Ashwin Batish is a master of the sitar. In performance, long, intricate lines dance with seemingly endless melodic variations as he fingers the three melody strings of this 20 stringed instrument. The improvisation may go on for an hour or more. This is the ancient Indian music form known as raga, and although Batish, born in 1951, began learning Indian music as a young child, started on the sitar at 12, and now has had students of his own for a number of years, he will be the first to tell you he is still learning. For, as the Indian saying has it, it takes three lifetimes to learn to play the sitar.
"The thing about a complicated form of music is you have to have enough time to absorb it" Ashwin Batish and I are sitting on the floor in a room of his family's record store / recording studio on Mission Street in Santa Cruz, California. Around us are mixing boards, boxes, a bed, a closet full of instruments. Ashwin's sitar sits next to him. "And why they recommend you study it with such intensity,"he continues, and why you do it from an early age, is because it's like learning a language. If you go to Japan right now at your age and try to learn Japanese, it's going to take you a long time and a lot of frustration." But Ashwin was "born" in Indian music.
Talking to Ashwin, one can momentarily forget that last fact. Dressed in casual American clothes and a baseball cap, speaking completely fluent (albeit liltingly accented) English, occasionally making a remark evincing the business savvy one might expect from an accounting major from San Jose State (which he was), Ashwin is very music at home in Santa Cruz, where he has lived since 1973. Three years before, his parents moved there from England where Ashwin spend his adolescent years. There his father, Pandit Shiv Dayal Batish, taught, performed and became a (perhaps the) central figure in Indian music in London. The elder Batish was a product of the Indian classical or margi tradition, but gained his fame as a popular interpreter and composer in a vein closer to the desi, or folk, tradition.
"Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, Vilayat Khan, these are all classical musicians" Ashwin explains, "But my father, he was associated in the movie industry in India. He has written songs for all the famous screen stars - Lata Mangeshkar, Manna Dey, Talat Mahmood- for every body in India. His entry into the music field goes back pre-1936. By 1936 he made it, he was getting hit records and stuff like that. Even Ravi Shankar wasn't studying music at that point, Classical music was the way to be at that time. His guru Shri Chaandanraam "Charan", was teaching him the classical stuff, but his growth has not been in instrumental music. He studied vocal music.
Vocal music was where raga began, with instrumentalists only there to accompany singers. "The only instruments that were existing were the flute, or the drum, or a bowed instrument. The voice was the instrument, and so the vocalists set the standard" (A good illustration of Shiv Dayal Batish's prowess is on his 1980 tape Raga Todi.) You look at any Indian instrument, it is able to capture certain aspects and come very close to the voice. Whereas in the West it's been the other way round - the instrument has dominated the vocal styles.
Of course, the folk music and things like that (were different). All over the world it was the same; folk was dominant, and you couldn't really shake those roots."As with Western folk music, in the desi tradition "the voice was the primary medium and with words, you could attract people." The bhajans (devotional songs) that Ashwin's father and sister Meena Batish have recorded are an outgrowth of the desi tradition - fully composed songs with straightforward, upbeat rhythms and distinct, cyclical melodies. The margi tradition, where Ashwin has focused so much of his energy, has different emphasis. "The margi is called the celestial form, Celestial meaning 'belonging to the gods'. Classical music has more intellectualism in it. It has association with colors and micro tones.
Mathematically derived rhythmic and tonal patterns and the way these combine to effect the emotions and spirits of human beings - these were the concerns of the ancient pandits and the unbroken chain of learning passed down from guru to student over the centuries. In Ashwin's view, margi music survived because it became attractive to other people of intellectual natures. The musicians won't talk about this aspect of the music. I don't know what the communication gap is".
Perhaps it's the influence of Dad the hit maker, or the Elvis, Cliff Richard and Beatles he grew up listening to whatever the motivation, Ashwin seems gently determined to bridge this communication gap, to bring Indian music to a wider audience. His father did this, perhaps unintentionally, when he was in London. The Beatles sought him out to perform on the Help! sound track when they decided they wanted to use some traditional Indian music. "My father was doing concerts and playing for the BBC, and time came when the Help! movie was being made. The Beatles asked 'Hey, who are the (Indian) artists around here?" So they recommended my dad and a few other people. After that George (Harrison) became very interested in what my father was doing, so he invited him to his house. The instrument that was fascinating to him at that time was the Sitar. But his wife Patti also liked the dilrubha (an instrument closely resembling the sitar, but played with a bow)"So the Batishes sold the Harrisons a dilrubha that is so prominent on the Beatle's songs. The inner light"and "Within you without you" where it is beard in unison with his vocal). "That was a wonderful period in the life of Indian music," Ashwin avows. "Generally the sixties era was very important in creating the awareness for this music."
What happened to that awareness since then?" I don't think it really went anywhere. The thing I find - you know my tape Morning Meditation (a collection of classical ragas) was recorded in 1980. It's still selling well today. There are people who like the music and who will keep it alive. "But Ashwin the accountant understands why so little Indian music gets recorded. "Basically the companies out there are looking at the music - it's great music, but they just don't believe they can sell 100,000 copies."So Ashwin has continued to record himself and his family on their own label, dubbing the cassettes (in real time) himself. They are remarkably well-produced. In addition to Morning Meditation (with his father on Tabla, the hand drums that produce 20 different sounds), Ashwin's cassette albums include In Concert, an exhausting, exultant 80-minute duet with Zakir Hussain (formerly of John Mclaughlin's Shakti) on Tabla. The Third Stream, a pairing with Ashwin's student, guitarist David Harnish (more accessible to the novice listener in that Ashwin and Harnish return to the melody often amidst their improvisations); and one of the Om Shanti Meditation series on which Ashwin plays the swar mandal, or Indian harp, with only a drone tanpura accompaniment.
Ashwin makes as good a case for the continuing vitality of his timeless tradition as perhaps anyone could . This, combined with his infectious enthusiasm and willingness to hurtle over cultural and stylistic borders in order to bring what is so valuable in Indian music to western ears, might make him the person best able to bring the east and west together for this generation.
Ashwin's most recent and best-known album, Sitar Power, represents the coming together of several strains in his life; Indian classicism, the easy interaction the family has had with rock personalities and their music, and not coincidentally, Ashwin the businessman, Sitar Power grew out of a single "Bombay Boogie"/ India Beat" that he released in late 1985. The album, also the first Batish Records LP, came out in mid 1986 and was flagrantly rock-based, with prominent electronic drums and synthesizer, rhythm guitar, and bass fleshing out the chord progressions (chords themselves being a western element). Ashwin himself played the western instrument, learning them as he went along during the year or so that went into recording the album. It was like a growing process, an awareness process for me, because I was playing Indian instrument, and these other instruments- I always liked them, but I never could play them,"But while he let Harnish handle the guitar and bass solo work (I wouldn't touch that") Ashwin kept Sitar Power's focus on his own fluid sitar improvisation, helping the album reach a musical depth that sixties-era "raga rock"only dreamed of.
Though nowhere the Billboard top 200, Sitar Power has achieved a popularity that has led to a distribution deal with Shanachie Records (as part of that label's new World beat series) and a live band, as well as a new sense of identity for Ashwin. I have lived in Santa Cruz ever since I came to this country, and prior to the last two years I have never felt a part of the U.S.A.. I have always felt a part of Santa Cruz, (but) I could never imagine about New York, let alone the midwest. Those were strange places, like different countries. The Sitar Power thing has just opened up everything. I'm getting letters from Michigan, Wyoming, Arizona, Alaska.. this is the first time I've felt I was a part of America. It was like a high to me."
While Ashwin describes Sitar Power as "just our way of cutting loose a little because we'd been doing so much traditional music,"he hardly seems prepared to leave the tradition behind. When the conversation moves back to classical music a few minutes later, the animation in his voice conveys his commitment as he describes what it is like to bring an audience into his world during an alaap, the slow rubato movement that begins a raga. "It's up to the artist to recognize how much of it to do. The basic reason for alaap is to create this space, this aura for the music to be placed. It's like the world is being created. A raga is not something that you can instantly produce, because people won't understand it. You have to create the base, it's like building blocks, almost.
When you are studying (the alaap) it's extremely difficult, but when you realize why you're doing it, it becomes the power of expression. You have been working from 8:00 am in the office; you have heard your boss talking to you; you've talked back to him; somebody's goofed up in the office. You're feeling so-so. you are in the concert hall now, And there's this guy who has 400-500 people looking at him, and they all have gone through different (things) in their life during that day or whatever. Now how does the artist successfully take those brains out there that are not aligned - you can imagine the chaos. His best tool - for himself, also, because his luggage probable went to another airport and he himself is totally disorganized (laughter) - is this set of notes. Now he starts diligently learning them himself. We have about 3000, 4000 ragas in India. A good artist will know about 100 or 200 of them. Even then he won't have remembered what he did last time, so he has to re learn everything on stage, right in front of the audience.
This is what Ashwin experiences in relation to that audience; "I will slowly get into the notes one at a time, 'cause I'm learning those notes. Now, my learning process is going to be quicker than yours, so I have to tone it down so that we all learn together. A point arises where everybody gets more and more into it. That's where the speed starts happening. If I'm angry at something, the chances are I'll play more 'crooked' things (i.e. difficult rhythms). If I'm happy, I'll play happier things".
Ashwin's use of his inner self is constant even though he claims not to be aware of it, and extends to his interaction with other musicians. "Like if I'm playing with Zakir, he'll do something that you weren't expecting and that triggers a whole different set of memory patterns and bang! You are off on a tangent, That's the beauty of classical music played live."
1. Sitar Power is longer being distributed by Shanachie Records. Its distribution is now being handled by Batish Records, 1310 Mission Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA. (408) 423-1699
©1989 Option. Printed by Permission. Our very special thanks to Scott Becker and Bart Grooms.