Ashwin Batish

Bridging Music Gap of Classical Indian, Popular Western

By Ashfaque Swapan
Special to India-West Magazine



Santa Cruz, California:- With the sea of change in cultural attitudes that the '60s ushered in, one gratifying aspect for South Asians was the groundswell of interest in Indian culture. Hand in hand with an interest in Hindu spiritualism came an interest in Indian music and performing arts, and Indian giants like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan were happily at hand to cater to the mainstream interest with the best that Indian classical music had to offer.

The chasm between Western popular and the sedate, ponderous world of Indian classical music is not an easy one to bridge, however. Western popular music is geared to meeting the needs of a fast-paced lifestyle: It's immediate, sensuous, and hits the senses with a bang. How, then, does one initiate a Western teenager to the charms of Indian classical music where intricate melodies are woven with painstaking delicacy?

Meet Ashwin Batish, a brash feisty sitar player who carries a sitar in his arms and sports a cap that sits on his head at a raffish angle and fearlessly champions, in so many words, "Sitar Power."

Batish has just released a CD, "Sitar Power II," that follows the runaway success of his previous venture, "Sitar Power I," which served Indian classical music in short savory helpings with a tangy dressing of guitar, drums and synthesizer.

TOOK OFF

"Sitar Power" took off, thanks to a dash of marketing savvy. In 1987, when Batish was ready to release his CD, he pressed a single and mailed it to radio stations and music fans. National Public Radio stations and college radio stations picked it up, and soon Batish's music attracted adulatory attention. It was picked up by "All Things Considered" on NPR, and bought by an Independent record company.

"Indian music is a niche market," Batish told India-West. He adds that he hardly thought of hitting the market then - "I was kind of goofing around. I did it more for our own joy and fun."

"Batish is a supple improviser," wrote the Village Voice, "and thank God he wears a silly grin, not a shaman's dour expression."

"His skillful playing and the sitar's spidery tingling tone make 'Sitar Power' a light entertaining diversion," wrote the Los Angeles Times.

BRIDGING THE GAP

Batish's life, it would seem, had prepared him ideally to bridge the gap between mainstream popular Western music and classical Indian music.

Shiv Dayal Batish, his father, has had a long and distinguished career on All India Radio, and by the 1930s was an established music director for hindi films. The elder Batish had received the Tansen award for music (best vocalist).

The young Batish, meanwhile, was falling captive, as were people around the world, to the charms of the Beatles, In India, the Beatles were big then," Batish recalled. "We had Christian neighbors who had a lot of rock and roll stuff and wild parties at night."

Growing up in a musically inclined family meant, however, that the younger Batish was exposed to classical music. The elder Batish would perform in concerts, and "I would be tagging along," he adds. I was more of a listener then."

Then, somewhat serendipitously, Shiv Dayal Batish moved to the United Kingdom. While playing at a festival in Wales, Cardiff, he impressed Lord Fenner Brockway, who then helped him immigrate to U.K.

Ashwin soon followed, and interestingly, it was during his stay in England that he seriously began to learn the sitar. There was also the family reputation to consider. He used to attend concerts with his father. "I'd get invited to play," Ashwin recalls. as Batish's son I was expected to do something serious. I practiced two to three hours a day for about five years."

CALIFORNIA

In California, the mood of the 60s had already spawned an intense interest in Indian culture, and Ashwin's father came to teach music at the University of California in Santa Cruz in 1970. The family moved to California in 1973.

Soon the Batish Institute of Music and Fine Arts was born in Santa Cruz. The Batishes also tried their hand at running a restaurant, which started off after the fulsome praise that inevitably followed when Americans sampled his mother's cooking. Ashwin played almost daily at the restaurant.

The institute today has flowered into a full fledged training center that offers educational videos in tabla and sitar by Ashwin, harmonium produced by both father and son, and audio cassettes and CDs of ragas. And, as one delves into the charms of Indian classical music, one can add a dash of desi flavor, literally, by getting a 4 oz. pack of chai tea masala, "Bless My Soul."

Ashwin has also embraced cyberculture with gusto. It started when he was exploring fusion music. He bought a synthesizer and an IBM computer to write music. The computer came in handy when his father wrote Raag-o-pedia, a compedium of over 650 raag scales notated in Western staff and Indian sargam notations.

Today the Batish Institute has a free server on the Internet. The Institute can be reached by email at info [at] batish.com. Its World Wide Web site URL is http://batish.com.

And the correspondence comes flowing in from all over the United States. With the release of "Sitar Power II," Batish appears bullish. "We've got tremendous response. Everybody sees I've also grown."

His mission to promote Indian music continues. "When you come to a different country, you have to invite people to listen. I want to bring in people to listen to a different kind of music, offering, at the same time, in a form they are used to.


1995 India West. Printed by permission. This article appeared in the India-West Magazine, March 31, 1995 issue, page D67.

India-West is a weekly newspaper for the Indo-American community. Its head offices are located at 5901 Christie Ave, Ste. 301, Emeryville, CA 94608, U.S.A.

Our very special thanks to Mr. Ashfaque Swapan, Ramesh Murarka and Bina Murarka.



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