Unabashedly Indian

Tuning into the India Ocean band Himanshu Joshi and Nikhil Rao Photo: S. Siva Saravanan  

How I wish the Indian Ocean had taught me Kabir in school! A rock version of Kabir’s dohas would have worked best for me.

Last Saturday, the poet came alive once again before me, thanks to the band, as ‘Jhini Re’ captured the wisdom of the couplets of the 15th century bhakti saint.

“He compares life to finely woven cloth and how we, humans, tear it and make it dirty,” explained Rahul Ram, the bassist and lead vocalist of the band.

The folk-rock band was in their elements at the The Hindu November Fest on Saturday. The youngsters cheered as they marched onto the stage. They kicked off with their hit number, ‘Behney Do’, with Amit Kilam on the drums,

Tuheen Chakravarty on the tabla and Nikhil Rao on the guitar. The deep-throated voices of Rahul and Himanshu Joshi rang across the auditorium, giving us goose-pimples.

“I know you are well-behaved people. But, you don’t have to be. Because, we are not,” Rahul told the audience. A few in the front shifted uncomfortably. But, 15 minutes into their next song, our heads were swaying and feet were tapping. The loudest applause was for their masterpiece ‘Bandeh’. “This is going to be a really loud song,” Rahul warned the elders in front. And loud it was! The song which the band had scored for Black Friday was a cry against communal violence; one could feel the angst against bloodshed. Rahul and Himanshu were powerhouses of energy; immersed in a world of their own yet urging the crowd to dance to their beats.

Each song had a history. That is no surprise because some of them were more than 500 years old! ‘Kandisa’, meaning praise, would be the oldest; sung by Syrian Christians who migrated to India. The song — traditionally written in Aramaic, a language of the ancient Middle East known to be spoken by Syrians around 600 B.C. — has evolved over the years and is one of the most soulful numbers of the band.

The night packed the energy of a rock concert but sounded Indian at the same time.

‘From the Ruins’ wove in Sanskrit slokas with pounding drum beats, cymbal crashes and groovy riffs. ‘Ma Rewa’, a hymn to the Narmada, employed the earthy drums used by Baul artists. Nikhil Rao plucked on his guitar strings to make it sound like veena for a few numbers and Himanshu added an earthy touch by using the dafli. Amit’s flute recital made listening to ‘Leaving Home’ an emotional experience.

Next, Amit urged us to recreate his flute rhythms with our hands. We faltered while attempting the complex rhythmic patters, but faithfully obeyed the musicians’ commands. Then Rahul offered to take up Amit’s challenge and recreated every complicated note on his guitar with perfect ease.

They belted out a few songs from their latest album. For ‘Tandanu’, named after the album, they had jammed with Shankar Mahadevan and performed in Coorg. Rahul had learnt this tongue-twister of a song from one of his aunts, L.G. Vimala, when he was four.

‘Cheetu’, another number from the album, was a tribute to the Adivasi hero by the same name from Narmada valley who fought against the British in 1857 . The band learnt the song when they were a part of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

They had collaborated with percussionist V. Selva Ganesh, who gifted his kanjira to Tuheen after the jamming session.

The air resonated with drum beats and kanjira rhythms and to think that Rahul and his friends first sang this joyous song in a prison! “Cheetu’s bungalow was demolished by the British and turned into a police station. Funnily we were imprisoned in the same cell. So, sitting there, we composed a song which meant, ‘Cheetu, your bungalow has been robbed. How can you stand there and watch?’”

After explaining the story, Rahul went back to his guitar to perform the piece. It was peppy, punctuated by Tuhir’s thakita thakita chants, but I could feel the collective pain of a community as I listened to this song; a pain only music could capture. I hope Cheetu was listening.

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 1:06:27 AM |

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