Interview: Ashwin Batish
Updated: Nov 4, 2021
In the summer of 2021, we sat down to chat with fusion music pioneer Ashwin Batish to discuss his musical life in three continents, his academic legacy, as well as the key musical influences in and outside of his family.
“The idea of getting better and learning is to find that soul in music. You don’t get to the soul without doing the practicing….Then what happens is the liberation side, liberation is basically the end result of dedicated practice."
Always looking to the future, sitar extraordinaire Ashwin Batish, has been at the forefront of fusion music for the past four decades. Having just recorded his part on the upcoming Sons of Apollo album, Batish’s desire to remain innovative and creative doesn’t seem to have come to a halt. The inclusion of a sitar on a progressive metal record might raise a few eyebrows, but this is nothing new for the California-based musician, having worked with artists across the musical spectrum. From punk to country music, Batish has done it all. “I am open to anything, I do classical, I do jazz, I do pop, I do rock, I do fusion, I do calypso, I do sambas, funk - I love funk music! To me, all of this stuff is a goldmine, because everybody has done all their stuff, they are all liberated,” he said enthusiastically. “So, when I see something that touches me, I am not the one creating that, they are the ones who are bringing it to me, but they are liberated and I am feeling like I can actually have this and assimilate that into me somehow. That is where I grow. I always leave doors open.”
For Batish, music has always been a family affair. Though his musical curiosity was once fostered by the generation above him, the baton has been handed down to his children, who now serve as an active source of inspiration for the sitar maestro. His son, Keshav, is developing into a fine young percussionist, having learnt the tabla from an early age. Meanwhile, his daughter, Mohini, who plays the tanpura, is also an accomplished vocalist. His daughters have recently been getting into modern pop music that one might think could be somewhat inaccessible for a man of Batish’s vintage. Nonetheless, in the Batish household there is a respect for any music of high quality, regardless of genre. “My daughters are now singing Taylor Swift, I have never heard Taylor Swift but when I hear my daughters singing, it brings tears to my eyes, so Taylor Swift must be somebody. What I am saying is that we are all listening to all these different nuances.”
Despite Batish’s inspiration from his juniors, like any parent wanting the best for their children, he was at one point quite cautious about their desire to enter the world of music professionally. This might be because Ashwin grew up with his father who was one of the stalwarts of music in India, who gave him a rather unique education into the upsides and downsides of life in music. Grounding himself in the knowledge that the music industry in the USA is somewhat more stable than in India, Batish has since changed his tune from recommending his son to ‘become a lawyer’ and is instead intent on nurturing his children’s musical ambitions. His father, Shiv Dayal Batish, though sadly deceased, remains a constant source of guidance for Batish and in honouring his decades of inspiration and teaching, Batish plans to release more of his father’s music to keep his memory alive.
Batish has experience in releasing the written work of his father with the publication of his authoritative piece of musical literature, Ragopedia, which documents the staff notation of many ragas performed by both himself and his father, allowing it to be more easily accessible to westerners. As such, his intentions to release his father’s music seems to be a continuation of his efforts in bringing his father’s mastery to the wider public. Hindustani classical music is, however, rather difficult to perform simply just by reading the notation from a book. “In Western music, they write almost everything into the notation, almost all of it, little squiggles and frills and all that. But Indian music, some of those things you can’t write down, so you learn them and then you learn the piece, but the skeleton is written in staff notation; the rest of it is improvised”, Batish explains. “This is the duality that we are always facing in cross-cultural fusions, how to get your idea across to my musicians. There is no way, I can only do it when they are sitting in front of me and we show things and then they show me and I show them.”
The dedication required not only to publish books, release albums, but also work as an academic while running an educational establishment, the Batish Institute, was of course something instilled in Batish by his legendary father. He quipped, “My dad always says, ‘play chess with a better person’ because that is how you get better.” Self-described as a “bulldog” Batish’s unwavering determination to achieve his goals comes from what he calls a “kung-fu kind of philosophy”. He elucidated, “that philosophy holds true with all great musicians in India. Everybody who you see, Ravi Shankar, you name it, Nikhil Banerjee. These guys didn’t become Nikhil Banerjee overnight, they practiced the heck out of their art. We see them as so good. No, they were there, they have broken thousands of strings, they have cut their fingers, they have been hung upside down by their masters.”
When asked whether he was castigated by his masters, he joked, “I wasn’t hung upside down, maybe sideways”. This cheeky-chappie approach not only makes Batish incredibly affable, but also fits into his renegade ambitions to not do things by the book. Batish recalls a period in his life in which he was invited to sit on stage with his sitar alongside jazz, pop, and rock artists who would come to town. He felt like the audience would have a preconceived notion of what he would bring to the party. “They would think ‘oh, sitar, peaceful meditation, burn incense, sit down,’” he said with his hand clasped in a yogi pose. Batish’s frustration with his inability to play music as lively as his on-stage counterparts would grow when given the opportunity to perform solos during these performances. “The audience would all be dancing and suddenly they would be sitting down, and I am like ‘what the heck, this is not what I wanted, I want to play something really energetic and I want them to continue dancing.’”
Around this time, Batish played in a jazz quartet alongside the likes of Zakir Hussain and John Neptune. It was his first time rehearsing and learning compositions with a more theoretical rigour, as opposed to simply freestyling. “What the heck is jazz? What the heck is a bassline? What is an orchestral piece? All of those things became issues, not that our quartet was very big, but it gave me a drive to want to do more in it,” Batish revealed. It was here where he was truly confronted with the concept of fusion music, an idea that would forever be at the bedrock of all future work and successes. “If you know fusion, you have to kind of believe in that whole concept, you can’t just get up and start doing fusion, right? You have to understand the other person’s point of view. This is what I call fusion music. The ideal fusion music is when you understand the other person’s point of view, not yours because you are already an expert in that, you don’t want to worry about that.”
After this revelatory experience, Batish went to a music shop and found a youngster with a drum machine and also discovered synthesisers there. He decided to buy a plethora of equipment and software that he had little idea how to use; he persevered with his experimentation on his new products and by hook or by crook ended up with the seminal track Bombay Boogie. It was released alongside the song India Beat, recorded at the same time and even included an accidental recording of him and his brother yelling and screaming in excitement whilst having some beers together. The track became part of the album series he is most renowned for, Sitar Power. “It became like a fun project where I was learning, I was trying to get excited, trying to enjoy the fact that I was breaking out of my classical mould, but also being so classical at the same time. I am not losing it, just adding it into the Western beats and basslines and stuff.”
As mentioned before, Batish doesn’t favour one genre over another, and has been constantly unearthing parts of the musical spectrum to which he is drawn towards. “I did a thing called Cowboys & Indians, not because country music is my favourite, but because that portion of bluegrass, had me like ‘wow’ and every time I go ‘wow’ it seems to be that I have to put sitar on it.” Batish’s authentically unjudgmental quest to discover different musical styles that he can add his own unique spin onto has at points felt like a spiritual experience. Much like Isaac Newton’s famous notion of standing on the shoulders of giants, Batish feels somewhat indebted to other virtuosos that have fed him with inspiration and motivation to expand their music into something new and exciting. Batish pondered, “to me, music is like that. You have to get touched. When you get touched, it enters, and then your ability to assimilate it and understand it, that entering point is angelic. It touches your soul.”
Describing his fusion music as “not a compromise” but rather a “thank you”, Batish feels that though his music is so vastly varied, if it had to be labelled as anything, he likes the term Worldbeat. Unlike how he views the term ‘world music’, a label he associates with cultural preservation which demands respect for traditions in their original forms, Batish states that conversely “Worldbeat is the present, it’s a mixture of bringing the old and the new together, and maybe an element of a non-Western music mixing with the Western music.” Despite this, he recognises that the term has failed to take off, despite being a massive proponent for it.
Batish’s choices to pursue a career playing fast and loose with the rules, has inevitably meant that he has had his fair share of criticism predominantly from traditionalists and fuddy-duddies. This, however, is no skin of Batish’s back. “If somebody doesn’t like the air outside, it doesn’t mean that the air outside is bad, it just means that they don’t like the sun certainly. Criticisms are always there, but I think you should put them in context and not be overly catering to an opinion, because this life is not about catering to opinions, it is about what you want to do.” Batish certainly has achieved a level of acclaim and popularity across the Western world, playing gigs in North America and Europe. However, he has not yet been able to penetrate the Indian market in quite the same way. Though his music has played on some radio stations there, he hasn’t yet played a gig in his birthplace. Though Batish attributes this to never having had proper backing, due to the nature of his work being self-produced and self-promoted, nonetheless in a country with a population the size of India, making his mark using his style that avoids being tied down to the restraints of traditional music would inevitably pose its own challenges. To resonate with a population of that size, one might find that the easiest way of doing so is by appealing to the masses, steering clear of such idiosyncratic fusion music.
This hasn’t dampened Batish’s sense of connection to nor identity with his homeland. “I never lose my Indian-ness, you can never do that. I am always an Indian.” Batish continued, “we speak, we breathe, we have an Indian restaurant, we have a gift shop that sells Indian goods… I love to represent India. I love everything about India, and I will do my best to project my culture, my children are studying about it, so I think I’m not as concerned about that as an identity, because I think that’s who I am.” Though Batish is an advocate for Indian culture, and of course one can look at any fusion musician and hypothesise that there may be a deeper social commentary about the importance of global unity, the sitarist does not view his music as political. He expounded his reasoning. “I keep my music musical. Music is its own politics, I believe. I really don’t feel like I need to tackle world issues with my music. I appreciate bands and musicians that are doing that, but I think I keep music completely separate from religion, separate from politics, from philosophies and stuff like that, primarily because music is to me its own entity.”
Having lived in the United States for nearly half a century Batish does not view himself as “any less of an Indian by being an American”. However, as Batish concedes his identity these days cannot be viewed simply through the lens of being Indian, as he has been greatly enriched by all of his years immersed in American society. A few years after his father moved to the United States, Batish was invited to teach at the University of California by a famous mathematician. The move appealed to him, mostly because of the blue skies, having arrived from rainy England, where he spent many of his formative years. At the tender age of 11 years old, Batish begun secondary school in the UK, and recounts how unprepared he was for the experience. “That’s where I felt like ‘oh my god, I’m an Indian’”. He tells a rather endearing tale of being in a maths class in his first year in the UK, being very eager to give the answer as maths was his strong point, “So, as soon as I said that, an Indian accent comes out [from the class]… everybody bursts out laughing, and I just shut down. Then, the teacher comes up to me, right in the middle of the class, and he says “don’t worry boy, I’m from Scotland, I have an accent just like you, just go ahead and tell us what the answer is.’ And I was like ‘oh, OK!’”. Batish remembers his early days at school in England as rather daunting, though later he was fully embraced, and was even encouraged to bring his sitar with him to school. Overall, he told us he reflects back on his youth in England with fondness and appreciation for the good friends he made there.
Being in the UK was also where he was first exposed to other styles of music unfamiliar to him. Though nowadays hearing innovative genres has become his bread and butter, he started off his journey of musical discovery through hearing the likes of Cliff Richard and Shirley Bassey. Like most people of his age, or frankly any age, his biggest influence at that time was The Beatles. Unlike most children of the 60s though, Batish had a special connection to the band that many could only dream of. “I spoke to [George] Harrison several times when he called and wanted to talk to my father. At one point, he thought I was my father and he started playing his sitar to me, and I enjoyed it but I quickly handed it over to my dad, who continued the talk, but I did help repair his sitar.” You might be wondering why one quarter of The Beatles was ringing the Batish household. This was because his father was the musical director for the Indian sections of The Beatles’ movie Help!, after being recommended by the BBC with whom he had worked on Apna Hi Ghar Samajhiye on the radio, a show in Hindi designed to welcome and integrate newly arrived South Asian immigrants to the UK. Batish senior was then asked to give Pattie Boyd, George Harrison's wife at the time, private lessons on the dilruba, an instrument similar to the sitar but played with a bow. This strengthened Batish senior's relationship with Harrison himself, eventually leading to his son’s interactions with the great guitarist over the phone. Batish confided in us, “I still have his sitar cover somewhere in my studio. It was a dark brown cover and we never gave it back to him, I’m sorry to say!” The Beatles connection doesn’t end with the involvement on Help!, S.D. Batish sung a Bollywood version of I Wanna Hold Your Hand. “They ripped The Beatles song, and put Indian words on it… I don’t think they ever got sued for it though, you know?” Batish chortled.
It is simultaneously surprisingly uplifting and yet paradoxically disheartening to hear of the Batish family’s positive experience of integration into the UK. On the one hand, the way in which his father was welcomed into England with open arms, with Lord Fenner Brockway, a big fan of his, effectively giving him keys to the country after writing in his passport that he could stay in the UK as long as he wanted, was perhaps an outlier in terms of how newly arrived immigrants were treated at the time. The sad fact remains that, despite progress in terms of integration and acceptance of immigrants over the decades, today it is still a rarity for newly arrived immigrants to have as positive an experience, particularly amidst a growing climate of anti-immigrant sentiment that has been viciously whipped up by the government since 2010.
His father, S.D. Batish, being held in such high regard in the UK, no doubt was connected to his highly esteemed reputation as one of the best Bollywood composers of his era. S.D. Batish revolutionised the music industry in India by co-founding the first union in Bollywood called the Cine Music Directors Association, to ensure that musicians and singers got fairly paid. His socio-political influence was not all he was known for, he was also considered to be an innovator bringing in Western styles to his music, in a not too dissimilar way from his son. Although Batish junior took this a step further with more outlandish and overt fusion pieces, S.D. Batish would be heavily influenced by alternative sounds he picked up in his surroundings. For example, in Mumbai the family had Goanese neighbours of Portuguese descent, who were great musicians that would play styles of music that were unfamiliar to the Batish clan at that time such as samba. Jazz music found its way to the Batish household, which was an important step for his father, as it motivated to learn to read notations, a necessary step for film composition.
Batish delineated, “the stuff he used was also very globally oriented, and people in India, they also loved that, because people go to the movie houses, it was really a trend to see something unique, and Western influences were prevalent at that time. We’ve had almost 150 to 200 years of the Britishers being there. It’s not like we were devoid of this whole experience, they had already introduced us to it, so it wasn’t like we were completely new [to it].” Being surrounded by exciting music styles and titans of the Bollywood music scene was something that young Batish was unfazed by, as it was all he knew. He recalls the likes of Asha Bhosle and Lata Mangeshkar often spending time around his family. Batish reflected, “It was almost like they were friends, I would meet them, they would pat me on the head and give me something… it was a normal thing for me.”
Through all of these ample musical experiences from meeting Bollywood legends, playing the sitar for his schoolmates in England and putting his own stamp on the fusion music scene in the USA, Ashwin Batish has learned one thing, “A stage is a stage, an audience is an audience, music is music. It is all the same. This is one thing I have realised. It doesn’t matter which language they speak, it crosses over and I have always enjoyed it.” Regardless of which continent he is on, Batish has always been impacted by an endless range of inspirations, however, chief among them must still be his father, whose musical legacy carries on through his descendants. The Batish fusion style can be directly linked to S.D. Batish’s initial explorations and exposure to Western music, bringing Indian music to the West and Western music to India. As such, even as a child, Batish was destined to be a sitar virtuoso always looking to the future for the next exciting sounds on his journey to ‘liberation’.
Thumbnail photo credit: Alan Snodgrass of Digital Diversions