My adventure with world music forms started back in 1985. Some friends invited me to "sit in" on a jazz performance. I had no idea what I was getting into. It seemed easy enough, I thought. I would take my sitar and tabla and just let loose! Boy was it a sickening experience! The music was so loud I had to hammer out the tabla bols, my sitar got lost in the volume, there was all kinds of feedback noise, I was numb, my fingers were sore, there was major ringing in my ears! Through all this, I kept a smile on my face and tried to look cool.
Here I was... a classically trained sitarist. With lots of students, teaching the ancient art and tradition of Indian music, practicing 4 hours a day, performing nightly in my family restaurant.... What did I care about any other musical form, I didn't need it! So what the heck happened? you might well ask ;-)
Traditions of music clashing can be a jarring experience. Especially when you've worked in your idiom and feel very confident that "you are it." The ego is over blown. Your chops are in top shape you basically own the world! Atleast you feel you're at the top of it. Yet, there is always a voice you can hear at the back your mind. Your ears perk up when you hear a rift be it on a sitar, guitar, piano, synth, or sax. Secretly I was always an admiring fan of Western musical forms but with very little time to indulge in them.
Growing up in Bombay and then in England, perhaps has something to do with my interest in Western music. Since the age of 12 I have listened to the Beatles, Cliff Richard, Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Pat Boone, Seekers, etc. all the old icons of the 50's and 60's. In Bombay we had a christian family for our neighbors and during the weekends they would have their radios at full blast and be partying. As kids we would be either gawking at everyone dirty dancing (the Cha Cha Cha, Jive, Fox Trot ????) or be lying in bed mouthing the words to the songs. Our living quarters were old army barracks with walls made of pure cement. Although there were different apartments within the very long section (about 300 X 50 feet) there was one common roof to this whole complex. The top of the walls of all the apartments was open so we could hear each other. Hence if someone had their radio going or if they would talk too loud it would be heard by others and the cement walls helped carry the sound.
So it is that when I started to show interest in playing the sitar I was drawn towards playing some of these western songs that were imbeded in me. Some that I still remember are Norwegian Wood (Beatles), Summer Holidays (Cliff Richards), Rock Around the Clock (?).
Learning to play the sitar proper, came as my father noticed I was making some sense in playing these Western and some Indian pop songs. My sister Meena was good at rendering them vocally. Perhaps he saw a glimmer of hope or he sensed it was time, and started showing me some gats (instrumental compositions) so I could play these in front of guests, or at family concerts. I was happy. I loved to be in front of a crowd. There was also pressure to play with tabla players and I would be stumped. Western songs would not cut it.
Simple compositions were taught to me and exercises were given. I practiced them after school in front of the TV set in the living room. My family members objected... but I had dad on my side :-) So I ruined many a fine TV evenings and afternoons, and mornings for my family. I can only imagine how awful I must have sounded because I really thought I was doing a terrific job but faces around me told a different story.
I started learning from my father after we had moved to England. I was about 14 years old. I didn't even know my father played the sitar. He was a vocalist and a composer. I had seen him practicing the violin, the harmonium, and the vichitra veena. Not that I was surprised entirely, he was known to play any instrument he could lay his hands on. He once remarked, "I don't touch wind instrument as they tend to make the voice hoarse."
I was always tagging along when he went to music sessions. On occasions he would tell his fellow musicians "my son is studying the sitar" and immediately my fingers would be audited by the musicians. They were looking for calluses. Mine weren't that deep and I would get a response "You still have a ways to go, boy."
Tabla came naturally while I was studying the sitar. It actually started at an earlier age when I would mess around on the Dholak - a double headed, barrel shaped drum. My mother, Smt. Shanta Deviji, was frequently requested to play the Dholak at Keertans, weddings, and other get togethers. I picked it up from her. She actually was also responsible for setting my hand on the sitar since dad was in Europe at that time. She showed me some of the simple rhythms and I would be invited to keep a rhythm and help her in the drumming.
Back in London, my father had a tabla set and he would often play them when composing. He actually would record the theka on tape and then practice with this. I started to learn tabla from him and soon I was playing simple rhythm patterns and occasionally accompany him with theka. My father has to be a very patient man because I must have sounded horrible. Here is where I really appreciated him, he was always supportive. He never scolded me or pushed me to practice a zillion hours a day. He just left it up to me. Thanks dad!
Slowly, I found myself involved deeper into North Indian classical forms. This gradual increase came as my father introduced me to new talas (tabla rhythms). I would always be around when he was practicing. I would sit next to him and try to play the tunes on the sitar. He appreciated that and started to help me get better at improvising. Sometimes he would play the tabla and accompany me and drop hints on how to improve my playing style. He would also sing compositions or improvise vocally and I would try and follow. There is really no second to this type of learning. I found myself sounding better every day. I was also accompanying my dad on the tabla and playing sitar at various events.
My first contact with a tabla player, other than my dad, was at a party. A very fine tabla player Mr. Ismail was accompanying everyone. I was the invited sitarist. So I sat down and was instructed by my dad to play a Khammaj gat taught to me by him and composed by his guruji "Chandan Ram Charan". I started the composition. The tabla player followed perfectly. As the excitement gave way to enjoyment I relaxed and started improvising and adding tihais into the compositions and the audience started applauding. Well needless to say this was very thrilling. I was hooked! After such an exhilarating experience I wanted to really learn everything about Indian music!
So my training began in earnest. The more serious aspects of music theory were introduced to me by my father. He had also started a magazine "Music Asia" where he would feature regular sitar, tabla, vocal lessons. I got a chance to proof read the articles and this helped. All this was happening around 1967. The magazine was published for about 3 years. In 1970 my father was invited to teach music at the University of California, Santa Cruz, U.S.A. So he moved to the States.
I didn't follow him there until 1973. But I kept up my practice. I would give sitar demos in school, at parties, and some benefit performances for charities.
In 1973, I joined my father in Santa Cruz. He and mom had started a restaurant call "The Krishna Cafe." It was completely vegetarian food, cooked family style. It was very popular with the Santa Cruz crowd. When I and my brother Tarun joined mom and dad in 1973, we started getting involved in the restaurant business. Soon we felt we should open another branch to the cafe but we wanted to give it another name since we were planning on providing non-vegetarian dishes. So we called it "Batish India House."
Running two restaurants was very exciting. Santa Cruz in the 70's was a very quiet place. There really wasn't enough business for the two restaurants but we kept them up. Our break even was very low. If we made a hundred dollars on a day we felt rich! But usually it was averaging fifty dollars. The silver lining to all this is that dad and I would spend a lot of time performing music for the patrons. It didn't matter to us how many people were listening. We would sit on our makeshift stage and blast off. Sometimes he would play tabla and I the sitar. Other times he would play the harmonium and I the tabla.
Good food and good music! We would live and breathe this combination. Soon our customers started gathering in larger and larger numbers but we would play even if only one person was sitting there. There was never a cover charge. It was just for the fun of it. In a nutshell, this went on for almost fifteen years! During this time we had a school of music established named "Batish Institute of Music and Fine Arts" and we had many students. Classes were taught in Singing, harmonium, dilrubha, sitar, tabla, vichitra veena, and kathak.
I must attribute my playing skills to this intense playing period of 15 years. It was a consistent, non-stop experience. Every night there was a time when dinner had been served and dad and I would jump on stage and loose all sense of time. The Institute also became Santa Cruz's Indian music voice. We would host many fine artists including Pt. Ram Narayan, Dr. L. Subramanium, Zakir Hussain, Hariprasad Chaurasia, Shiv Kumar Sharma, V. G. Jog. There were also frequent performances by our students on the restaurant stage and in school events.
In 1985, we had had enough of the restaurant and the family was showing unrest. We had a family pow wow and came to a unanimous decision. Close the restaurant! Ouch!