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Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Composer Vanraj Bhatia, who scored Tamas, Manthan, passes away

Bhatia, a leading Indian composer of western music, who also composed for Indian cinema and television, died of age-related health complications in Mumbai on Friday. He was 93.

Written by Suanshu Khurana | New Delhi |
Updated: May 9, 2021 8:50:07 am
vanraj bhatiaVanraj Bhatia passed away on Friday. (Photo: Rajya Sabha TV/YouTube)

ONE OF filmmaker Shyam Benegal’s finest works from the 80s, Bharat Ek Khoj, the majestic adaptation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India, opened every Sunday on Doordarshan with Rig Veda chants set to electronic music — with synths and drums creating a voltaic web. It was an odd combination that somehow worked. At the helm of affairs was composer Vanraj Bhatia.

“His ideas were extremely original and he wouldn’t imitate anyone,” says Benegal, most of whose projects had Bhatia at the helm. Be it Ankur, Manthan, Bhoomika, Mandi, Sardari Begum, Bharat Ek Khoj or his advertisements — Benegal’s every project came with music from Bhatia. “When I look back at the music he made for my films, I think it was quite extraordinary,” he says.

A leading Indian composer of western music, who also composed for Indian cinema and television, Bhatia passed away in Mumbai on Friday. He was 93 and was suffering from age-related health complications.

Benegal’s Manthan (Churning) — his significant film set against the backdrop of Varghese Kurian’s Operation Flood that was a lesson in rural empowerment, caste, gender and privilege – opened with singer Preeti Sagar crooning Mero gaam katha parey along with daflis, dholak and a bunch of ektaras. “It remains one of my best songs,” says Sagar, who won the National Award for Best Female Singer that year.

The song was composed in 1976, but it kept finding an audience as Amul continued to use it. “I have never known anyone with the sense of musicality that he had and how he could immediately get under the skin of anything — the cosmopolitan character of the city– the Gujarati side, the Maharashtrian side, the South Indian side. Be it Hindustani or western or a unique combination of both, he made it work,” says Benegal, who adds that there wasn’t a single meeting where the two didn’t squabble. “But we were able to speak the same language.”

Bhatia grew up in a Kuchhi business family in Mumbai, which had nothing to do with music. He learned Hindustani classical music as a child. But it was a Tchaikovsky composition playing at his close friend Jehangir Sabavala’s home that made him fall in love with western classical music as a teenager. He fought with his family to study music at Royal College of Music in London followed by training under the legendary French composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger, whose other students were American composer Phillip Glass, American composer and musician Quincy Jones and avante garde Russian composer Igor Markevitch. He remains the only Indian student she ever had.

Bhatia returned to India armed with a wealth of knowledge of western classical music and a base in Hindustani classical music. He worked as the head of Music Department at Delhi University for a few years and then returned to Mumbai to work in advertising.

The world of advertising was not as conformist as that of Indian cinema, where directors came with pre-conceived notions, something that never suited Bhatia. Although his ambition was to write music for popular films, he wasn’t quite succeeding in that. So apart from almost 7,000 jingles — including Liril, Thumbs Up and Dulux among others and some film projects from the marquee of parallel cinema such as Sooraj ka Saatvaan Ghoda, Jane Bhi Do Yaaron and 36 Chowrangee Lane among others, he composed for many TV shows — such as Waaghle Ki Duniya and Banegi Apni Baat. There were out and out classical compositions like Raah mein bichhi hain and Ghir ghir aaye badariya in Sardari Begum and out and out modern disco pieces such as What’s your problem by Sagar in Kalyug.

But it was Tamas — Govind Nihalani’s gut-wrenching adaptation of Bhisham Sahani’s powerful work of the same name showcasing the saga of separation during Partition – that got him some recognition and a National Award. He was also awarded Padma Shri in 2012.

Bhatia loved working with orchestras and would specifically write for each section because his knowledge of harmony was extraordinary. In 2019, when multiple Grammy-winning American cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed at NCPA in Mumbai, he selected two of Bhatia’s pieces for his encore. Bhatia’s friend and musician Zubin Balaporia was present in the audience. “It was a celebratory occasion for a great Indian composer. But I always felt that he didn’t get his due. He deserved so much more,” says Balaporia.

A few months ago, composer Ehsaan Noorani had also requested financial aid for Bhatia, who, towards the end, was short on money. But he woke up every day and wrote music. He completed his magnum opus — an opera named Agnivarsha – before he passed.

“He found himself strangely enough in a place where he wouldn’t have flowered. But he loved living in Mumbai. I wonder about the success of Vanraj Bhatia if he wasn’t in India and had embraced the west,” says Benegal.

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