Noted composer Vanraj Bhatia, who brought Western sensibilities to Indian film music, passes away

Published : May 07, 2021 16:30 IST

Vanraj Bhatia receives the Padma Shri Award from President Pratibha Patil on March 22, 2012 at Rashtrapati Bhawan in New Delhi. Photo: S.Subramanium

He had his own unique way of doing things. He composed music for films with as much relish as he created advertising jingles. If his score for Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj (television adaptation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India) was full of finesse, the music he composed for Govind Nihalani’s television series Tamas was all searing intensity. Hindi cinema grudgingly accepted Vanraj Bhatia, but never quite embraced him. No red carpets, only a reluctant acknowledgement of his undoubted genius. Refusing to slip into the mainstream, Bhatia preferred to be in a niche of his own till the end.

Born in 1927, he passed away in Mumbai owing to age-related ailments. He was 93. Much before he breathed his last, though, he had ensured the world of Hindi cinema would never forget him.

Vanraj Bhatia brought Western sensibilities to Indian film music. He was that rare Indian musician who studied Western classical music at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and returned to blend it with Indian sensibilities and Hindustani classical music. It was an unusual mix, almost blasphemy, in a film industry where “borrowing” Western tunes and passing them off as your own was an oft-repeated practice. Bhatia, though, used the vast expanse of his musical knowledge to find fulfillment for the creative artist in him, and in the bargain, gave us some of the most soulful, though under-appreciated, songs of modern India.

There is an interesting story of how Bhatia, a scion of a business family, ended up taking music as a career. Back in the 1950s, his relatives mocked his decision to study music, warning his supportive father that the son would end up selling peanuts in Mumbai if he were to return after studying music abroad. But that is exactly what Bhatia did, with some support from his father, who financed his studies before he was offered a scholarship. He returned to India to teach Western musicology at Delhi University. The job was, at best, a stopgap arrangement. Not satisfied with the academic world of Delhi University, Bhatia spent much of his time composing advertising jingles. He had been doing it since 1954 but got lasting attention with the timeless jingle for Liril soap. Never before in the history of jingles had an advertisement had such a massive impact on the sales of the product. Bhatia, who had already done another notable jingle for Shakti Silk Mills, caught the attention of the film director Shyam Benegal.

Like Bhatia, Benegal, too, had a vision of cinema which was at variance with the mainstream. The two joined forces to make quite a splash, first with the background score of Ankur (1974). This was followed by films such as Manthan (1976), Bhumika (1977), Junoon (1979), Mandi (1983), Sardari Begum (1996) and Hari-Bhari (2000). In Benegal’s Bhumika, Bhatia gave what is probably the most popular song of his Hindi film career, “Tumhare bin jee na lage ghar mein”. Notably, in an industry used to paying obeisance to presiding deities, Bhatia used the voice not of Lata Mangeshkar but young Preeti Sagar for this song.

Of course, there was much more to Bhatia’s music than Benegal’s cinema. He composed music for Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), collaborated with Gulzar in director Prakash Jha’s debut venture, the sports film Hip Hip Hurray (1984), and created the unforgettable background score of Damini (1993). Then there was Govind Nihalani’s Tamas whose haunting music made words redundant. It earned him the National Award for Best Music Direction (1988). With these, and other popular television serials such as Khandaan and Wagle ki Duniya, Bhatia not only carved his own trajectory, but also paved the way for others.

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