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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Vanraj Bhatia | Thank you for the music
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Vanraj Bhatia | Thank you for the music

At 87, gifted music composer Vanraj Bhatia is working on an opera. We revisit his oeuvre of stellar work in 1970s-80s cinema

Bhatia at his residence at Napean Sea Road, Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/MintPremium
Bhatia at his residence at Napean Sea Road, Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

The drawing room of his Napean Sea Road house in Mumbai is bathed in the sound of silence. At the beginning of this interview, Vanraj Bhatia says: “The best thing about this place is that you don’t hear one external sound. There used to be some sparrows, but they have all gone away. This is an ideal place to compose music."

At 87, Bhatia is working on the third act of the English opera Agni Varsha, based on Girish Karnad’s play. “The first two acts were ready a couple of years ago. The Mehli Mehta (Music) Foundation showcased it in Mumbai, and this lady named Judith Kellock was very keen to have it performed in New York. So we had two performances there, and the reception was fantastic. I have taken on the third, even though composing in English is tougher than the Indian languages," he says.

The opera is another feather in Bhatia’s cap. In a career spanning over 55 years, he has made a mark in Western classical music, parallel Hindi cinema, background scores, advertising jingles and spiritual music. Though hugely associated with Shyam Benegal’s films, he has received tremendous praise for his versatility and his knowledge of music. Even as he speaks, it appears he has a new tune at the back of his mind, ready to be recorded.

“I studied at the New Era School in Bombay (now Mumbai), and was brought up on Indian music. I was first in every class of music, but heard only a limited amount of Western music, mainly waltzes," he reminisces. The turning point came when he heard Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1.

He loved the piece so much that he went to every piano teacher in town, and yet was never satisfied. “Finally, I settled for Dr Manek Bhagat, a paediatrician who also taught piano. I knew I would never be a great pianist but I tried to learn everything I could, from Bach and Mozart to Beethoven and Schubert. Even today, I am fascinated by Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1, and still practise the parts," he says.

Bhatia learnt music composition at the Royal Academy of Music, London, UK, under renowned musicians Howard Ferguson and Alan Bush. The next stop was 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 recalls.

When Bhatia returned to India in 1959, he got the chance to write a jingle for Shakti Silk Sarees. The next year, he took up a job as reader in musicology at the University of Delhi. Following his quick success in the ad world, he returned to Bombay, and over the years, created some 7,000 scores for ads, corporate and business films.

Bhatia’s career path took a new turn 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, sung by Preeti Sagar. 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."

Bhatia used Sagar’s voice again in Benegal’s Bhumika, and the songs Tumhare Bin Jee Na Lage and Saawan ke din aaye sajanwa aan milo (with Bhupinder) are hummed even today. Did Sagar’s success with the Julie song My Heart Is Beating make Bhatia choose her? He quips: “Oh I don’t like that song at all. But the good thing about Preeti was that she sang straight, without too many frills. That’s what I wanted. I didn’t want any fancy ornamental styles like gamak and meend, which the famous singers specialized in."

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A still from Shyam Benegal’s ‘Sardari Begum’ for which Bhatia composed music

Though Bhatia has been primarily associated with Benegal, he says he’s had some great collaborations with other directors like Aparna Sen (36 Chowringhee Lane), Kundan Shah (Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro), Prakash Jha (Hip Hip Hurray), Govind Nihalani (the telefilm Tamas) and Rajkumar Santoshi (China Gate and Halla Bol). He says: “It was for Tamas that I received a National award. I did everything except the gurdwara song. In fact, it was jury head Salil Chowdhury who insisted I should get the award when most other jury members felt I shouldn’t be given one because it was a television score. While that was one major award, I got the Padma Shri two years ago. Recently, I was given the Radio Mirchi award. Well, someone from popular cinema thought about me."

Besides the main music, Bhatia takes a huge amount of satisfaction in the background scores he’s done for films like Ajooba, Damini, Beta and Ghatak, and for the TV serials Discovery of India, Wagle Ki Duniya and Khandaan. “I could use my learning of Western classical music to great effect here, without anyone complaining," he jokes.

Why did he cut down on films in the 2000s? Replies Bhatia: “There is a time for everything. I was never considered to be a total part of the film scenario. When things leave you, you should leave them, instead of trying to just hang on. I too got more fascinated of creating spiritual music based on our scriptures."

Thus, he began working on albums like Indian Meditation Music, The Bhagavad Gita and The Spirit of Upanishads. His only regret, however, was that he didn’t pursue Sanskrit for higher studies and opted for English, despite having been advised once by the principal of Mumbai’s Elphinstone College. “I had studied Sanskrit till my bachelor’s but I should have continued. Suddenly, I had to relearn everything and that took time," he says.

These days, Bhatia’s entire focus is on the third act of Agni Varsha. He says: “I have a set schedule. I do about an hour of yoga in the morning. I can’t do long walks now, so I have short ones. Then I spend 3 hours on my music. After lunch, I have a nap. The evenings are for soaps like Balika Vadhu and Rangrasiya, besides the news. I can’t stand reality shows. I don’t go out, unless I really have to."

While maintaining that discipline, Bhatia is obviously enjoying himself. Yet a part of his mind is totally involved with music, whether he rhythmically taps his fingers or hums a tune from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo And Juliet. Music is in his veins.

Narendra Kusnur is a Mumbai-based music critic.

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Published: 26 Apr 2014, 12:11 AM IST
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