Jimi Hendrix, the American singer and guitar virtuoso, when talking about how he was a source of inspiration for many musicians, famously said, “I’ve been imitated so well, I’ve heard people copy my mistakes.” But Susmit Sen, instead of walking in the footsteps of the likes of Hendrix, read the writing on the wall: “This is not for me.” If there’s one thing that a lifetime in music has taught Sen, the frontrunner of the iconic band Indian Ocean, is how ‘originality’ is not only a test of your integrity but also a yardstick to measure your musical genius. And this instinct was what got the band through. In his memoir, Ocean to Ocean, Sen writes, “If I am asked to name only one thing that guided the music of Indian Ocean, I will say originality.”
When Indian Ocean, one of the most creative bands in India, started to lose this very quality, when the band was merely working to a formula, he felt the first tinges of creative dissatisfaction. He rues, “Had we exhausted our originality and lost our ability to come up with new compositions? Or were we losing courage? 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.” Finally, on the day the band performed Nani teri morni ko mor le gaye and Old Macdonald had a farm, Sen took a decision to part ways with the band. He recalls, “There is a fine line between expression and circus and I could see it clearly now.”
As you read Sen’s account of his life with Indian Ocean, you gradually begin to notice a few loose ends. Maybe a take from the other band members would have helped clarify a few things. But this is Sen’s memoir after all, and the beauty of it lies in the honest and unarmed manner he recounts it. Divided into 16 chapters, the narrative is dotted with anecdotes from Sen’s life, weaving in and out of his personal life and his musical journey.
You learn about his first brush with Hindustani classical music as he wistfully recalls, “In my attempts to hand around her (the girl he had a crush on), I discovered that her father was a classical music aficionado and a regular at Hindustani music concerts. I figured this was the best way to get close to her, so I tagged along.”
In another chapter, he talks about how Indian Ocean first took shape. “By 1990 we had three bass players, Aseem on vocals, Shaleen on drums and me, finally doing what I loved the most — exploring how my guitar could express sounds that emerged from nowhere and asked to be expressed,” he writes. One chapter in particular, titled Aseem will leave you teary-eyed as Sen recounts Aseem’s harrowing demise due to diabetes.
The hardbound book, co-authored by Sehba Imam, also comes with a copy of the eponymous debut album from Sen’s latest music ensemble, Susmit Sen Chronicles. This album, which will take you back in time to the alluring sound and style of ‘Indian Ocean,’ together with the book offers a captivating look at how Sen had to “swim out of the ocean, only to re enter it once again — this time not for its vastness, but for its depth.”
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