Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Politically Entertaining: A case study of the rock band ‘Indian Ocean’

      In 2015, one of India’s most popular rock bands is ‘Indian Ocean’. Despite a major change in the line-up in the last five years, the band has managed to hold on to its popularity. Given that the band’s primarily revenue model is through live shows, as opposed to album sales (in fact their second-last album, 16/330 Khajoor Road (2010), was distributed for free on the internet), they have still managed to hold onto their primary audience, that is college students. Founded in the mid-1980s in the college festival circuit, the band is a regular performer at college fests even to this day. In addition, their immense popularity in India has also led to sponsorship deals, which is not a regular phenomenon for rock bands in India. The band was sponsored for a while by Johnnie Walker, and now appears in a promotional for Mc Dowell’s, under their ‘No.1 Yaari’ theme, for which other prominent and popular musicians have also been hired to endorse. Such sponsorship is often frowned upon by the more politically inclined, especially for those artists whose music is often considered as being political in nature, such as exhibited by a large number of responses to Bob Dylan singing ‘Love Sick’ for a Victoria’s Secret commercial. Perhaps the criticism in Dylan’s case was also based on a patriarchal prudishness to lingerie commercials.
      Given the heavily commercial nature of their music, it is perhaps to be expected that they are primarily an entertainment band. Music can of course be classified into several categories, such as funeral music, religious music and political music among others. Entertainment is also one of the functions of music. Indian Ocean’s entertainment value, suggested by the rock concert atmosphere of their shows and the dancing into which their audience often breaks into, is perhaps the reason why it is extremely popular in India among young college students.
      Despite being an entertaining rock band, their songs, which have a verbal component, are very often political. The political message of the songs, some may argue, is perhaps lost among the dancing and the commercial nature of their music. On the other hand, because the songs are extremely popular, the audience is often encouraged to go home and look up the lyrics and the story surrounding the composition of the song and the background of the lyrics.
      When Indian Ocean started in the mid-1980s, it was primarily an instrumental band, Asheem Chakravarty’s table and Susmit Sen’s guitar. On their basic choice of instruments, one ‘eastern’ and the other ‘western’, the label ‘fusion’ is easily applied. However, this ‘fusion’ nature of the band’s sound is what made the band’s music unattractive to record companies in the early 1990s in both India and England. As shown in the 2010 documentary on the band, Leaving Home, Indian record companies felt the sound was un-Indian and hence refused to sign them on. At the same time, English labels felt the sound was not ethnic enough.
      Rahul Ram, with his environmental work and more famously Narmada Bachao Andolan background, brought in ‘folk’ songs, such as ‘Ma Rewa’ (Kandisa, 2000) and more verbal music. This addition of verbal music is not something that Susmit Sen felt too comfortable with, as he wrote in his memoir Ocean to Ocean (2014). Given the more commercial feel to verbal music, as opposed to instrumental music, the pressures of a professional band to be successful commercially compromised with the creative aspects, felt Susmit. In fact, it was Rahul who persuaded the band to incorporate verbal elements.
      It is worth pointing out here that the band ‘Shakti’, which was together for about three years in the mid-1970s, had a similar approach, and played ‘fusion’ instrumental music. The violin, the mridangam and the ghatam were also leading instruments in Shakti. However, the band did not last for very long. They were together for only three years. Also, a band like ‘Shakti’ was not a rock band. The popularity and influence of a rock band, especially among the youth, cannot perhaps be challenged by an instrumental fusion band. The choice of concert venues also changes with the genre of music. It is difficult to imagine Shakti being popular in the college fest circuit. Music, such as produced by Shakti, required a quieter ambience, preferably in a closed-door hall with good acoustics. Without the addition of vocals, the mid-1980s Indian Ocean probably would have been restricted to being labelled such a fusion band and perhaps would not have been dubbed a rock band. Thus, the addition of vocals was perhaps a significant genre-changer for Indian Ocean. Having mentioned that, it is also worth mentioning that the sound of Indian Ocean—the guitar, the tabla and the drums—is as distinctive a sound for Indian Ocean as its verbals. It is not as if the verbal component of the songs far overshadows the non-verbal portions. In fact, most of their songs have perhaps as much non-verbal portions as verbal portions. Thus, post-the introduction of vocals in Indian Ocean’s music, it is difficult to completely separate the verbal and the non-verbal components of Indian Ocean’s music. It is not as if the verbal components dictate the tone of the non-verbal component. On the contrary, it may be argued that the non-verbal musical component is perhaps more overpowering since it is similar (it has to be given the number of band members and the number of instruments) in a lot of their songs. However, the verbal lyrics are an important aspect of Indian Ocean’s music and are the focus of the rest of this essay.
      Indian Ocean’s first post-Susmit album, Tandanu, featured three explicitly political songs – ‘Gar Ho Sake, ‘Roday’ and ‘Cheetu’. It is true that these songs were many years in the making and Susmit was never interested in political songs in the first place, unlike Rahul. Rahul Ram, who talks about his life’s experiences quite often, talks about ‘Cheetu’ even in the documentary Leaving Home. For a band which seeks commercial success, featuring three political songs seems an unusual move, unless one considers it across the entire lifespan of the band. The reason why Indian Ocean is important from an ethnomusicological point-of-view is in fact from their fusion of entertainment and politics.
      Their second album, a fortuitously recorded live album from a show organised by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust (Safdar Hashmi, the political playwright, died after being attacked by a mob while performing a street play), Desert Rain (1997) contained some of the songs of their first eponymously titled album, which was a studio album. In Desert Rain, the first song also titled ‘Desert Rain’ borrows strongly from North Indian classical music, which Susmit was almost listening to exclusively of all other genres of music, for a while in the 1980s. The song ‘fuses’ rock music and North Indian classical music, and perhaps encouraged their solely rock-music hearing audience to also listen to North Indian classical. The second song, ‘Village Damsel’ borrows its verbal portion from a popular bhatiyali song (boatman’s songs). The fact that the band members had Bengali roots led to bhatiyali music being a part of their growing up. Their 2010 album 16/330 Khajoor Road, also had a song, ‘Bondhu’, which is a modern composition but its themes are bhatiyali. While folk songs and classical songs have always been incorporated into commercial music and should not be a special cause for celebration, yet it is important to point out the wide range of sources that Indian Ocean was borrowing from. The third song, ‘Boll Weevill’ has lyrics in Bhilali, by adivasi activist and poet Vahru Sonavane of the Bhoomi Sena (from the cotton plantation zones of Thane, in Maharashtra) that was translated into Bhilali by Shankarbhai Tadavale of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh), an independent trade union working to organise the Bhil and Bhilala communities in central India for rights to land and forest. The song ‘Cheetu’ in their 2014 album Tandanu is also based on the life of Cheetu Bhil, an adivasi warrior whose ‘fortress’ was turned into a police station, and in which Rahul Ram was incarcerated for a while, during which he picked up the song much to the delight of the officer-in-charge who later fed him with food cooked in his house. Cheetu Bhil is a forgotten figure in history. In fact, a web search does not reveal anything about the person except in connection with this Indian Ocean song. Popular music has this ability to raise consciousness about forgotten characters from history, about being didactic while being entertaining. The sixth song, ‘From the Ruins’ is a prayer for peace from the Katha Upanishad. The lyrics of the song are in Sanskrit, which like Bhilali, is not a language that most of their audience members know. Yet through songs like these, they perhaps encouraged their audience to know more about the history of such songs and cultures.
      Their third album, Kandisa (2000), borrows its title from an Aramaic hymn. Three songs in the album were written by a friend of the band, Sanjeev Sharma. One of them was ‘Kaun’ which no explicit political theme, though ‘Kaun’ has lines in Kashmiri written by Amit Kilam’s mother. Amit’s mother, Indira Kilam, a Kashmiri Pandit, banished from her homeland, writes lines about peace and moving on, a strongly political emotion. The song ‘Roday’ from Tandanu also features themes of exile, with lyrics in Kashmiri, Sindhi and Bhilali. Similarly, ‘Ma Rewa’, the song that Rahul borrowed from the Narmada Bachao Andolan is not explicitly political. It is a popular song of the Narmada area, yet through its association with the Andolan, which must be termed political in its strongest non-party political sense, it becomes a political song, and thus the song raises political awareness for the inquisitive rock music fan. ‘Hille le’ is the only explicitly political song in the album. The lyrics are by the Bhojpuri poet, Gorakh Pandey.
      Jhini, their 2003 album, borrows its name from a poem by Kabir. The band’s philosophy ties in with much of Kabir’s philosophy as well, such as living in communal harmony and practising non-violence. It may not appear political in itself, but songs such as ‘Bandeh’, composed for the Anurag Kashyap film Black Friday, a film that dealt with the Bombay riot and blasts, attain a political significance through their usage and their context. ‘Des mera rangrez re babu’, a political-satire song, written by Sanjeev Sharma, was also used in the film Peepli Live, a film that dealt with the media spectacle of tragic events among the downtrodden. Here, both the song itself, and the later film in which it was used, are strongly political in nature. The song ‘Darte ho’, also used in the film and later released as part of 16/330 Khajoor Road, is a musical adaptation of a poem by the Pakistani poet Nazar Muhammad Rashid. The poem though not explicitly political, becomes a political poem through its use in the film. ‘Naam Myo Ho’ is of course a Buddhist prayer. There is nothing political in a religious prayer, unless one thinks of it as trying to foster a sense of communal harmony. The song ‘After the War’ was written after the 2002 riots in Gujarat and addresses the theme of communal violence.
      The band’s latest album, Tandanu, was released in CD format by Times Music. The CD booklet has lyrics to all the songs written in the Devanagari script and published much like political pamphlets. The lyrics of the song ‘Gar Ho Sake’ are published with illustrations of stars, fists and question marks. The stars are a strong symbol of the communist movement. Think of the flags of the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam. Though Rahul Ram keeps saying that the band is not political in nature, because the songs have to be musically appropriate to their style first in order for the band to cover them, and entertainment is their primary concern, yet, with Indian Ocean’s entertainment, comes politics. Unintended it may be. Or perhaps not so. Given the distinct choice of themes which covers almost all of their verbal compositions, the political consciousness is undoubtedly intended. Yet, the band does not put too hard a finger on it, as it may dissuade the non-converted from attending their concerts, or even turn away their old fans by taking away the entertainment value that an evening at one of their concert affords. It is true that a lot of their fans also listen to their songs at home, away from the concert atmosphere and in a more private setting, which affords greater engagement, at least with the verbal aspects of the songs.
      Like a lot of popular entertainers, Indian Ocean offers both entertainment and didacticism. It is up to the audience to choose either or both. It is also significant that in India, college fests have been one of the primary venues for their performances. The nature of college fests ensures that it is just not their fans or fans of rock and roll, but also the student out to have a good time who gets a chance to be exposed to this rare blend of entertainment and politics. It is up to the curious student turned fan to look up the history of the songs and choose to be exposed to not only new knowledge but also different ideas and ways of thinking.

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