Ashwin Batish: Music, family, Santa Cruz and “sitar power”

I think that we are very lucky to be in such a beautiful place, [and] to have such tolerance and such interest and depth of understanding . . . I find that people over here have this special connection with not just the arts but . . . [also] with India.

-Ashwin Batish

Keshav, on tabla, and Ashwin, on sitar, performing together.

With the one-year anniversary of Diaspora California at the end of August, it surprises me less and less to discover the talented artists–many of whom have distinguished careers–who reside quietly in unassuming places in California. It did not take me off guard then to learn that the family of the late Pandit Shiv Dayal Batish, a prominent playback singer and film music director from India, has lived for nearly 40 years in the small, charmingly eclectic city of Santa Cruz. S.D. Batish’s son, Ashwin, who is devoted to carrying on his father’s musical legacy, invited me recently to his studio to speak with him and his 12 year-old son Keshav, a budding multi-instrumentalist, about music, family, and Santa Cruz.

S.D. Batish came from the city of Patiala in the Indian state of Punjab. Before the Partition of 1947 split India and Pakistan in two, he made his name in the music of Lahore’s early “Lollywood” film industry. He went on to become a prominent radio artist in Delhi and then a musician for film soundtracks in Bombay. His wife, Shanta Devi, a singer for All India Radio, and their five children traveled along wherever his career took him, including England in the mid-1960s and finally the United States where they settled in the early 1970s when S.D. Batish came to teach at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “Being in one place did not go well with my father because he was a traveler,” said Ashwin, “We always followed–he always made sure that we followed wherever he went.”

From his childhood, Ashwin grew up surrounded by music and in close proximity to celebrity. S.D. Batish performed and composed for such Indian film music legends as Mohammad Rafi, Asha Bhosle, and Lata Mangeshkar and later in England he played on the soundtrack of the Beatles film Help! Ashwin spoke of the awe of seeing his father mingling with celebrities and receiving applause from thousands of people, but he said, “More than that. . . I still remember my father’s veena . . . in Bombay when he was practicing at five o’clock in the morning. Lying there [in bed], it was just like being in heaven.”

S.D. Batish with tanpura

Ashwin maintains that family is the “biggest support that you can have” and it was growing up watching his father that he developed his musical skills and his deep understanding and appreciation for music. His father, he said, discouraged him and his siblings from pursuing music as a career because of the endemic challenge in a musician’s life to make a steady living. Nonetheless, Ashwin has devoted most of his life to music and has brought his own children up in a home filled with it. His son Keshav, in particular, performs regularly with him. Ashwin does not believe in pushing children to study music. “Music is not a discipline–it is an art,” he said, “It is something that you just have to feel–it is a spiritual thing. So if you try to get very disciplinary in this thing then it turns them off.”

Sitar power

Ashwin’s own musical repertoire ranges from classical to fusion and he initially made a name for himself with the worldbeat trend of the 1980s. His trademark “sitar power”–which appears on the cap that he usually sports–was coined during this period. There is a strongly spiritual and even a metaphysical quality to the way he describes music. “You are by your very nature tuned like an instrument,” said Ashwin, “That is why music is so beautiful . . . With my sitar, if I play the top notes the bottom notes vibrate–it is called sympathetic vibration. In the same way, your body has sympathetic nerves that are already in you so that when you hear music they sympathize and this is how you can react . . . There is no theory behind why we do it; it is just in us. It is one of the laws of nature I would say . . . Literally we are all vibrations, so that is why a bunch of notes that are attractive to you are actually a part of you . . . You are a part of it and it is a part of you.”

Since the death of S.D. Batish in 2006, Ashwin has devoted himself to publishing his father’s compositions–approximately 3000 on the Hindustani music system and 2500 on the Carnatic system–with the goal of making them fully available online. S.D. Batish composed many “Raga Lakshan Geet” introductory songs on North Indian ragas with both English and Sanskrit lyrics. Ashwin intends to publish these in an easily accessible text and audio format. Going all of the way back to the early days of Gopher, the Batish family has long utilized the internet for publishing information about Indian classical music. Ashwin faces a daunting task of getting all of his father’s material online and spoke of hoping to find people to collaborate with on this project. He believes that the compositions, which were composed specifically for native English speakers studying Hindustani and Carnatic classical music, will be an invaluable resource in the online format.

The Batish family has found strong support in Santa Cruz from the very beginning and Ashwin finds the music community very collegial. The only downside to being a musician in Santa Cruz, Ashwin maintains, is the lack of places to perform. “I think that we are very lucky to be in such a beautiful place,” he said, “to have such tolerance and such interest and depth of understanding . . . I find that people over here have this special connection with not just the arts but . . . [also] with India.” Ashwin shows his appreciation for Santa Cruz, as well as the South Bay in general, by frequently holding fundraising concerts for local organizations, such as a recent benefit concert for the Santa Cruz Art League.

For the future, in addition to working on publishing his father’s compositions, Ashwin will continue to give music lessons and perform locally. He is also working on a new album, Sitar Power 3, which will feature vocals by his sister Meena Batish. A tour with Keshav is also in the works. Ashwin maintains the website of the Batish Institute of Indian Music and Ragmala, an online video and radio site, which streams music and educational content featuring members of the Batish family and their friends.

Image of Keshav and Ashwin by Vaughn Visnius.
All other images courtesy Ashwin Batish.

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