Susmit Sen has been India’s foremost acoustic guitarist for over two decades now. Founder-member of the great Indian band Indian Ocean, the band’s signature sound is built upon Sen’s unique guitar sound: Indian sensibilities, but a purity of scale that reigns supreme. Heavily influenced by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) and Nikhil Banerjee (sitar) as well as the great John MacLaughlin in equal measure, he has developed his own unique sound which, albeit not technically pure, is extremely clean. His compositions are in the classical mold, but not in method, where melodic lines are woven around the whirr of open strings.
Over the years, Indian Ocean’s sound has changed. The first album had only instrumentals, which was almost unheard of then in the Indian music industry. As the years have progressed, the band has incorporated vocals and lyrics, folks and roots playing a huge influence, with the numbers generally being more pacey and more mainstream in its attire. And somewhere along that line, the inherent classicism of its first album has been somewhat lost. And this is where Sen’s album comes in. Susmit Sen released his solo debut album Depths of the Ocean earlier this year – an album which has been in the making for the last ten years.
The album kicks off with the track “Rejuvenation” with his bandmate, the great late Asheem Chakravarthy on vocals and tabla. At a little under ten minutes, the track starts off with Susmit building up the mood with some neat jazzy riffs and then Asheem takes over with his tanas – Kumar Gandharva’s influence is crystal clear. As Asheem and Susmit feed off each other in a jugalbandi of sorts, it’s a distinctively early Indian Ocean. And it’s rather sad that this might be the last time one gets to hear Asheem’s soulful voice on record.
Next up is “City Lights” featuring Shubha Mudgal. Much darker in mood, it is unlike anything Rana’s ever done before. The first distinct feature is Shubha Mudgal’s whispered and restrained vocals, which are as majestic as her usually more vigorous style. Though it’s more than 11 minutes long, it’s all good: the sudden mood changes and fillers, accompanied by some beautiful flute and fluent keyboard playing, makes this track the majestic best of the fusion genre. The track ends with some dark but poignantly beautiful note phrasing, and is an absolute classic.
The title track “Depths of the Ocean”, incidentally one of Susmit & Asheem’s earliest compositions, features Parikrama’s Nitin Malik on lead vocals and other vocalists. It harks back to the era of Indian Ocean’s earliest days and its debut album. With some very agreeable vocals, the guitar parts have been woven in very intricately and you can hear traces of quite a few numbers from the debut album in the various jumps and turns the songs take.
“Tribute” is a solo Susmit Sen guitar track and it is easily the most moving piece of this album. It takes one back to the times where to experience music meant sitting alone in a dark room and letting the music seep into the soul, with inner peace as the foremost objective. The beautiful aalap creates a wonderful mood as it segues into the main composition with a beautiful jhala. Again it is a long composition, and again it never gets repetitive. Sen comes up with some beautiful fillers without ever changing scale.
Next is the folksy “Wild Epiphony” featuring the Assamese folk musician Papon on lead vocals. Though Papon is pretty good on the vocals with some powerful delivery and with Rana in full form, it doesn’t quite have the majesty of the earlier collaborations on the album. Following that is the track “Intimacy” featuring Sen’s cousin Sari Roy. It is another beautiful track with some very melodious riffs and fills, and Sari Roy harmonizes along quite beautifully with the strains of Sen’s strings. And it does create some mood – imagine sitting around a moon-lit terrace, a tad intoxicated and listening to a couple of friends singing and playing the guitar. Except, of course, your guitarist won’t be as good as Rana.
The album ends with “Six String Salute”, Sen’s take on our 100-year-old National Anthem. Stripping the anthem somewhat of its patriotic fervour, it brings out its oft-neglected spiritual and tranquil calmness and enhances its melodic classic-ness even more. Susmit Sen truly does this piece full justice.
Depths of the Ocean is an absolutely stunning album. Susmit Sen comes across as a musician at peace with himself and his guitar. It’s the fruit of his arduous twenty plus years with his band, the sounds and sensibilities definitely contributing to the beauty of it. This album makes an emphatic statement: Susmit Sen is still India’s best acoustic guitarist. There’s an ethereal and spiritual connection with his music, that can take its listeners places, and this album crowns Susmit Sen in all its glory: not only as a great guitarist but as a great musician.
Verdict: Indian Oceans fan you might or might not be, just shut yourself in your room and listen to this album. And drown in the Depths of this Ocean of sounds. And peace out!