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Interview Hindi Marathi

Ramesh Bhatkar on father Snehal Bhatkar: He could sing bhajans as well as disco theme songs

The veteran Marathi and Hindi film actor goes down memory lane on his father's 99th birth anniversary. 

Keyur Seta

Think of film music in the B&W era and names like SD Burman spring to mind. But the likes of Snehal Bhatkar also played a role in making the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s the golden era of Hindi film music.

Vasudev Gangaram 'Snehal' Bhatkar, born on this day (17 July) 99 years ago, composed the music for some well-known films like Neel Kamal (1947), Raj Kapoor and Madhubala's debut as leading man and woman, respectively, Sohag Raat (1948), Chhabili (1960), which starred sisters Nutan and Tanuja, Hamari Yaad Aayegi (1961), Fariyad (1964) and Aanapurna (Marathi, 1968).

According to Bhatkar's son Ramesh, a well-known Marathi and Hindi film actor, Snehal Bhatkar’s musical training began at home with his mother as his first guru. “My grandfather passed away when my father was very young," Ramesh Bhatkar told Cinestaan.com. "My grandmother, a school teacher, used to sing at home. My father’s mama [maternal uncle] was also into music, so he brought a harmonium home to learn. It was a big thing in those days to have a harmonium at home. My father wasn’t allowed to touch it. When his mama’s teacher used to leave after his lessons, my father would play it secretly.”

Ramesh Bhatkar

Snehal Bhatkar’s uncle inevitably noticed his talent. “He observed and made sure he learns. This is how my father learnt the harmonium. His voice was also good. Then he started performing in school and in the wadi [housing colony],” Ramesh Bhatkar said.

Snehal Bhatkar went on to take up music as a career and started working with HMV, then the only recording company in India. “He got a job as a harmonium player with HMV," his son recounted. "Later he started composing music there. He met a lot of music artistes and this helped him learn further. He used to meet people like Sudhir Phadke, GD Madgulkar, regularly and slowly got involved with them.”

Snehal Bhatkar had to change his name when he got his first break as a film composer because his contract with HMV forbade him from working outside. “He composed for the first time with Phadke in Baburao Painter's Rukmani Swayamvar (1946) and they were credited as Vasudev Sudhir," Ramesh Bhatkar said. "For Neel Kamal he was credited as B Vasudev. Then he did Kidar Sharma’s Sohag Raat. My sister Snehalata was born by then. So he began using the name Snehal.”

Eventually, HMV found out about Snehal Bhatkar's extra-curricular activity, but he quit the job with the music company. But he continued to use the name Snehal Bhatkar.

Snehal Bhatkar had a long association and friendship with filmmaker. Kidar Sharma. His first opportunity to compose music for Sharma came quite by accident. Sharma was in Bombay and realized that he needed another song for a film he was making at the time.

“It didn’t make sense to call his composer all the way from Kolkata. He asked my father if he would be able to compose, to which he agreed,” said Ramesh. “Sharma loved his music and offered him his next film, Neel Kamal. Raj Kapoor and Madhubala were cast as hero and heroine for the first time. He also sang a song in the film."

Speaking of his father’s musical achievements, Ramesh said he was the one who introduced Pahari [hills] music in Hindi cinema. “Before that, it didn’t have a place here," he said. "Naushad saheb had appreciated him, saying, ‘Aapne toh sahi raasta dikha diya [You have shown us the way].’ As he was a simple person, he didn’t make a show of it. But Pahari music has made such high contribution [to Hindi film music].”

Ramesh said he had no clue about his father's status when he was a child. “Till I reached Standard X, I didn’t understand much. I knew my father was a music director, but I never felt [that he was a big man]. We used to live in a chawl. So, there was no music room as such. People used to visit and he played the harmonium. When big artistes visited, they used to wait in the car downstairs. I remember going down to see Talat Mahmood once. 

"It was only after Chhabili and Hamari Yaad Aayegi that I realized that my father is well known. I then used to visit his recordings. I was there when songs like ‘Sochta Hoon Ye Kya Kiya’ [from Hamari Yaad Aayegi] were recorded.”

Ramesh also spoke of his family’s close association with Nutan, one of the leading actresses of the era. “Nutan even visited our home during the making of Chhabili," he said. "My mother encouraged her to sing in the film. My father even gave music in her first film [Hamari Beti (1950)]. We had family relations. We even did the task of distributing her marriage invitations.”

Ramesh recalled that his father remained a simple man despite working with several big names. “He had no complex. He used to perform bhajans at functions despite being a Hindi film composer! We used to feel that our father was a music director, but he didn’t [have any such airs]. We used to wonder how other artistes have bungalows and cars. We also had a car despite living in a chawl. We sold it later as it was giving problems.” 

Snehal Bhatkar wanted his son to enter the field of music, but that was not to be. “He thought I will do something in music," said Ramesh. "He had enrolled me in a singing class, but I didn’t learn. Pyarelalji used to stay in an adjacent chawl. His father, Ramprasad Sharma, used to teach the violin to kids free. Even [composer] Uttam Singh used to learn there. Father had said he [Pyarelal] will become big some day!” 

Ramesh's attempts at learning the violin also did not last long. “I got bored standing with my head down and playing it," he admitted frankly. "Two other kids from our wadi left, so even I left. Then even Pyarelalji moved to Bandra.”

Coincidentally, another musician moved into the same place. “Abdul Karim Khan [not the founder of the Kirana gharana] came to stay there. He used to visit us and sing and even cry listening to the songs. He was a fan of my father. My father asked him to teach me. So, he started teaching me the tabla,” said Ramesh. However, the same story was repeated. “I left that too midway. My father realized it’s no use now. He got nervous.” 

Snehal Bhatkar

Snehal Bhatkar was relieved when Ramesh eventually made his mark as an actor. “He was happy to see me in films,” he said.

Ramesh often rued the fact that his father never composed music for any film in which he had a role. “I felt bad," he said. "He scored the music in so many Marathi films, but none starring me.” 

But fate conspired to fulfil his wish at long last. “In Kidar Sharma’s last film Sehme Huay Sitaren (1994), I was the hero and my father was roped in as music composer. It was such a coincidence that I was the lead actor in the film of the person who first gave a chance to my father,” Ramesh said.

More than Snehal Bhatkar’s versatility, however, what his son Ramesh remembers most about him is that he was a decent man. “He used to sing bhajans and at the same time disco-type songs too. But more than that I am proud to be his son because I never heard him say anything bad about anyone ever!”