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Gig Review: Zakir Hussain, Niladri Kumar Honor Vanraj Bhatia

Several celebrated musicians from across the country gathered at NCPA Mumbai to honor the veteran composer

Zakir Hussain, Niladri Kumar and Rakesh Chaurasia paid tribute to celebrated composer Vanraj Bhatia at NCPA Mumbai.

Zakir Hussain, Niladri Kumar and Rakesh Chaurasia paid tribute to celebrated composer Vanraj Bhatia at NCPA Mumbai. Photo: Courtesy of NCPA/Facebook

On March 1st, 2017, the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) hosted a quite unusual function in Mumbai: they were honoring the lifetime achievement of a truly great figure in Indian music, Vanraj Bhatia.

The concept was mooted and driven by celebrated tabla player Ustad Zakir Hussain and the NCPA immediately concurred. It was not a hollow gesture by any means. As Mr. Khushroo Santook, chairman of the NCPA, remarked in his introduction, “Vanraj Bhatia is the greatest Indian composer of the twentieth century.”

Later, Bollywood composer Tushar Bhatia (who led his band, Swardhara in playing hand picked songs from Bhatia’s music for several of Shyam Benegal’s films) said, “Vanraj Bhatia is the only person anywhere who has written music for the works ranging from Shakespeare to the Mahabharata.”

This was well illustrated by the huge range of music that was played at the tribute. The concert opened with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) playing his raga based compositions followed by an excerpt from Bhatia’s opera Agni Varsha based on playwright Girish Karnad’s work to the superb renditions from Tushar Bhatia’s ensemble. The finale was a composition from the film 36 Chowringhee Lane played with expected brilliance from Ustad Zakir Hussain with sitarist Niladri Kumar, flautist Rakesh Chaurasia and composer Zubin Balaporia. The range and versatility of the music was quite staggering. To have come from just one composer, who also composed a small matter of about 7000 ad jingles speaks of true versatility.

Now 89 years old, Bhatia grew up in a Bombay of pre-independence India in a joint family with a business background and had a definite drive which took him at such a tangent from the route his family trod. We are all blessed for this fact.

Incidentally, Bhatia’s opera, perhaps his magnum opus, Agni Varsha is still a work in progress. He has been working on it for the past eight years and excerpts have been played in India and abroad. The complete work should indeed be a thing of beauty. 

Thank you Vanraj Bhatia. Thank you for enriching all our lives with the sheer brilliance of your compositions. As Hussain remarked to us at an after event party, “We have a great tradition in India to honor and respect our gurus and our teachers. Tonight was very satisfying because we were able to honor one of the best composers from India.”


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