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Vanraj Bhatia was in a Class of His Own

The composer, who passed away early this morning at 93, was a favorite of Shyam Benegal, creating memorable music for films

Narendra Kusnur May 07, 2021

Composer Vanraj Bhatia passed away this morning. Photo: Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0/Zubin Balaporia

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In Shyam Benegal’s 1996 film Sardari Begum, the end credits were shown against the backdrop of ‘Chali Pee Ke Nagar’, sung by Arati Ankalikar Tikekar and Purwa Joshi. With its simple melody and semi-classical nuances, the tune lingered on much after you had watched the film. That was the impact Vanraj Bhatia’s music had, even though he came from a different background.

The composer, who passed away early this morning (May 7) at 93, was a favorite of Benegal, creating memorable music for films like Ankur, Manthan, Bhumika, Mandi, Junoon, Kalyug and Sardari Begum, and the TV series Bharat Ek Khoj. Singer Preeti Sagar had huge hits in ‘Mero Gaam Katha Parey’ in Manthan and ‘Kya Hai Tera Gham Bata’ in Kalyug. When the parallel cinema movement was at a high in the 1970s and 1980s, Bhatia was one of the most respected names. Besides Benegal movies, he did Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowrighee Lane, Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Prakash Jha’s Hip Hip Hurray, and Govind Nihalani’s teleserial Tamas, set at the time of Partition.

The composer’s musical interests were much broader, of course. His last major project was the opera Agni Varsha, based on Girish Karnad’s play. In a career spanning over 55 years, he made a mark in Western classical music, parallel Hindi cinema, background scores, advertising jingles and spiritual music.

One remembers sitting at his Nepean Sea Road residence seven years ago, completing an interview and discussing western classical music over Smirnoff vodka and munchies. Having studied at Mumbai’s New Era School, he was more exposed to Indian music, and even stood first in music class. “My exposure to western music was restricted to waltzes, but things changed after I heard Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1,” he recalled.

He began looking for a teacher and finally settled for Manek Bhagat, a pediatrician who also taught piano. “I wanted to learn everything from Bach and Mozart to Beethoven and Schubert. Though I have been associated with different forms of music, Western classical remains a personal favorite. Even today, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1 mesmerizes me, and I keep playing certain parts,” he said.

This writer had spoken to him on the telephone a few times before that, for his opinion quotes for articles. They would often end abruptly. But meeting him in person was a different experience. Once he was comfortable that you could identify with his thinking, he opened up and was full of anecdotes.  While he spoke, Bhatia also gave the impression that some tune was always playing at the back of his head. He would show a hit of irritation when interrupted, but quickly continue with what he wanted to say. His expressions had creativity written all over.

Nostalgically, he talked about learning music composition at the Royal Academy of Music, London, under well-known musicians Howard Ferguson and Alan Bush. Next, he went to the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied for five years under the renowned Nadia Boulanger. “The French style is totally different. The British play by ear, whereas the French are very strict. You can’t deviate one bit, and there is no freedom of thought. But Nadia taught me everything, and there was a time I would spend 13 hours a day just on harmony,” he recalled.

When Bhatia returned to India in 1959, at the age of 32, he was invited to write a jingle for Shakti Silk Sarees. The following year, he took up a job as Reader in musicology at the University of Delhi. But after getting many offers to compose advertising jingles, he returned to Bombay. Over the years, he created some 7,000 scores for ads, corporate and business films. This included the famous Liril tune, known for model Karen Lunel’s waterfall scene.

Bhatia’s turning point came much earlier when Benegal invited him to compose music for his 1974 film Ankur. The next film, Manthan, featured one of his most popular songs—’Mero Gaam Katha Parey’. He says: “People ask me what language it is. I tell them it is studio language, mixing various dialects. People from Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh all identified with it. Preeti Sagar did a wonderful job. Some people felt I chose her because her song ‘My Heart Is Beating’ (from Julie) became a hit, but the fact is I never liked that song,” he laughed.

Bhatia said he preferred simple songs without much ornamentation. He added, “That was the good thing about Preeti, and I used her voice again in Bhumika and Kalyug. She sang straight, without any frills. But in the end, the type of song depended on the film’s subject. Sardari Begum needed singers trained in khayal and thumri, who were able to deliver nuances like gamak. So Arati Anklikar Tikekar, Shobha Joshi and Purva Joshi were perfect. Even Asha Bhosle sang a few songs.”

Besides films, Bhatia enjoyed doing background scores, with aficionados considering Salil Chowdhury and him being the best in that field. His background work in the films Ajooba, Damini, Beta and Ghatak, and the TV serials Tamas, Discovery of India, Wagle Ki Duniya and Khandaan was much appreciated. “I could use my learning of Western classical music to great effect here, without anyone complaining,” he joked.

In the 2000s, Bhatia cut down on films and drifted towards spiritual music, releasing albums like Indian Meditation Music, The Upanishads of India and Bhagavad Gita. He explained, “I was never considered a big part of the film music scenario, as I didn’t do commercial cinema. There was a time when my kind of music worked, but there is a time for everything. When things leave you, you should leave them instead of hanging on. India’s scriptures fascinated me, and that was the right direction, besides the opera.”

Bhatia was respected by fellow musicians not only for his brilliance but for his sense of discipline. In 2017, tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain and the Symphony Orchestra of India did a special tribute concert at the Tata Theatre, Mumbai. Musician Tushar Bhatia and his group Swardhara played his songs.

Over the last few years, Bhatia had been having health issues and financial difficulties. Many musicians helped raise the money to fund his medical treatment. Indus Creed keyboardist Zubin Balaporia, who was very close to him, was in constant touch. News of his passing came as a shock to fans and musicians. Music director Ehsaan Noorani said, “He was a true maestro unmatched in his talent. He lived his life on his terms and leaves a legacy of music behind which is like the universe in its diversity.”

Throughout his career, Bhatia defined class and versatility. To quote from a song popularized by Frank Sinatra, whatever he did, he did it his way.

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