist.”

As Susmit sees it, the rift started in 2005, when they got the first big Bollywood contract for Black Friday. Things came to a head over a couple of scores for the film. Susmit, usually a loner, became a recluse and announced his intention to work on his long-cherished solo album. Rahul and Amit could no longer ignore the chill in the room. Today, Susmit says of this late phase: “More loudness had come into our music... I am not proud of many songs in our last album, 16/330 Khajoor Road.”

Finally it came to the same musical point that had made people sit up and take note of Indian Ocean a couple of decades ago: originality. Susmit complains that Rahul, and even Amit, had started playing interludes of short popular numbers — such as ‘Naani tere morni ke’ or ‘Old McDonald had a farm’. “Can you imagine Pink Floyd ever doing a cover like that?” asks Susmit. Rahul and Amit say it would be too tight-fisted to ban such small trips outside their own repertoires.

The squabble was parked aside when, in late 2009, at the end of long tours of Russia and the U.S., Asheem suffered a massive heart attack at Doha airport and passed away in Delhi on Christmas Day. He had hidden from the band that he was deeply diabetic. His wife later found that he had taken only one of the several medicines she had packed for his trip. In a move unprecedented in this part of the world, the band still keeps a share of its earnings for Asheem’s family.

Folk theatre actor and TV producer Himanshu Joshi came in eventually to fill Asheem’s void in the vocals, and Tuheen Chakravarty took up the tabla. 2010 was the band’s busiest, with 88 gigs. But even that couldn’t postpone the inevitable split. Last March, not long after the formal induction of 29-year-old guitarist Nikhil Rao, a material sciences major who shelved his Ph.D in Singapore to join the band, Susmit told the band of his intention to leave. Ironically, Nikhil says he “grew a brain” when he heard the original Indian Ocean line-up in his metal-infused college days and is still using Susmit’s Yamaha Silent guitar.

Susmit’s new outfit, Chronicles, is readying its second release early next year. All these fresh compositions are not chromatically very different from some of Indian Ocean’s early repertoire. Indian Ocean, for itself, is looking to consolidate its substantial repertoire with the new line-up. It is now more than the sum of its members’ musical abilities; it’s a brand.

The two bands shared stage for the first time in an Uttarakhand fund-raiser in Gurgaon in August, put together by Subir Malik of Parikrama, another long-standing band that fell in place just months before Indian Ocean did. Malik says his request to both sides was to abjure from raking up dirt. At the fund-raiser, as each new line-up checked out the other, there was hope and trepidation in both camps. It is, after all, a new beginning.

amisanyal@gmail.com

Correction: The article has been corrected for spelling Sidharth Bhatia erroneously.