India's Finest Composer
A small tribute to India's less celebrated musical genius
Listening to an old episode of the popular podcast Haal Chaal Theek Thaak Hai, I learnt of three kinds of music makers in Bollywood. The ones who are celebrated the most are the Music Directors. They design the melody and mostly work on the singing part of the song.
The second lot who fill in with the preludes, interludes, instrumentals and give a body and structure to the song are the Music Arrangers.
The rarest kind, though, are those who see through every element of the song from its inception to the final recording. From designing the melody, working with the singers, writing the notation and filling in with the preludes and interludes with the instrumentals, they are the Music Composers.
Indian film music has seen very few of these real composers. Vanraj Bhatia stands the tallest amongst them. One of the finest composers of our times, Vanraj Bhatia studied Western classical music in depth and successfully mixed that knowledge with an understanding of Hindustani classical music.
He walked his own path, chose his own style and delivered great enduring musical experience to his listeners. The popular film press never gave him the space he deserved.
He quietly left us a few days back.
‘If you send him to learn music, he will have to sell channa at the Chowpatty in Mumbai when he comes back’ - his uncle warned his father. By then, Vanraj already knew all the Indian ragas and had a strong foundation in Indian classical music.
One day, he heard The Blue Danube, a compostion by Johann Strauss. And then chanced upon the splendour of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concert No 1 at a friend’s home. Both seminal moments that would plunge him into Western classicals. His father, a cloth merchant in Kutch, favoured his sons talent and paid for his journey to London.Vanraj studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and later at the Paris Conservatory supporting himself with a Rocekfeller Fellowship. His musical genius was taking shape.
Reality hit when he returned to India and had to work as a musicologist in Delhi University. He hated it - ‘Anybody who was not a musician would become a musicologist’. He was desprate to compose music. It was then that Durga Khote - a formidable artist turned producer of Hindi and Marathi cinema asked him - ‘I am doing an advertisement for Shakti Silk Mills, would you do the music?’
Vanraj Bhatia grabbed the work and composed the first ever jingle in Indian advertising. He would eventually render a staggering contribution to the world of brands and advertising by composing over 6000 jingles in his lifetime.
It was also the time when Shyam Benegal set up his New Wave Cinema and got Bhatia to team up with him. The duo went on to create some of the most enduring works in Indian cinema, advertising and television.
‘Mero Gaam Katha Parey’ from Manthan which was released in 1976 made Amul what it is in the consumer’s minds. The song captures the heart beat of great Indian milk co-operative. The making of this movie is a trivia seekers treasure trove. 5 lakh farmers contributed Rs 2 each to help produce the move and tell their story. If you dwell a bit on the names in the credits - they contain the who’s who of the Indian advertising industry.
Pause. Listen to this song.
Few years later, Alyque Padamsee was looking to set up the right mood with a lilting jingle score as Karen Lunel jumped, frolicked and cavorted under the waterfall in a bikini. Vanraj Bhatia’s score for Liril ranks amongst the greatest ever compositions in an ad film.
And while you see this, here is one of my earlier #1MinuteStories on India’s Sensational Splash.
And then, with Redffusion, the jingle for Garden Vareli, the tune which is based on Indian Raag Desh. A hauntingly endearing composition - a signature tune of the 80’s.
There were more than 6000 of them. Almost every brand has been touched by the music score of Vanraj Bhatia.
Durga Khote would come back later in the 80’s to get him to score music for Wagle Ki Duniya. He would go on to score music for the greatest DD TV serials at that time -Khandaan, Tamas , Yatra and Naqaab.
One of his earliest teachers at school pushed him to learn and complete his Baechelors Degree in Sanskrit. Many decades later, this helped him score the title music for Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj based on Pt Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India. The chantings in the opening lines are from the Vedas.
A few weeks back, I had started seeing this series again. The title song takes me back to the Sunday afternoons in my 80’s home.
Vanraj Bhatia was the only chosen one by the so-called parallel cinema stalwarts because the cinema they made appealed to a global audience in which high quality soundscaping was integral. Bhatia’s background music was not just a filler - it was a key character.
One of the best examples of this is the background score for that iconic Hindi film - Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. Everytime I watch this movie, it is an experience unparalleled. (pun, slightly intended).
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.
There is so much more to Vanraj Bhatia’s contribution to Indian music then a few lines of prose can ever capture.
When he says ‘My music is unique and perhaps even more unique now’ it rings truer than anyone else who might have said the same.
Vanraj Bhatia, would have found his own space in a musical heaven, by now.
From the #1MinuteStories Archives: India’s Sensational Splash
With the passing away of Vanraj Bhatia, there has been so much written about him.
But I was inspired to share this after listening to this Episode: The Legend of Vanraj Bhatia Haal Chaal Theek Thaak Hai by Pavan Jha and Subrat - a podcast that I would highly recommend you to listen. A great one on India popular culture from the lens films and media.
The Vanraj Bhatia interview on the Scroll by Greg Booth. You want to understand the man and his musical mind, with some awesome links to his best work, you must be reading this.