The indie music renaissance in the Nineties saw a wave of genres and fusion styles coming to the fore. Indian Ocean, the pioneer of fusion music in India, is one of the country’s oldest but most prolific bands. Since its inception in 1990, members of Indian Ocean may have come and gone but folk fusion rock remained the core of the group throughout their three-decade journey.
Nearly a decade after their last album Tandanu in 2014, Indian Ocean is back with a new six-track album Tu hai, released on May 5. 2023. Over a Zoom video ahead of the release, band members Rahul Ram, Himanshu Joshi, Amit Kilam, and Nikhil Rao indulge in friendly banter and camaraderie. “We promise our loyal fans the next album won’t take a decade,” they say with a laugh and agree that their current album took a lot longer than it should have. “The album was recorded, mixed and ready for release in early 2020 when Covid hit us. Besides that, we were touring, travelling and making music for films like Masaan and Chakki.”
The Tu hai album has fairly long songs and running through it is a theme that connects them all — from anger and frustration at what’s happening to the environment and species to celebrating Nature, talking about suffering and God and finally renewal and rebirth. “The song Tu hai is about God and how believers, atheists, and agnostics approach this and life itself.”
Tandanu (2014) was the collaborative work of Indian Ocean with music giants like Shuba Mudgal, Shankar Mahadevan, Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, Selva Ganesh, Kumaresh Rajagopalan, Karsh Kale and Vishal Dadlani. While they consider collaborations to be learning and sharing experiences, the biggest challenge is the logistics. “The artistes we’ve worked with and want to work with are all fairly busy, so matching schedules and coming up with something we are all proud of takes time. We’d like to believe we have something to offer to our collaborators as well, putting them in a setting they’re not used to and drawing something unexpected out of them,” says Nikhil as Amit Kilam points out, “It was meant to happen.”
Vocalist Rahul Ram, the oldest member of the group has his mooring in the Narmada Andolan movement. An environmentalist since his school days, Rahul says the issue has been a part of him. “My interest in environmental issues began in school! Narmada helped me realise the close interlinking of environmental issues and social justice and gave me an up-close view of how the ‘State’ functions as well. I think of myself as an environmentalist, so that informs my whole life and is thus intrinsic to my creative journey. Not all of it, though... difficult to imagine environmental concerns influencing a bass line,” he laughs.
Rooted in diversity
Rahul has an impressive academic sequence — St Xaviers, St Stephens, IIT Kanpur, and a PhD in environmental engineering from Cornell making him a perfect case for academics and art balance. “Both are creative pursuits,” he says, “One can be both, you know... academically as well as musically inclined. Balance is purely an individual’s choice, but it helps to have both in one’s life.
Nikhil Rao is an engineer-turned-musician and is the lead guitarist of the band while Himanshu Joshi, a poet, photographer and filmmaker is a classically trained vocalist who says Indian Ocean is an inseparable part of his existence today. Percussionist and vocalist Amit Kilam brings in his rich Kashmiri folk music background to strengthen the diverse fabric of the group. “We just lucked out and are happy to be doing what we are,” says Nikhil.
The powerful lyrics for all Indian Ocean songs stem from traditional poetry, like Kabir or hymns. Informs Nikhil, “We’ve tended to rely on the great wordsmiths of the past. Sanjeev Sharma is the hidden fifth Beatle who’s given us some of our greatest songs. Piyush Mishra and Varun Grover, incredible writers in their own right, have contributed to our lyrics. Each song has its journey but it usually begins with one of us being inspired or having an experience they want to present to the band.”
At 33, does Indian Ocean feel the need to reinvent or explore new grounds? “Absolutely! Music is endless and you’ve got to believe the best is yet to come. Else what’s the point of waking up?” say the musicians before signing off.