“All I have wanted to say has been said through my music,” says the veteran music composer Vanraj Bhatia.
At 88, he has a mark in every musical genre, from Western classical tunes to music in parallel Indian cinema, plays, television serials, documentaries and advertisement jingles.
With the spirit attributed only to youngsters, the legend now is in the process of producing an English opera, Agni Varsha (Fire and Rain), based on a play by Girish Karnad. He adds that “the first two acts of the opera, readied a couple of years ago, has been showcased in Mumbai by The Mehli Mehta (Music) Foundation, and the vocal splendour Judith Kellock is keen to take it to New York next.”
Vanraj Bhatia, who forayed into music in 1965, has so far composed jingles for over 6,000 radio, television advertisements and plays put together, and for over 50 documentaries. “My first composition was for Finlay, with Shyam Benegal, and then it was for the Garden jingle, which is popular even today,” shares Vanraj.
The music director remembers that the advertisements of yesteryear did not pay much. “I worked first with a composer who wouldn’t raise money because he was interested only in drinking. I was paid only Rs 500 until musician Louis Banks came, then the composer demanded more. Those were the days when sanitary napkins were advertised, not condoms,” he adds.
The music maverick recounts that it was not until he was 13 that he was exposed to western music, which changed his life. “When I first heard Blue Danube, I was awestruck. And my life took a turn for the crazy when I listened to the young and accomplished Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky piano concertos.”
School did give him a push to indulge in music. “A replacement teacher from Singapore, who sought shelter in India after the fall of her country in 1942, taught me piano. So did Dr Manek Bhagat, a paediatrician.” The thirst to learn music only escalated as he “tried a hand at everything, from Bach and Mozart to Beethoven and Schubert.” But not without some resistance from a few who thought playing western music was distasteful.
Of course, that didn’t stop him from learning music composition from the Royal Academy of Music, UK, under renowned musicians Howard Ferguson and Alan Bush. “I went to Paris in 1954 with Rockefeller Scholarship.
After I completed five years at the Academy, they chose French composer Nadia Boulanger as my teacher. A tough one, who wore black dress and men’s boots, and who sent home girls adorned with nail paint! She suggested I relearn basics of harmony even after she knew that I held a gold medal in that subject! The result was I learnt to clean up my notes and verify them.”
Back home, Vanraj’s Bollywood breakthrough were his compositions for Shyam Benegal films — the first one, a 1974 film, Ankur. Then, Manthan featured one of his most popular songs — Mero Gaam Katha Parey, sung by Preeti Sagar. He adds a trivia: “As I belong to Kutch, I wanted to convey the cold from Kathiawad region through my music.
The three-and-a-half-minute song had to fit into one minute and 15 seconds, so the song went as separate parts and was used several times in the film.” His compositions have enlivened films Mandi, Junoon, Nishant, Bhumika and Utsav, and later, films like 36 Chowringhee Lane, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Hip Hip Hurray, Tamas, China Gate and Halla Bol. His background scores have been used in the TV serials Discovery of India, Wagle Ki Duniya and Khandaan.
At one time, the demand for him to compose Indian classical music and not just western music escalated. So the Padma Shri award winner “surprised everyone with a composition using only harmonium, sarangi, tabla and tanpura.
This also gave the young Arati Ankalikar a breakthrough.” Other singers like Udit Narayan, Vinod Rathod, Kavita Krishnamurthy, Sunita Rao, Usha Uthup, Sharon Prabhakar, Alisha Chinai, Preeti Sagar, Sushma Shrestha, Sulakshana Pandit and her sister et al have been ensured a musical opportunity under the legend’s guidance.
Tapping his fingers while humming a few tunes, he adds that he has worked on spiritual albums like the ‘Indian Meditation Music’, ‘The Bhagavad Gita’ and ‘The Spirit of Upanishads’.
Life is now about relaxing for Vanraj Bhatia. By that he means, “I compose something new every day. I’ve been there, done that.”