October 6, 2015

A Return to Roots: Indian Ocean in Ithaca

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“I never thought I’d be doing this.” A wave of chuckles rippled through Statler Auditorium on Sunday night, in response to the bearded man on stage. His free-flowing silver hair kept in check by a trademark cloth headband, bass guitarist and frontman of rock group, Indian Ocean, Rahul Ram commented on his return to Ithaca after almost 20 years. Ram ‘90 received his Ph.D from Cornell University in Environmental Toxicology, and since then, has been working with his band, Indian Ocean, which is widely regarded as one of India’s foremost rock fusion bands.

Asha Cornell, a campus non-profit, organized the concert as a fundraiser to benefit education initiatives for underprivileged children in India.



As the lights dimmed, each of the band members entered the stage clad in a short kurta — the traditional Indian tunic — and jeans, unassumingly taking his place at a microphone. There are over 20 different languages spoken in India, and the music of Indian Ocean mirrors this diversity, as they opened with a classically-influenced number based on a traditional Kannada folk song: The primary language of the southern Indian state of Karnataka.

Throughout the concert, the members cracked jokes, interacted with the audience and shared personal anecdotes before each song that they performed. Charming, sincere and funny, they engaged the audience in a way that is rare for a group of such fame. “Lustful failed Sufis,” Ram jokingly called himself and his bandmates, before beginning a gentle folk-inspired tune called “Bhor” that evoked reflections of a lone bird in the light of dawn.

I’ve been to my fair share of big-name, big-budget concerts — the most recent being Vampire Weekend and Paul McCartney. However, this was my first time seeing such a renowned group in such an intimate setting. That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if not a single person reading this article has heard of the band Indian Ocean. Largely considered one of India’s most influential rock groups, Indian Ocean has been around for the past 25 years, making fusion music that combines the guitar-and-drums-heavy Western rock sound with traditional Indian musical elements and themes. The result is a unique concert experience in which melodies and lyrics familiar to a primarily Eastern audience are intertwined and energized by a Western backbone, creating a sound that is accessible to all kinds of listeners.

When I first sat down in the audience and observed the stage, I noticed that there was both a drum set and a tabla: A traditional South Asian instrument consisting of two hand drums varying in size and timbre. I’ve heard tablas and I’ve heard drum sets, and I immediately thought there was no way anyone would be able to hear the soft, tuneful percussion of the tabla over the thrashing of the Western drums and cymbals. However, as the night and the music progressed, I found that not only were the two clearly distinguishable within the music — they complemented each other in a way that was essential to the soul of Indian Ocean’s aesthetic.

Lead guitarist, Nikhil Rao transformed his sound to fit the atmosphere of the music — in “Ruk Ja Re Bande,” his powerful playing created a classic rock ballad sound, while in “Charkha” the long, technically skillful solos echoed the lyrical strains of traditional Indian string instruments like the sitar and veena. Rahul Ram on the bass guitar was not your run-of-the-mill rhythm and groove section. Ram’s bass playing weaved back and forth between laying a solid foundation which the rest of the band enhanced and accentuated — and enmeshing his sound with the vocal and lead guitar lines, creating a one-of-a-kind musical interplay unique to Indian Ocean’s sound.



Solid, throaty, folk-inspired vocals soared above the instrumentation, punctuating the intricacies of melody, harmony and rhythm with powerful, profound lyrics set to simple tunes. The musical journey that began with South Indian folk ended with the title track off the album Kandisa, a beautifully gentle, deep and ethereal hymn in ancient Aramaic sung to this day in the Syriac Orthodox Church.

Indian Ocean is a group that defies all restrictions of genre, definition and even language. There is no sufficient way to describe their music — their musical styles and lyrics take inspiration from vastly diverse sources, including Indian classical, Indian folk and even elementary school Hindi textbooks. The atmosphere they created within the two short hours of the performance ranged from energetic to meditative to interactive and everything in between. The upbeat, Bihari-folk inspired “Hille Le” made several people jump out of their seats and dance, transforming the dignified Statler Auditorium into an impromptu Indian folk festival. For a few unforgettable moments, Indian Ocean transported me and the audience back to a time and a place halfway around the world, steeped in the sights, sounds and culture of India herself.

Snigdha Sharma is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].