Indian Ocean and Junoon bring India and Pakistan closer at a UNESCO MGIEP concert
Public Information Officer, UNESCO MGIEP
On a recent afternoon in Delhi, Indian Ocean guitarist and vocalist Rahul Ram stared thoughtfully at the tendrils of smoke curling up from his cigarette—his fifth in the span of 40 minutes. With grey hair slicked back into a ponytail, a grizzled beard and a raspy, self-deprecating laugh, Ram’s appearance belied his career as a musician—with a PhD from Cornell—in one of India’s most successful fusion rock bands.
On an extended break between jamming sessions with other band members, while taking long drags from his cigarette, Ram jumped from topic to topic, spanning Urdu poetry, gender stereotypes, and his misadventures as an environmental activist.
Not far from Delhi to the west, across the Punjab plains and the heavily guarded Wagah border, a Pakistani band called Junoon, meaning “passion,” has also been successfully experimenting with rock music blended with traditional Sufi mysticism. Despite a repressive regime and a ban on music, over the past decades the band has managed to top the charts as the “U2 of Asia” and sell tens of millions of albums worldwide.
Salman Ahmad, the band’s founder and leader, has penned a memoir called “Rock & Roll Jihad” and has defied death threats to perform at a concert in the disputed Kashmir region. The doctor turned musician turned Bollywood actor is now a UN Goodwill Ambassador fighting to eradicate polio in Pakistan.
Bridging the dividing lines of fraught India-Pakistan relations, the two bands played together for the first time at UNESCO MGIEP’s flagship Talking Across Generations (TAG) event in February, where they celebrated a common cultural heritage and outlook on life.
Both formed in the early 1990s, the bands have always been ahead of their times, pioneering a blend of rock music, traditional folk songs, and an undercurrent of Sufi mysticism. Frequently borrowing songs, themes and languages from each other’s cultures, the two bands have long stressed that what unites their countries is far more substantial than what divides them.
Young people are passionate, they have the Junoon in their DNA.
“A concert like this [at UNESCO MGIEP] goes to show it doesn’t have to be this hate narrative,” says Anurag Rao, Indian Ocean’s assistant manager. “It can be about us enjoying each other’s company, arts and culture.”
When asked about performing together, both bands wondered why a joint concert had not happened sooner. Looking back over their decades-long careers, studded with both challenges and successes, Junoon and Indian Ocean said that, while relations between their two countries are unlikely to improve any time soon, their distinctive signature music may have the power to bring people closer.
Since its inception, Indian Ocean has pioneered a blend of classical Indian music with rock beats and jazz undertones: a fusion that, according to the band, defies any attempts at categorization. “You know it when you hear it,” Rao said somewhat cryptically during one of the band’s weekly try-out sessions in a large, airy house in the outskirts of Delhi.
A concert like this goes to show it doesn’t have to be this hate narrative…it can be about us enjoying each other’s company, arts and culture
Anurag Rao, Indian Ocean’s Assistant Manager
In the practice room, littered with cases covered in airline stickers, drummer Tuheen Chakravorty, guitarist Nikhil Rao, and vocalist Rahul Ram picked up their instruments: two electric guitars, the tabla—a drum found across India, Pakistan and Afghanistan—and a gourd-like instrument with two strings called a gabgubi.
More than its distinctive sound, however, what sets Indian Ocean’s music apart is the spiritual, meditative quality of its lyrics. According to Rao, the guitarist, Indian Ocean doesn’t do teenage love songs. “We don’t find it creatively exciting to say something that has already been said,” he adds.
Instead, the band’s lyrics span across themes and genres, from 16th century Sufi poems to social, political and environmental leitmotifs. Surprisingly, one of the band’s most popular songs, Khandisa, boasts such an obscure origin that no one so far has deciphered its meaning. Passed on across the millennia in a now defunct language, the hymn’s meaning may always remain a mystery.
Rahul Ram himself comes from a background of environmental activism and, as he likes to specify, travels by subway. With a PhD in environmental toxicology, he spent his early days after his university studies protesting against the government’s plan to build a dam in the southern Indian region of Kerala.
The experience led to the song “Cheetu” based on the real-life story of a man in a rural community in Kerala who rebelled against British rule in 1857. When the British government crushed the uprising, Cheetu was killed and his bangla, or bungalow, turned into a police station.
“I learned that song and the next day I am in the lock-up at that same police station,” Ram said with a throaty laugh remembering his arrest for protesting against the building of the dam. “We sang that song sitting in (Cheetu’s) bungalow.”
Despite its success, however, Indian Ocean manages to remain remarkably humble with a distinctive, sardonic brand of humour. “We don’t have a studied, methodical message,” says guitarist Nikhil Rao, who joined the band in 2012. “We don’t assume we are important enough to start preaching to the world.”
Music can show how people are the same … We are pretty much singing about the same things. The thing is to push the similarities rather than emphasize the differences.
Ram, Indian Ocean
As to their audience, Rao says it spans across generations, from grandparents to grandkids. “I think it’s because everyone finds something they can latch on to,” Rao speculates. But Ram, who has been playing since the band’s inception, has another hypothesis. “It’s because we’ve been around so bloody long,” he says.
Pakistani band Junoon’s story also began on a meandering path. Salman Ahmad, the founder, started out as a medical student after spending part of his childhood in upstate New York. But once he started performing in a rock band in Lahore, Pakistan, he never turned back. Since then, Junoon’s music has combined the powerful rhythms of rock music with blues vocals and the sweeping melodies of Pakistani folk music.
After one of the band’s music videos called “Ehtesaab”, or “Accountability”, denounced government corruption, the government reacted by banning the song and video from state television. Between 1996 and 1999, the government banned Junoon altogether.
Ahmad, however, hasn’t wavered. In 2003 he starred in a BBC documentary in which he questioned the Taliban’s ban on music in Pakistan. He has also founded an NGO focusing on health care and polio eradication, played for the UN General Assembly in New York as well as for a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo.
He says he has always had a close bond with India. Growing up as a young boy in Lahore, he says he remembers singing along to Bollywood theme songs. “That was my window into India—its culture, its people, its human drama,” he says. “It also made me want to become an artist.” His most recent project brought him to Mumbai to act in a Bollywood music drama called “Rhythm”.
Despite the challenges, a music career spanning decades, and a niche soundtrack, the popularity of both Indian Ocean and Junoon has not diminished. At the UNESCO MGIEP concert in Delhi, fans—mainly local college kids—crowded into the packed auditorium, singing and dancing to one of Junoon’s biggest hits “Sayonee,” or “Soulmate”. In India, the band’s popularity is such that an audience member said her mother named her Sayonee as a tribute to the song.
As the audience clapped and cheered, Ahmad strummed the opening notes on his guitar. “This song is for you,” he said to his eponymous audience member, before launching into a powerful rendition of the rhythmic tune with its plaintive, nostalgic refrain—Sayonee.
When it comes to relations between their respective countries of origin, both bands say music and culture are the ticket out of a political stalemate. “Music can show how people are the same,” says Ram from Indian Ocean. “We are pretty much singing about the same things. The thing is to push the similarities rather than emphasize the differences.”
According to Ahmad from Junoon, movies, music and sports still draw audiences together from across the India-Pakistan border and can transcend cultural and religious barriers. “When you sing a song you just bring people together and that is the language of art,” Ahmad says.
At the concert, the energy was palpable. “Young people are passionate, they have the junoon in their DNA,” Ahmad said. And even when it comes to difficult political themes, including India’s sometimes violent history of tense Hindu-Muslim relations, the bands do not shy away.
Written in the wake of the 2002 bombings in the region of Gujarat, Indian Ocean’s song “Bandeh” calls for humanity to stop its violence. During the performance, the Hindi lyrics appeared to cast doubt over the possibility of a more peaceful future: “This blind wound of yours would have healed long ago, but now it will fester,” Ram sang in his deep, husky voice. But the young audience members were unperturbed as they stood up as one, sang along, and demanded an encore.