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Vanraj Bhatia (1927–2021): The quiet legacy of a stalwart

With his deep knowledge of Hindustani and Western classical, Bhatia shaped the structure, form and style of the music that lit up the works of filmmakers like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and Kumar Shahani. And his work for nascent Indian television is the stuff of nostalgia today.

Shriram Iyengar

The death of Vanraj Bhatia brings the curtain down on the life of a virtuoso composer whose knowledge, understanding and techniques of music went far beyond the limited scope offered by the Hindi cinema that brought him fame.

It is indeed a tragedy that the end has come at a time when the pandemic has wreaked havoc in the country and family after family is struggling to cope with illness and loss.

As the pre-eminent composer of Indian cinema’s parallel movement, away from the restrictions of commercial dictates, Bhatia brought technical expertise, a deep understanding of musical tradition in India, and its combination with the sound foundations of Western harmony to film music.

Born on 31 May 1927 in a Kutchi business family, Vanraj Bhatia was always fascinated by music. In 1940s Bombay, he attended the famous New Era School near Kemp's Corner, and learnt music at the Deodhar School of Music. In an interview with film music scholar Greg Booth for the website Scroll.in, he recalled, “I was brought up on Indian classical music at New Era School. I knew all the ragas. I had a teacher, one Mr Kulkarni, who died in 1942.

"Singapore had fallen [to Japan in 1942] and several Chinese people fled to Mumbai. One of them was Miss Yeoh, who taught us Western classical music at the school for three months. I had never heard Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube. It fascinated me and I started taking lessons.”

It was a hearing of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concert No 1 that well and truly pushed him into the arms of Western classical music. There was no stopping him thereafter.

Despite the objections of the extended family, which looked upon music as an extravagance, Bhatia was supported by his father. Finishing his post-graduation with an MA in English Literature from Elphinstone college, he travelled to London to study music at the Royal Academy of Music. He received the Sir Michael Costa Scholarship (1951-54), and went on to graduate with a gold medal.

He then earned a French government scholarship (1954-57), which enabled him to pursue his musical education further at the Conservatoire de Paris.

Returning to India, Bhatia found it necessary to take up a job for financial stability. He was appointed a reader in Western musicology at Delhi university in 1960. Despite his aversion to the theoretical study of music, he stuck to the job for a while before returning to Bombay in 1964.

In his interview with Booth, he revealed, “I had come back to Bombay penniless. Durga Khote told me, I am doing an advertisement for Shakti Silk Mills, would I do the music? In those years, jingles used to be three minutes long because they were on the other side of a three-minute record. These jingles would play first on the radio and then in the theatres.”

Bhatia went on to compose more than 6,000 jingles in his career. It was the jingles that brought him to the attention of director Shyam Benegal. The filmmaker opted to hand over the reins of the music and background score for his first film, Ankur (1974), to Bhatia.

The association between Benegal and Bhatia fired up the creative quality of their work and transformed the composer’s role in the growing parallel cinema movement in the 1970s and 1980s. From Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977) to Junoon (1979), Kalyug (1981), 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), Mandi (1983) and Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! (1984), the composer introduced Western technicality with an identifiable Indian style.

In his interview with Rajya Sabha TV’s Mohammed Irfan in 2015, Bhatia said, “Composers in the past were mostly from the Punjab-Uttar Pradesh region and were well versed with the rhythms of harmonium and dholak. What they lacked was the structure of the strings arrangement.”

This technical knowledge shows in all of the composer’s works. Despite his passion for Western classical music, Bhatia understood that Indian cinema had its own form and style. His work for Ankur, Manthan and Junoon saw the use of instruments like the sitar, tabla and flute along with the technical formality of a Western composition to produce a distinctly Indian sound.

Describing his process in the Rajya Sabha TV interview, the composer said, “The key is the structural base. That cannot be achieved simply by the tabla or dholak. You will get sound. You will get rhythm. But it does not give you the base for the whole composition.” (6:51–8:42)

Bhatia produced some of his best work for the films of Shyam Benegal. From the iconic 'Tumhare Bina Ji Na Lage' in Bhumika to Manthan’s famous 'Mero Gaam Katha Parey' and Junoon’s flowing ‘Saawan Ki Aayi Bahar’, his compositions remain memorable for their musicality as well as emotive quality.

While Manthan's composition earned him a place in every household with the film's Amul connection, Bhatia was more proud of the song from Junoon, as it was a complex arrangement that elevated the simple verse-chorus structure.

A key part of the parallel cinema movement, Bhatia’s compositions enriched and livened up films that were limited in financial scale but drove Indian cinema in a new direction. Quite appropriately perhaps, it was his new musical vision based on an understanding of two complex classical forms that laid the foundation for this.

While parallel cinema offered Vanraj Bhatia some fame and success, he did not find the same recognition in commercial cinema, though he did work on the background scores of films like Damini (1993) and Pardes (1997), producing some stellar scores.

It was an altogether new and different platform — television — that brought him eternal fame. His composition for Shyam Benegal’s Bharat:Ek Khoj (1988) remains a nostalgic trigger for a population that grew up on the early days of national Indian television. He scored the music for such popular serials as Khandaan (1985), Wagle Ki Duniya (1988-90) and Banegi Apni Baat (1993-97). Each of these scores was a piece of seamless orchestral composition and is a nostalgic memory for millions today.

Bhatia's pinnacle, in terms of official recognition, came with Govind Nihalani’s Tamas (1987). The searing intro of the film captures the fear, agony and pain of the Partition drama like nothing else. Without diluting the music, Bhatia's score lifted the dramatic quality of the story.

It won him the National award for Best Composition. It was delayed recognition, but well deserved.

A man steeped in music, Vanraj Bhatia also pushed the boundaries on Western classical interpretations. His operatic composition for Girish Karnad’s Agni Varsha (2002) is praiseworthy. His works on solo piano compositions and chamber music were underrated. It was his Reverie that Yo-Yo Ma performed on a visit to Mumbai in 2019. Class, as they say, recognizes class.

Bhatia, who was conferred the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1989 and the Padma Shri in 2012, remained a lonely man. With his only sister far away in Canada and no family of his own, the aged composer spent most of his life alone in his Nepean Sea Road flat in South Mumbai.

As his fame faded, he was almost reduced to penury. Only in 2016 did the film industry wake up to the fact and step up to help him with finances. Whether that alleviated his troubles, one does not know. Till the end, he remained alone, with only his loyal caretaker for company and assistance.

In a year that has seen tragedies unfold in every corner of the country, Vanraj Bhatia’s demise is a deeper blow. It is the end of a composer whose knowledge, technical skill and understanding of music might not be replicated.

Correction, 8 May 2021: An earlier version of the report misstated Vanraj Bhatia's year of birth in the headline as 1937. It was 1927.