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Lunch with BS: Rahul Ram

'I'm a bandwala, after all'

Geetanjali Krishna 

Rahul Ram
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One of my earliest memories of him is from the late seventies, when as a dreamy-eyed teen, he strummed his guitar and sang Kishore Kumar's songs over a neighbourhood bonfire. Years later, when I was a rebel without cause in Delhi School of Economics, he breezed in with his long hair and an African tunic, having done time in jail as a Narmada Bachao Andolan activist. Today, Rahul Ram is recognised nationwide as the charismatic bass guitarist and vocalist of Indian Ocean, the country's first and arguably most original rock band. As I wait for him to arrive for our lunch date at Guppy by Ai, A D Singh's hip Japanese restaurant in Lodhi colony, I wonder how their upcoming album Tandanu is shaping up.

Just then, Ram walks in, greets me with an exuberant bear hug and flings himself down on the chair opposite mine. "I love the sounds of our new album," he says. "In fact, there are two songs in it that I heard first during my Narmada days… you should hear them!" I tell him I've already heard the promos on their Facebook page. How would he define Indian Ocean's music?, I ask. "I don't honestly know," he says. It has elements of folk, rock and even jazz-laced rhythms: "basically, we just play anything that we feel like singing," he says. While their non-commercial, highly individualistic and often rustic, folksy music isn't necessarily for all musical tastes, it definitely has a large and loyal audience: from their 1994 debut album Indian Ocean to their last 16/330 Khajoor Road - Indian Ocean has received immense critical acclaim and recognition. Their 2000 album Kandisa, catapulted Indian Ocean to national stardom and became one of the biggest-selling albums ever by an Indian band.

It's been quite a journey for the St Stephen's alumnus. After MSc in Chemistry from IIT Kanpur, Ram went to Cornell for a PhD in Environmental Toxicology. "When I returned to India in 1990, I didn't quite know what I wanted to do. I became deeply involved in the Narmada Bachao Andolan during this time," he says. It was a tumultuous period, Ram spent months in the villages of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, serving time in a rural jail.

Going to prison was quite an experience for Ram. He says that on the first night, the jailor asked his wife to cook them dinner. "What lovely bajra rotis she made for us! I was touched because he seemed to be a decent man just doing his job. Then the very next morning, he made us defecate handcuffed to each other…" The waiter appears at this very propitious juncture, and we take a moment to order. We decide to share the Chirashi seafood salad for starters and Ram orders miso soup. And then, just because it seems to be the first hot afternoon of this summer, we ask for chilled Corona beers with lemon wedges squeezed into their necks.

The beers arrive, and so does the salad, a light mix of nicely-marinated prawn, tuna, crab and salmon on a bed of greens. "I've travelled so much in Japan and China, but just haven't got the hang of chopsticks," he says as I pick up mine. He resumes his story, telling me how he returned to Delhi after a year, still not quite sure of what direction he wanted his life to take. "This is when Indian Ocean's Sushmit Sen (his classmate from St Xavier's School since Class III) and I decided to work on an album," he says. Indian Ocean, a purely instrumental band until Ram joined, cut its first record deal, and the rest is history.

For mains, we decide to share a plate of Guppy by Ai's signature dish, Pork Belly. Glazed with honey and soy, the pork belly skewers are cooked to perfection. Ram really knows his pork (he cooks amazing pork chops, he says, and I make a mental note to wangle a dinner invitation from him), and tells me how his friendly neighbourhood pork shop in Mukherjee Nagar began treating him with awed respect after he appeared as a judge on the Zee TV show, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa 2012.

"My first mainstream experience was [expletive deleted] eye-opening man! I had so much fun…" he says. "Most of the time, I hung out with the band on the show, I am a bandwala after all!" What the unassuming rockstar didn't realise was that being a judge on a television show would accomplish what two-odd decades of critical acclaim, seven albums (yes, only seven) and countless live concerts had failed to do - it made him famous, a household name even. "I got mobbed by village kids in a highway dhaba near Meerut, in the Delhi metro and on the streets…" he recounts. The experience showed him something else. "I listened to hardcore Bollywood types talk of the crores they made and couldn't believe my ears! Bands like ours never see such money…."

In some ways, I think as I pick up a skewer of pork, Ram's tryst with Bollywood and mainstream television highlights the problems the so-called "indie" music industry faces in India. Money is scarce, tie-ups with music labels tough and live concerts possibly the only money-spinning activities a band, even one as reputed as Indian Ocean, has. We order another beer each when I ask something that's been bothering me. Why do they still take on so many bar gigs? Haven't they grown beyond them? "I love singing in bars," he says immediately. For good reason. Indian Ocean, like most other bands in the country, makes all its money through live concerts. The band does over 90 performances a year, all over the world. "We've performed everywhere - from the BB King Jazz Club in New York, to a tiny agrarian village in Japan, to a college in Hanoi… I see ourselves doing more and more concerts," he says. Ram tells me that royalties make up less than 0.5 per cent of Indian Ocean's income. "That's why, we decided to make our last album 16/330 Khajoor Road free to download as MP3 files," he says. "This way, our fans got to listen to our music without having the guilt of pirating it!"


I'm not sure if gratuitously giving away one's original work is a sensible business model, but then that's Indian Ocean and Rahul Ram for you. We share a tall Red Velvet Cake as he talks more about Tandanu, the upcoming album, which should hopefully be released by the end of April. Brought out by Times Music, the album is a slight departure for the band. For the first time, Indian Ocean has collaborated with seven senior musicians including Shankar Mahadevan. "Tandanu is originally an old Kannada folk song that I heard my aunt sing when I was young. Somehow, it stayed with me and has now emerged in this album," he says. They won't be giving it away free this time but Ram is quick to add that they'll stream it live from the band's website.

He laughs when I ask about the future. Clearly, he's a man who lives in the present. "I guess I'll make some more music," he says, "because it just plays in my head constantly…"

First Published: Fri, April 11 2014. 22:32 IST
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