On October 10, 1965, the series Apna Hi Ghar Samajhiye premiered on BBC1 television and radio. Presented in Hindustani, Urdu and English, its theme music was composed by the multi-faceted Pandit Shiv Dayal Batish, who had already won considerable renown as singer and music composer in the Hindi film world. The series aimed to reach the new immigrant from South Asia: it offered advice on matters like housing, insurance, migration and education, interspersed with music from the subcontinent, especially film music.
SD Batish, as he was better known, was also a recent arrival to England. As his son, the musician Ashwin Batish recounted to Scroll.in in an email, he had reached London earlier that year on a “near relative visa” following his older daughter Surendra’s admission to a course in ophthalmology. Word of his arrival spread among fellow musicians such as Keshav Sathe, who worked in the Indian High Commission and moonlighted as a tabla player, and Batish soon became part of the BBC’s outreach programmes.
A multi-instrumentalist, who was proficient at the sitar, tabla and vichitra veena, Batish featured regularly at music festivals across Britain. At one of these, the Cardiff Music Festival, his playing impressed the British parliamentarian and activist Fenner Brockway. Brockway helped Batish secure permanent residency status, Ashwin says. Not long after, Batish’s family joined him from Bombay. It was a decision, Ashwin says, that balanced his mother Shanta Devi’s practicality with his father’s musical dreams.
Shanta Devi, like Batish early in his career, had been an artist with the All India Radio at one time. To raise money for the air tickets, the family sold its land in Bombay’s Santa Cruz neighbourhood – now worth a fortune, Ashwin says. Its new home was on Birchington Road, a residential area in London’s West Hampstead.
A few weeks later, as Batish recalled, came Sathe’s memorable call inviting him to make up the quartet of Indian musicians assembled to provide accompaniment for the Beatles’ album Help!. The others in the quartet were Sathe on tabla, Diwan Motihar on sitar and Qasim (known just by his first name) on flute.
A kinship must have formed during those musical sessions, for Batish’s association with George Harrison did not end there. Months later, Batish was engaged to teach Harrison’s wife, Patti Boyd, the dilruba, a stringed instrument that later featured on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album (1967).
Around 1970, the Batish family moved again, this time to Santa Cruz in California. The emigration was not altogether impulsive. Batish had been teaching a short-term course at the University of Santa Cruz, where his colleague, the mathematician Ralph Abraham, had been taking tabla lessons from him. Abraham suggested the Batish family move to the US and the family agreed. As a family, Ashwin quipped, they were as much “move-icians” as musicians.
Hindi Film World
Born on December 21, 1914, in Patiala, Batish showed promise early. As the story goes, when he was as young as seven, he was regaling audiences and receiving praise from the likes of Hari Singh, the maharaja of Kashmir. Encouraged by the plaudits perhaps, he forayed into Bombay to forge an acting career. His attempt wasn’t quite successful, though, and he returned to Patiala to study music with Pandit Chandan Ram Charan.
His guru, quite taken by Batish’s sense of rhythm and memory, gave him the moniker Rasik, which Batish adopted as a pseudonym on some compositions crafted later in California. By 1936, he was an artiste with the All India Radio and recording for the label EMI as Master Ramesh – a name he acquired while singing covers of songs rendered by popular singers, especially KL Saigal.
As always, fortune seemed to smile on him. His singing on AIR drew the attention of an older cousin, Pandit Amarnath, who was an accomplished musician in the Punjabi film industry in Lahore. Amarnath gave Batish the opportunity to sing a song – Pagdi Sambhal Jatta – he had composed for the film Gawandi (1942). The song became a hit, making Batish popular. But, all told, the experience was bittersweet. Ashwin says his father did not relish acting in the movie: the frequent takes, the blinding light from mirrors used as reflectors unnerved him.
As Amarnath’s assistant, Batish learned various aspects of music direction: rehearsing with singers, synchronising instruments and working with an orchestra. These learnings opened yet another opportunity for him. He was invited to Bombay by the Marathi writer and film impresario Keshav Prahlad Atre (Acharya Atre) to compose music for the film Paayaachi Daasi. But, in the end, credit was given to Annasaheb Mainkar.
After the Partition in 1947, the year Amarnath died, Batish moved back to Bombay, this time not to try his luck as an actor, but as a singer and composer. Several prominent music directors of the day employed him for their movies – Anil Biswas for Laadli, Husnlal-Bhagatram for Sawan Bhado, Hamari Manzil, and Surajmukhi; Ghulam Mohammad for Kundan; Roshan for Barsat ki Raat and Taksal; and Madan Mohan for Ada and Railway Platform. Some of his more notable songs were sung with Geeta Dutt in films he provided music himself, such as Betaab and Bahu Beti.
Batish, whose musical oeuvre has been described as an “amalgam of classical music and Punjabi folk and popular styles” composed for 16 films, including Har Jeet, Tipu Sultan and Toofan. For two films, he composed under the name Nirmal Kumar – a moniker that Lata Mangeshkar had given him for luck, according to Ashwin.
By this time, Batish had grown disenchanted with the Hindi film world. Ashwin recalls that his father needed a steady income to sustain his young family, but payments were erratic and delayed. Irked by this, Batish worked for a while to set up an artistes’ union to give them a platform to air their grievances and demands.
England gave a new direction to Batish’s career. He founded a monthly music journal called Musicasia, wrote regularly for it, taught students Indian music, and performed at festivals and for Indian audiences. In 1969, he even gave basic sitar lessons to the actor Michael York for his role in The Guru. Based loosely on George Harrison, the Merchant-Ivory movie depicted a musician’s search for a guru in India and starred Utpal Dutt, Saaed Jaffrey, Aparna Sen and others.
Project Of A Lifetime
The move to the US, as with the one to England, was a family decision. Shanta Devi’s initiative led to the Batish India House (at first called the Sri Krishna Café), a restaurant on Santa Cruz’s Mission Street that served Indian food while music was played by members of the Batish family. “I would serve food and then jump on stage to play music,” remembered Ashwin, who like his father plays several instruments, including the sitar and tabla.
The restaurant was featured often in the local paper, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, and ran till 1985, before music became the all-absorbing act, and SD Batish embarked on the “project of a lifetime”. His wish to collate, annotate, and set in writing every known detail of the Hindustani (the Ragopedia compendia) and Carnatic musical systems coincided with Ashwin’s discovery of Gopher, an early internet protocol that enabled files to be recorded, uploaded and distributed easily. It was a project envisioned after their visits to the library of the University of Berkeley yielded barely a few books on Indian music, and mostly on the Carnatic tradition. What was an inspiration for Batish to explain every raga became a boon not merely for music aficionados but also for his students who were familiar only with English.
The family set up the Batish Institute of Music and Fine Arts in 1976. It was the third of its kind to come up in California after the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music and the Music Circle, which was set up by Harihar Rao, a long-time associate of Ravi Shankar.
Besides being a recording studio, the Batish Institute continues to offer classes and texts, including several hundreds of Batish’s compositions (his raga lakshan geet set in the Hindustani classical system), and his derivative ragas based on the 72 melakartas of the Carnatic tradition. He regularly performed with his children, Ashwin and daughter Meena, and lived long enough to see his grandchildren, Keshav and Mohini, grow into musicians.
Batish died in 2006, short of his 94th birthday. On his 85th birthday, as he regaled an audience with his music, the city of Santa Cruz honoured him with a photo exhibition on his life, labelling him a “living musical treasure”.
This is the eleventh part in a triweekly series on early Indians who blazed a trail in other parts of the world. Read the rest of the series here.