Back in 1984, before most Indian Ocean fans in college concerts were even born, Susmit met Asheem…during a concert. He was a fan of Niharika – a Bengali band Asheem played tabla for. They hit it off right away. Asheem was taken up by Susmit’s guitar-playing and his vision to evolve a new sound. Susmit, in turn, learnt the nuances of rhythm from Asheem – not the basic 4/4 beat, but the mysteries of chhand and jhonk and taal.
For the next 3 years, every now and then, they jammed as a duo, Susmit on guitar and Asheem on tabla and drums – no vocals anywhere in sight. After a memorable debut concert at Roorkee, there was only the occasional stray performance.
In 1990, Susmit sold his electric guitar to raise money for a demo recording of their band, by now called Indian Ocean (Susmit’s dad suggested the name). With Shaleen Sharma on drums, and Indrajit Dutta and Anirban Roy on bass, they recorded the demo, taping an incredible 45 minutes and 7 songs in 1 day. Despite the rushed recording, the quality of the demo tape impressed HMV enough to offer them an album deal. In 1991, Rahul Ram, a schoolmate of Susmit’s, joined the band, replacing Anirban on bass.
Indian Ocean , the album, was recorded in Calcutta and, despite the crummy mikes and sozzled sound recordist, the band was on a high. They had recorded an original album, almost entirely instrumental, rare outside the world of Indian classical music. The future looked boundless; anything was possible.
But, much to the band’s frustration, the album took a year to get released. But when it did come out, it sold over 40,000 copies within a year of its release – at that time, the highest selling record by any Indian band ever. However, this had no immediate results – in concerts, contracts or money or anything.
In 1994, drummer Shaleen left the band. Amit Kilam, barely out of his teens and, in fact, still taking his college exams, took his place. This has been the line-up since then: Susmit, Asheem, Rahul and Amit.
Money was tight and there weren’t many opportunities to play. But somehow the band believed in themselves and in their music. They kept at it – composing, practicing, playing for themselves, getting better, tighter, more together. Vocals began to be used more and more, and they brought a new dimension to the sound.
Susmit and Asheem left their jobs to be in the band full-time, and kept at it even after they had kids to support. Rahul and Amit did not have salaried jobs either. All four kept afloat by taking on various musical assignments – odd jobs composing music for serials, ads and documentaries.
New Year’s Day 1997. The SAHMAT concert at Mandi House, Delhi. After waiting 7 hours to get on stage, Indian Ocean played an inspired concert that had the crowd rising to its feet, roaring for more. Quite fortuitously, the band noticed a DAT recorder, bought a tape and recorded the concert. True to their unfailing lack of vision, no music company wanted to release a live album of an Indian band, so a label called Independent Music was formed to release this. Desert Rain was a landmark album for its time and today, almost a decade later, still continues to sell (Much to the band’s surprise and pleasure, in 2006, it was no. 2 on the iTunes UK world music charts!).
Meanwhile, the media started getting interested in the album and this ‘new’ band. Radio, TV and press coverage increased. From relative obscurity and a modest group of enthusiastic fans, the band began to be known around the country. First, the gigs began to fall into place – Delhi, of course, but also Ahmedabad, Calcutta and Mumbai. Money began to trickle in. More importantly, new material became more honed, and the playing tightened with every show.
Times Music signed on Indian Ocean in 1998 and, the next year, the band went to Mumbai to record a new album. Recorded in the hi-tech studio Western Outdoor, and released in March 2000, Kandisa went on to acquire cult status, becoming one of the most important, best-loved albums of contemporary Indian music.
Kandisa changed everything. The band became a keenly awaited presence on the college circuit, with repeat invites from big cities and smaller towns all around the country. The international scene opened up dramatically. From their first concert abroad in London in August 2001, they went on to play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where they played 18 concerts in 14 days, and were nominated the Pick of the Fringe. They returned to the Fringe in 2002 and 2003. In 2002, the band played 37 concerts abroad across four continents: New Zealand, USA, UK, Japan, Australia and Indonesia, and the next year they toured the UK twice, returned to the Australia, went to Germany and then on to Singapore. In 2004 they flew across the ‘actual’ Indian Ocean, to play on the gorgeous island of Reunion. The next year, they toured the UK three times. Their high point was performing at Trafalgar Square in the heart of London, playing two concerts heard by an audience of thousands. And in 2005-06, they toured the US thrice, playing 26 concerts across thirteen states, and one in Toronto, Canada. Today, as their much-stamped passports attest, they are India’s leading global band.
Growing recognition has brought Indian Ocean in touch with some of the greatest musicians in the world. Susmit, Amit and Rahul played with the celebrated violinist Pandit L. Subramaniam. Then, Asheem accompanied the legendary American folk singer Pete Seeger in a packed performance. The whole band jammed with the virtuoso Japanese trumpeter Terumasa Hino in Delhi, and played with top jazz musicians during their Japanese tour in 2002. A year later, Rahul and Amit felt privileged to play with Vikoo Vinayakram and his son Selva Ganesh at a percussion concert in Almora. In 2002, on hearing Indian Ocean play in Washington DC, the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma complimented them for doing to Indian music what he had always wanted to do with Chinese music.
Indian Ocean’s fourth album Jhini was released in 2003, along with the band’s first music video for the title track. The band was nominated as MTV’s Artists of the Month. The album also won the AVMax Award for the best produced album of 2003.
Tragically though, Indian Ocean lost one of their founder members in December 2009. On 12th October, while returning from a 2 month tour of the US, Asheem suffered a massive heart attack while in transit at Doha, Qatar and slipped into a deep coma. He was brought back to India in early November and was slowly coming out of his coma. In fact, he had returned home pending open-heart surgery, when he suffered a second massive and final heart seizure.
The band continues to perform and compose, and have taken the help of several friends and musicians to fill in for Asheem. It seems quite probable that the sound of the band shall change with the departure of Asheem, but it is impossible to predict what direction the band will go in. So the band goes on, hoping to continue making good music!