BOOK EXCERPT

Why Susmit Sen left Indian Ocean, in his own words

Indian Ocean was not just a bunch of four people producing music, but a dream, a belief.

When we first started playing music together, there was just one thing that kept us going – our music. We had absolute faith in the sound we were chasing and that gave us the drive to take everything in our stride. For ten long years we got a lot of attention and love from our listeners and audiences, although not much of it translated into cash. Our wallets remained comfortably thin, our cars were small and a fancy upwardly mobile life stayed out of our aspirations. It was only after Kandisa that we hit what one might call the ‘big times’. Things changed, lifestyles altered, and with that we began to ask ourselves what direction Indian Ocean needed to take now.

Where we once had five shows in four years, we were now almost like a travelling band with one foot in India and the other abroad. In 2010 we had eighty-eight shows – that’s almost two shows a week. Add to this the preparation time and travelling time and one wonders how we ever had time to rehearse and create. For me, performance is the sharing of an expression, but where was the time to look inside, find musical expression, hone it, and then take it forward and keep polishing it as we went. At one point, we were compromising on our creativity, or at least the creative instinct. And that’s something a band that worked so hard to reach where it was needs. But everything has a price. With the acceptance of our music came popularity, with popularity came success – the success of being recognized, the success of being invited to different forums to showcase our music, the success of being seen as role models, and the success of our faces being recognized along with our music.

At the same time, I began to feel that our music was gradually being driven not by what we liked to make, but what people expect us to make. It is such a subtle shift in attitude that you almost don’t notice when it happens but, eventually, it changes the way you look at creativity.

Protest songs

Our first album, Indian Ocean, had less than a minute of vocals in a forty-five minute recording. In the second one too, instrumentation far outweighed the vocal parts. In both these albums, the musical element was more or less original. In Desert Rain, the only time we deviated slightly from originality was in Boll Weevil, which carries strains of folk protest songs from Maharashtra. Everything else was our own composition and lyrics were sparse. By the time we came up with our third album Kandisa, two things had happened – one, the ratio of lyrics to instrumentation had changed and almost all the numbers, with the exception of Leaving Home, were lyric-based songs. The other was that out of seven compositions, three tunes were not purely original – we took existing tunes and gave them the Indian Ocean makeover. Ma Rewa was originally a hymn in praise of River Narmada, later picked up by the Narmada Bachao Andolan and  used as a protest song. Hille le, written by Gorakh Pande, already existed as a protest song with some leftist groups in north India, and Kandisa was a lost Syrian Christian hymn.

It was when we were working on Jhini that I felt the first tinges of creative dissatisfaction. The synergy we used to have as a band seemed to be missing. Instead of coming out of some zone that we used to get into together, the tunes came out of our heads. There was a lot of deliberation and cerebral reasoning as we composed. One of the things that changed in the way we composed was that we now had the lyrics ready before the composition for three out of the five lyric-based song. Until now, Indian Ocean had usually worked first on a composition, and space for vocals emerged very naturally. We had a great synergy with Sanjeev Sharma (Sanju), who could really get the feel of a composition and somehow come up with lyrics that seemed like they had always been there in the composition. Pieces like Teevra aandhi and Khajuraho in Kandisa are perfect examples of how organically his lyrics fused with our music.

Piyush Misra did the same with three of the pieces in Black Friday, in an almost impromptu exercise one afternoon, and the results were fabulous. I have nothing against lyrics themselves. Look at classics like Imagine (John Lennon), Suzanne (Leonard Cohen), Time (Pink Floyd) – they show what a perfect union of lyrics and music can do to a song. Closer home, the songs of Salil Chaudhury, the Sahir-S.D. Burman classic Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye’ Mousumi Bhowmik’s Ami sapna dekhbo bole and Vishal Dadlani’s Allah ke bande all have an evocative quality whereby music and lyrics meld together and get under your skin. What turns me off is the dependence on the verse-chorus format. It has been done to death, and is something that just doesn’t get my creative juices flowing. Bhor in Indian Ocean is in a typical verse-chorus format, but there is so much poise in that song that it carries it off beautifully. On the other hand, Des mera is something I am not very proud of. It’s a number that doesn’t have the Indian Ocean feel to it, anyone could have composed it, and we had always been known for music that people were hesitant to imitate, let alone compose.

The Bollywood trap

And then there was the inevitable outcome of fame – brushing shoulders with Bollywood. That is where the big bucks are and, in the Indian context, a musician does not arrive until Bollywood gives him or her the seal of success. We got that with Bandeh. But Bollywood is like quicksand, sucking the best of creative people into its pool of success where many lose their originality and start working to a formula. I wanted our equation with Bollywood to be one where we delivered something new rather than abjectly conforming to the standards. Every year, Bollywood comes up with hundreds of movies, with at least a few thousand songs. How much of this music survives beyond a period is anybody’s guess.

After Kandisa, Jhini and Black Friday had all original numbers but 16/330 Khajoor Road, though original, is basically a collection of songs we made for various movies – Halla was part of a movie of the same name, Chand was composed for Anurag Kashyap, Bula raha was written for a motorcycle jingle which was rejected by the client, Darte ho was from Peepli Live, the rest of the songs were for another film that got shelved.

Creativity is always risky

Had we exhausted our originality and lost our ability to come up with new compositions? Or were we losing courage? Creating an original composition is always risky. What if it is rejected outright? What if it falls on unreceptive ears when you belt it out to a hall full of people? It’s a risk every creative musician takes and success has a way of interfering with it. On the one hand, success encourages you to create new fare, but as you go along, it sometimes terrifies you into staying with the tried and tested.

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Indian Ocean was not just a bunch of four people producing music, but a dream, a belief. It was that one place where all ideas converged into a style of working. Thoughts on music, politics, breaking social structures, reevaluating emotional expression, on being a collective rather than individuals seeking individual goals or gains … there was a lot that I associated with this space. And that space was getting cramped, not just for me but also for the others. We were not deferring to what we wanted to create together but to each other’s comfort zones. Synergy in a band must come naturally, it cannot be forced. The fact that it happened very naturally two decades ago does not guarantee that it will continue forever. And if you force synergy between band members, it is notabout creating music but about the business of music.

Finally, on the day the band began to play Nani teri morni ko mor le gaye and Old Macdonald had a farm to an enthralled audience, everything fell into place in my head. There is a fine line between expression and circus, and I could see it clearly now. After that, it was just a question of how to handle the logistics.

Excerpted with permission from Ocean to Ocean: A Memoir by Susmit Sen with Sehba Imam, published by HarperCollins India.

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