Guitar maestro Susmit Sen writes new Chronicle for young listeners after Indian Ocean

India-Arts/Culture

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By Madhusree Chatterjee

When Roger Waters went solo, breaking away from “Pink Floyd” in 1990, he poured his soul into creating three studio albums — “The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking”, “Radio K.A.O.S” and “Amused to Death” — and putting together one of the biggest concert in world music history “The Wall – Live in Berlin”. When Indian guitarist Susmit Sen moved out of the cult Indo-rock-pop folk fusion band, the “Indian Ocean”, he poured his heart into creating the “Susmit Sen Chronicles”— a younger look-alike of the Indian Ocean but with a distinct sound to connect to the Generations X and Y with a “motley brand Indo-folk rock music”. Adults fans of Susmit are welcome to tune in as well, the band declares.

The 40-something Susmit, to Indian music buffs come as a cross between Jerry Garcia, Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin, playing both rock, folk and semi-classical riffs on his guitar — where traditional ragas like “Piloo  and Bhairavi” tries to build bridges with Mclaughlin and Meola like riffs. At the South Asian Bands Festival, 2013, Susmit carried his young six-member Chronicles in near virtuoso show on his shoulders — with mixed tracks like “Wild Epiphany”, “Neptune’s Dance” and “The Uprising” — that narrated progressive lores of youth power and salt-of the earth ditties in Hindi. Susmit’s guitar was the anchor around which the band — Nikhil Vasudevan on the drums, Varun Gupta on the tabla and the percussion, Sudhir Rekhari on vocals, Amit Sharma on vocals and melodica and Anirban Ghosh on the bass — built its musical canvas with energetic duets and peppy musical arrangements. 

Susmit is optimistic about his ensemble which is working on its second album after its debut compilation, “Depth of the Ocean”. The boys are all from the national capital — New Delhi— who sustain the Chronicles by playing short seasons with different bands. Living off on one band alone is still difficult in India where band music is yet to hold its own as a profitable creative enterprise.

“The Chronicles is a little more than a year old. It will take time to mature. I am an old school musician. I was with the Indian Ocean for 23 years,” Susmit said about the “gestation period” for his band to get the Indian Ocean-kind hype. 

“Twenty-three years is a long time, I needed to do something else. We have a completely new repertoire. Two of the songs have been written by Sudhir (the band vocalist) and one by my friend Abhishekh Mazumdar,” Susmit told this writer on the sidelines of the festival.

Susmit is a pioneer known for his ability of putting together enduring sound ensembles. Twenty-three years ago, he got together with musicians Asheem Chakravarty, Rahul Ram and Amit Kilam to create the “Indian Ocean” — a band that carried new-age Indian music to the globe in the footsteps of Indian fusion band “Shakti (fronted by John MacLaughlin)  , “Shiva” and Mohiner Ghoraguli (Mohin’s Horses from Kolkata – one of the earliest progressive rock bands in the country). Indian Ocean crafted for itself an eclectic music — that combined “folk, Sufism, poetics, indigenous music, rock and progressive themes” into powerful tracks that were earthy, Indian and yet at the same time global.

Susmit, as the band legend says, “sold his electric guitar raise money for the maiden album of Indian Ocean as a demo”. The first album of the Indian Ocean ( of the same name) sold 40,000 copies and the ensemble followed it with three albums, “Kandisa”, “Desert Rain” and “Jhini”. The band composed the music for the movie “Black Friday”.

Susmit refuses to allow the overpowering presence of “The Indian Ocean” to deter him. “I cannot categorise the music I am playing with the Chronicles as that of Indian Ocean. The music of Chronicles has some classical influence and folk essence; you cannot get any older then folk. It has some rock influence. But you cannot quantify the genre — it is based on what is happening around us. I am perfectly okay with the new Indian sound,” Susmit says. His riffs, however, bear the genius of the “Indian Ocean” days.   

The basic experience of Chronicles remains Indian though “tabla and the kanjhira are the only Indian instrument Susmit uses in the Chronicles”. Drummer Varun however taps complex Indian grooves on the Cajon – a Spanish percussion. “Maati ka maati hi jaane, maati ki bhasa (the soil knows the language of the soil)”— says the band in one of their tracks. “We talk about roots but in a different – rather contemporary way,” say band member Sudhir Rekhari and Anirban Ghosh, explaining their connection with Indian soil, much like “Jhini” and “Bhor”, two earthy tracks Indian Ocean album, “Jhini” grounded in the vernacular linguistic etymology.     

Susmit says “experimentation keeps music alive in multi-cultural countries like India — where sounds literally run riot”. “But then, people (in India) who began with playing rock continued to play rock – you still have rock bands in the country that do not have any Indian influence”. “Way back in 1990, when I tried to find out whether anybody in India had played the kind of music that Indian Ocean was trying to assemble, I came across a band Mohiner Ghoraguli (from Kolkata). I liked some of their songs and allowed them to remain in my head. Our music or rather my music was negotiated an arc between ecstasy and melancholy – and melodic freedom. You did get to hear some pure ragas,” says the musician, who grew up with classical and Indian music.

The musician, however, cannot escape his conventional grounding in musical brandings. Unlike his younger band members, who are keen to all kinds of music, Susmit says “a band cannot build its identity till such time it concentrates on a genre”. “I can tell only after three years, whether the Chronicles is going to last. Indian Ocean lasted for 23 years and it is too early to ponder the future of the Chronicles. Our first album was the Depth of the Ocean”, Susmit says.       

 Technology is a watershed for Susmit this time around — having made his task of setting the lyrics to score easier than it was with the Indian Ocean. “Recording music has become much easier. I remember that our first Indian Ocean album was recorded in a studio, the second album was live while the third album was recorded was shot outdoor using an analog— the editing and mixing took place on the computer,” Susmit says. The musician owns a personal studio – where the Chronicles is recording its second album.

“It has taken human race a long time to handle technology. In the world of music, artistes have been enamored of gizmos for a long time, but it took Pink Floyd to show how to technology beautifully. (It was a trend setter). Internet has brought a lot of information and speed- but life is all about how we handle this exodus of information,” Susmit muses about the impact of technology on music.

The younger band members treat the YouTube like the Bible. Percussionist Varun Gupta, one of the youngest member of the band, has groomed himself with the help Youtube. “I listened to Susmit on Youtube. I admired the percussion maestros and I heard them on the computer. You get hear and learn so much more,” the drummer says. Bassist Anirban Ghosh, who saw the shift from live recording to Internet music happening, says digitization and the Internet have changed the recording industry. “Distribution, downloads, publicity, training and sale have moved to the Internet,” he says. The band is using the Internet to spread the word.                         

Susmit is planning to tour the country after recording the album early next year. “I am looking forward to more foreign collaborations (he had collaborated with several) and institutional support to play outside India,” Susmit says.

The Indian Ocean has toured the world, the musician recalls with a dash of nostalgia. It looks like a new beginning – once all over again — with a creative bunch of bubbling kids for Indian guitar maestro Susmit Sen.        

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