On March 1, the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai will pay tribute to film scores and songs composed by Vanraj Bhatia. Tabla player Zakir Hussain, the Symphony Orchestra of India, and Tushar Bhatia’s music group Swaradhara will perform Bhatia’s tunes. The 90-year-old composer will attend the event.

Vanraj Bhatia is preeminent among the handful of Indian musicians who have studied Western classical music in depth and have then successfully mixed that knowledge with an understanding of Hindustani classical music. His studies and the resulting scholarships and awards gave him a more substantial and sustained exposure to Western musical thought than perhaps any other Indian composer.

Bhatia studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Paris Conservatory after graduating from Elphinstone College in Mumbai. In 1960, he was appointed as Reader in Western musicology at the University of Delhi, but the contradictions and limitations inherent in such an appointment proved unsatisfactory. He spent the majority of his career composing music for all possible Indian media. Indian ears first heard the results of Bhatia’s combined expertise in advertising jingles (Shakti Silk Mills and Liril soap to name two out of the thousands he has composed).

Advertising brought Bhatia into contact with filmmaker Shyam Benegal, who recruited the composer to produce the background sound tracks for many of his best-known films, Ankur (1974), Manthan (1976), Bhumika (1977) and Junoon (1978), and for his later films, Mandi (1983) and Trikal (1985). Bhatia also provided the music for Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983).

Thereafter, Bhatia moved to television, where he created the unforgettable opening of Doordarshan’s first soap, Khandan, and also scored the music for Govind Nihalani’s made-for-television film Tamas, work that earned him a National Film Award for Best Music Direction in 1988. Bhatia collaborated again with Benegal for the television series Bharat Ek Khoj in 1988.

Much of Bhatia’s later career has been devoted to developing an operatic form that combines Indian and Western musical styles. In 2012, Bhatia was awarded a Padma Shri.

In a conversation with eminent ethnomusicologist and film music scholar Greg Booth, Bhatia traces his influences and his thoughts on Hindi film music and shares his dream of staging an opera based on Girish Karnad’s play, Agni Varsha.

Booth has authored Brass Baja: Stories from the World of Indian Wedding Bands (2005) and Behind the Curtain: Making Music in Mumbai’s Film Studios (2008). He teaches at the University of Auckland.

Vanraj Bhatia (left) in conversation with Greg Booth. Photo by Chirodeep Chaudhuri.

How did you get into Western classical music?
It is a strange story. I was brought up on Indian classical music at New Era School. I knew all the ragas. I had a teacher, one Mr Kulkarni, who died in 1942. Singapore had fallen [to Japan in 1942] and several Chinese people fled to Mumbai. One of them was Miss Yeoh, who taught us Western classical music at the school for three months. I had never heard Johann Strauss’s The Blue Danube. It fascinated me, and I started taking lessons.

The teacher wasn’t very good. She used to call Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, La Boheme. I bought a record of the opera and I listened to it every single day but could not find the song. La Boheme is, of course, fabulous, and I have seen it about eight times since.

I also heard Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concert No. 1 at the home of a friend, Jehangir Readymoney. I said, that does it, I cannot do anything else.

I studied with every music teacher in Bombay, including four years with Manik Bhagat, a paediatrician and a fine music teacher. He made me realise that I could never be a pianist, so he took me through the entire gamut of Western piano music in four years. I could not play a single piece properly, but I knew them all by heart. By the time I went to London to study, I knew all of Brahms, Chopin, Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart.

What did your parents make of your love for classical music?
My father was a businessman, he sold cloth. My whole caste [the Bhatias] was opposed to it¸ they wanted to burn my piano. This was the time of socialism and the Gandhian movement. My cousin’s father-in-law used to say that if you send him to learn music, he will be selling chana at Chowpatty after he comes back.

My father was in favour of my learning. He told me that he would pay for my education in England for six months, and if I didn’t get a scholarship at the end of it, I would have to come back. Fortunately, I got many scholarships, including a Rockefeller Fellowship. I also studied in Paris, where I never went to a single show or a restaurant because I spent three hours a day on learning good harmony.

You worked at the Delhi University upon your return.
I had to take the job because the family situation was not very good. The Rockefeller Foundation had installed a chair for leadership in Western musicology at the university. I hated it – anybody who is a bad musician becomes a musicologist.

Was there any interest in Delhi for Western musicology?
None whatsoever. In fact, after I had completed five years and was leaving, my dean called me over. He told me, I always thought you were intelligent, but you are a fool – I will never allow Western classic music in my college. They were very glad to get rid of me.

But the job helped me. I spent much of my time away, in Japan and America.

The opening music for Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983).

And once you returned to Mumbai, you started composing jingles.
I started doing jingles in 1954. I must have done at least 6,000 jingles. There is not a single musician with whom I have not worked. I worked with Sharon Prabhakar and Kavita Krishnamurthy, Vinod Rathod, Udit Narayan.

Viju Shah came to learn from me. The first thing I took out was a page from Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The next thing I know, he has used the tune in his own music.

I had come back to Bombay penniless. Durga Khote told me, I am doing an advertisement for Shakti Silk Mills, would I do the music? In those years, jingles used to be three minutes long because they were on the other side of a three-minute record. These jingles would play first on the radio and then in the theatres.

When Shyam Benegal heard the jingle, he started giving me work. We used to record at Bombay Lab, Film Centre and Famous Studio. I used to take five musicians and make it sound as though I had used 50. That is because I gave all of them something different to play, which is unlike what usually happens.

Many of the music directors at the time were from Punjab and Uttar Pradesh – they were harmonium players who produced good tunes with folk roots, but they had no range. When told that the key was too sharp in one tune, one of the music directors said, what is this, remove the sharpness.

These composers were totally dependent on the arrangers. Once the arrangers died or left them, their sound completely changed. Naushad used to work with Shafi, Shankar-Jaikishan with Sebastian, and Enoch Daniels used to do Khayyam’s arrangements.

You, meanwhile, were doing your own arranging and using your own musicians?
I arranged every single note. I have all the scores too.

Your film music doesn’t actually sound filmi at all – it is a unique style.
The first film was Shyam’s Ankur, on which we started working in 1972. We were recording at Mehboob Studio during a film strike. The strikers said, it is Benegal, he must be working on a documentary. That is how we got away.

My music was unique then and is perhaps unique even now. In Junoon, there is a rain song Saawan Ki Aayi Bahar, sung by Asha Bhosle. It has the exact same tune for the three antaras and the mukhdas. What is different is the arrangement all the way through.

Saawan Ki Aayi Bahar from Junoon (1978).

My most famous song, Tumhare Bin Jee Na Lage Ghar Mein from Bhumika, was the first one I ever did. The recordist was upset¸ he said, you brought a chit of a girl to sing this song. I said I wanted a clean voice. That was Preeti Sagar, she was 14 years old at the time.

Lata Mangeshkar has sung a song for me, while Asha has sung many tunes. In Mandi, there is a song Chubti Hai Yeh To Nigodi. It had been written centuries ago. Asha said, I won’t sing the words, it is a dirty song. She cancelled the recording three times. I called up the writer Ismat Chugtai to talk to Asha. She told her, you have come this far by singing kotha songs. What difference does another one make?

Chubti Hai Yeh To Nigodi from Mandi (1983).

What did you think of mainstream film music?
I have never been part of the mainstream. I have never wanted to write like that. They tolerated me, but never accepted me, don’t even now.

People used to say, you are Western, Western. I said, okay, here is Sardari Begum, for which we used only the tabla, the sarangi, and the harmonium.

I had a big fight with Javed Akhtar, the film’s lyricist. He told me, come and meet me at my place in Juhu at nine. I said nine? I live on Nepean Sea Road and cannot come that early. He said, no, nine at night.

When we finally met, he said, where are the musicians? Give me the tune and I will write the lyrics. What musicians, I said. How do you expect me to write words if you don’t give me the tune? I have never created tunes without the words.

I did the background scores for several directors who came from the Film and Television Institute of India. All of them requested me to work for them for cheap. They would pay me later when they became famous, they said. I didn’t get any money.

The kind of film music I loved was from the New Theatre studios in Kolkata – RC Boral, Pankaj Mullick, all the KL Saigal films. Boral’s music is out of this world. These soundtracks had a lot of influence on my music. I learnt how to set a voice against an orchestra from listening to their music. Boral, in particular, had a very good sense of orchestration, and that is why the music is so good.

You also composed for many television shows for Doordarshan, and they sounded very different from your film work.
Yes, I worked on shows like Khandan, which was the first TV serial on Doordarshan, Tamas, Naqaab, Yatra. They sounded different because I am not filmi, as such.

Shyam’s Bharat Ek Khoj was gruelling work. Every week, a new episode would come in. Shyam was shooting at Film City in Goregaon and I was working at Film Centre in Tardeo. I used to see the rushes, but often, we had no time.

The chanting in the opening credits is from the Vedas. I had learnt Sanskrit in school and at Elphinstone College. Professor [AB] Gajendragadkar, who was my Sanskrit teacher at Elphinstone, told me to do my Bachelor’s in Sanskrit rather than English. He said, what are you going to do with a BA in English literature when you are so good in Sanskrit? You can read novels for the rest of your life, why do you have to study them? You will have to come back to Sanskrit some day.

Bharat Ek Khoj was hard to compose, but not as hard as it was for Shyam to shoot. That is what aged Shyam.

The opening music of Bharat Ek Khoj (1988).

And now you have come back to the opera style.
I was mad about the opera in Europe. I went to Vienna in the winter of 1952 just to see the opera. In the daytime, I would see the folk operas and in the evening, the proper operas. I must have seen Der Rosenkavalier in London at least 10 times. It is one of my favourite operas, along with Eugene Onegin.

I was working on Andha Yug, but I gave it up because the language was too abstruse and was not suitable to singing. I have taken up Girish Karnad’s play, Agni Varsha. The play failed, the movie failed, and I hope the opera doesn’t fail too.

It is a good opera, so Indian that it is incredible – there is witchcraft, blood, murders, heads being chopped off. It’s all there.

So it is basically a Western music opera?
You could call it that, but it is all based on ragas. I will describe one scene. Yavakri [one of the characters] has been given a boon by the god Indra. His girlfriend, Vishakha, asks him how he got his powers. He describes how he sacrificed his body by cutting one limb at a time and putting it in the fire. Yavakri is on the front stage singing; in the back is a young Yavakri cutting off his limbs one by one, while the chorus is singing the praises of Indra. Yavakri has to be in the nude, otherwise how will he cut off his limbs? All I have left are my eyes, he tells Indra. The god says he is pleased, and makes the character whole again.

It had been staged once in New York without the costumes and the settings. The opera is almost finished – three or four pages of the text are now left. I just finished a big scene.

Sanvariya Dekh Zara from Shyam Benegal’s Sardari Begum (1996).