Around the World, With Indian Ocean | Nat Geo Traveller India

Around the World, With Indian Ocean

For fusion music mammoth Indian Ocean, melodic inspiration is best found in travel that’s more hustle, less lounge. Where do they go from here?  
Around the World, With Indian Ocean
The band believes in pounding the pavement to absorb all things hyperlocal. Photo Courtesy: Indian Ocean

Distinct and distinguished, Indian Ocean’s sound has held sway over the country’s musical landscape for 30 long years. Borrowing influences from all over the world, the band’s core sound is firmly rooted in India’s heartland, age-old classical and folk milieu melding into their hard-to-place school of stirring, inventive fusion.

In December 2019, the band—currently a five-member collective comprising bassist Rahul Ram, guitarist Nikhil Rao, drummer Amit Killam, tabla player Tuheen Chakravarty, and singer Himanshu Joshi—opened the first edition of the Mandu Festival in the ancient fort city of Mandu, Madhya Pradesh. Before the band took stage in front of the beautiful, ruinous Choti Daai ka Mahal mausoleum, I caught up with them about their experiences of travelling the world—one musically-rich city at a time.

 

Is this your first visit to Mandu?

Nikhil Rao (NR) It’s the first time for everyone. We are playing tonight and leaving tomorrow, so we won’t have much time to explore, as is the case with most places we travel to for gigs. But from the little that we saw on the beautiful drive from Indore, it is clear that there’s tons of history to this place.

Rahul Ram (RR) For Nikhil, it’s even more interesting, because he, along with Amit (Killam) has composed the music for the sound and light show in Mandu. So they are familiar with the history of this place.

 

Around the World, With Indian Ocean 4

The band with traditional musicians on the streets of Vladivostok, Russia. Photo courtesy: Indian Ocean

 

Indian Ocean’s music draws from all over the world. How much of this influence comes from visiting new places?

RR I heard many songs from our catalogue very close to where we are right now, on the banks of the Narmada—“Ma Rewa,” “Cheetu,” “Hille le,” “Boll Weevil”. On the other hand, for say, “Kandisa,” I have never visited Kerala, but a Christian friend from there who sang it at his church taught it to me. So even if it’s not us travelling to the places, the songs mostly come from someone’s lived experiences.

 

How has being on the road impacted your perception of travel?

NR Sometimes, when we have a lot of shows, I groan about yet another early flight. But on the whole, we love being on the road. We’re all foodies, so we’re a happy travelling band. Of course, putting us up for an extra day is a huge cost for the organisers, so we mostly end up spending time with our relatives or friends in that city. For example, Rahul da likes spending time in Bengaluru, Tuheen in Lucknow. I myself like to spend time in Ahmedabad with my friends and revisit old hangouts.

RR He means the Khau Galli (Everyone laughs).

NR The most enthusiastic amongst us are Himanshu Joshi and Amit Killam. In fact, they are not here because in the one hour between the sound check and the show, they’ve set out to explore Jahaj Mahal!

 

What’s your travel wish list?

RR We were supposed to be in Mexico, but it got cancelled. So Mexico is right up there on my travel wish list.

NR I want to take a family trip to Leh-Ladakh. I really want to visit the northeastern states as well, because we’ve only been to the main cities like Guwahati, Shillong and Itanagar.

RR There’s really no end to the wish list, but I feel we’ve already visited places that I never thought I would. Baku in Azerbaijan, Harare in Zimbabwe, Vladivostok in Russia. The funniest bit was that it was quite hot (in Russia), where I’ve always dreamt of going. We were roaming around in T-shirts—something I never imagined.

 

Around the World, With Indian Ocean 1

With historic monuments at every turn, the fort town of Mandu (top left) was quite a revelation for the band; New Orleans is home to a storied musical heritage and regarded as the ground zero for jazz (top right); The Margazhi Music Festival in Chennai is a treat for classical Carnatic music (bottom right) fans; While in Istanbul, the band witnessed a memorable street jam (bottom left) outside a music store on Istiklal Street. Photos by: Fabio Lamanna/shutterstock (monument), Chuck Wagner/shutterstock (trumpet player), Paddy Photography/Moment Open/Getty Images (women), COLOMBO NICOLA/shutterstock (buskers)

 

What about Indian destinations? Are there any places that you feel like don’t receive due attention?

NR We’ve been lucky enough to play in places like Korba in Chhattisgarh and Mandawa in Rajasthan.

Tuheen Chakravarty (TC) Amarkantak, where the Narmada originates, was really beautiful.

RR BITS Pilani is also in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, we rarely get to perform at more remote places like these because it’s often a logistical hassle to get the sound system, stage, lights set up.

NR Mandu is definitely one such place, man!

RR True. Locals, say from Indore, know about Mandu. But it hasn’t been projected yet as a tourist destination outside of MP and India. Same is the case with Konark. The whole of Odisha is very underrated.

Even when we were in Bihar, we found some beautiful spots with lakes and greenery, but they haven’t been maintained properly. Visually, the place is fantastic, but the infrastructure makes it less so. Lot of potential to tap into.

For example, I was at a place called Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK recently. There’s really not a whole lot to see or do, but they’ve marketed the place extremely well. The Delhi-Agra-Jaipur triangle has so many unexplored places that people should venture out to. I think travelling like that is much more rewarding than say, lounging on the beaches of Goa.

 

What are your recommendations for destinations where one can experience rich musical heritage and live music?

NR Pune is one of the most interesting music cities in India. You have the NH7 festival, which is ground zero for young bands, and you have great Hindustani classical shows like the Vasantotsav. There’s also a really thriving Marathi film industry there too, which produces great music.

RR Not to mention theatre.

NR We play in Pune 4-5 times a year—right from college shows to open air stage shows and sit-down auditorium concerts.

Kerala too, has become very interesting for music. Quite a few exciting bands from Kochi, and Thiruvananthapuram who do everything from classical fusion to straight up rock ‘n’ roll. An absolute must-visit is Chennai. Around December-January every year, it hosts the Margazhi Music Festival. Throughout the two weeks or so, there’s close to a hundred Carnatic musical acts performing every day.

Big names like Extreme, Marty Friedman and Mr. Big have come down to and played at music festivals and free concerts in the Northeast. The tragedy is very few know about these festivals. Also, there is a great homegrown music scene in the region because of gospel and church singing.

 

Around the World, With Indian Ocean 2

Indian Ocean enjoyed goofing around in the Moscow Metro on their trip to Russia. Photo courtesy: Indian Ocean

 

And abroad?

RR New Orleans is of course well-known for its musical heritage, but many big cities across the world have great live music. New York, London, Melbourne, Sydney are all fabulous. We haven’t spent a lot of time at all of these places, so we cannot really comment on which are the best ones. However, we had a really unique experience in Istanbul.

NR We were hanging out at Istiklal Street and there was this impromptu jam session taking place. The musicians were playing these beautiful traditional instruments like the saaz, and were unbelievably good.

(At this point, Himanshu Joshi, back from his monument jaunt, joins us over half-demolished samosas. Amit Killam hangs back, listening to the tête-à-tête.)

Himanshu Joshi (HJ) What was amazing is that the musicians were definitely professional, but suddenly this lady with a child—not part of the group—started singing along. Soon other locals joined in, some dancing to the music.

NR They were playing traditional folk music, so everybody knew. Nothing rehearsed, nothing planned, just a lovely spontaneous concert.

HJ Funnily enough, there were serious political protests in some parts of the town at the time. So you had tear gas being deployed on one hand, and this amazing celebration going on, on another.

RR Even in protests taking place in the Northeast right now, artistes are participating through their music, which is beautiful.

NR Someone once gave me a very insightful travel tip. Youngsters in India have this dream of backpacking across Europe, or Thailand, or some international destinations. If you think about it, when you’re young is the best time to travel within the country, where the infrastructure isn’t always the best. There’s more comfort and luxury when in a foreign country, so save them for later, and rough it out while you can. Even with travelling for music, go catch the different musical styles of India, and save the trip to Montreaux Jazz Festival or Live at Donnington for when you’re older.

RR And richer! (Laughter)

 

Do you still like taking the train and roughing it out like before?

RR Unfortunately, all our train travel now is restricted to the chair car, which is not half as much fun as having an entire compartment to ourselves.

HJ It’s still fun though. I remember recently our train got delayed, so we spent a few hours at the Kanpur railway station sipping on tea and obsessing over catching a glimpse of the Taj Mahal from the train!

NR Sometimes, we have to do these long, interminable road trips. Nagpur to Amarkantak for example was a 10-hour journey and we stayed in these not-too-comfortable dorms, so it was a flashback to the days when we regularly had to struggle like that.

RR Yes, we can only look upon these times fondly because we know that by and large, those days are behind us.

 

Around the World, With Indian Ocean 3

Rahul Ram finds his ‘doppelganger’ in Baku, Azerbaijan. Photo courtesy: Indian Ocean

 

Any messages for our readers?

RR New music coming out in a couple of months, but as singles, not albums. Few of the songs are ready, so keep an eye out for that.

NR I have always believed that Indian Ocean’s music is a great travel companion. Although we’re elated to have large audiences attend and enjoy our live shows, I think our music is best consumed in solitude. So to your readers, I would suggest—

RR —plan a long drive.

NR And carry the Indian Ocean discography with you. It will be a very rewarding experience.

 

To read and subscribe to our magazine, head to our web forum here or our new National Geographic Traveller India app here.

  • Tanay Gokhale enjoys writing and follows what he thinks is an eclectic mix of interests. Especially passionate about travelling with good music and a book to boot.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?