Aakrosh was released in 1980. It won the National Award for Best Feature Film that year. Reviews of Aakrosh talk about the gripping story, the superb direction and the fine performances by the cast. Sadly, they omit another defining feature of the film: its music.

For a story that is a commentary on corruption and the victimisation of the underprivileged, the background music fits the story perfectly. It is, in keeping with the grim mood of the story, spartan at most places. The composer often allows silence to fill up the space, allowing your senses to be riveted on the screen. But when the moment demands it, the music mirrors the tension in the story and suddenly takes you by the throat. The use of instruments is minimal and eclectic. And of the three songs, Kanha Re and Saans Mein Dard are stunning adaptations of Hindustani classical music, while Tu Aisa Kaisa Marad is a superb lavani number. A remarkable piece of work all round, especially for a debutant.

If Aakrosh was Govind Nihalani’s debut as director, it was also Ajit Varman’s debut as independent music composer. Ajit who? Exactly. Ajit Varman was one of the most talented music composers you’ve probably never heard of.

Ajit Varman. Courtesy Nisha Varman.

Born in 1947 in Kolkata, Varman showed an early flair for music. At the age of 16, he ran away from home. Living rough for the next few years, he learnt music on the go. When the choir sang at a church nearby and when music composer Salil Choudhury rehearsed his tunes at home, Varman was a fly on the wall. Noticing the boy’s keen interest in music, Choudhury roped him into his orchestra. During this time, Varman worked as a musician with Satyajit Ray as well.

In March 1970, Varman went to Mumbai, joining Choudhury – by then an established music composer for Hindi films – in his orchestra. There, he had a chance encounter with revered music arranger Sebastian D’Souza. Hearing that the youngster had worked with Salil Choudhury and Satyajit Ray, Sebastian immediately invited him to join Shankar-Jaikishan’s famed orchestra.

The story goes that when Varman first played the drums in S-J’s orchestra, Jaikishan noted that the drumming style was different from their usual. He asked to see the drummer. On being shown a young Varman, Jaikishan is believed to have told Sebastian, “I like his style. From today, let him play in our orchestra.”

Ajit Varman (left) with Mohammed Rafi (right). Courtesy Nisha Varman.

Varman debuted as a musician in Mera Naam Joker (1970). It was his fingers that softly played the bongo in Mukesh’s soul-stirrer Kahin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaaye in Anand (1971). Soon, he was playing for Laxmikant-Pyarelal too. As a musician in the orchestras of these leading music composers, Varman got enough opportunities to hone his skills. Apart from a range of percussion instruments, he learnt to play the piano and harmonium. He also learnt the intricacies of arranging, conducting and recording music.

By the mid-1970s, Varman’s itch to strike out as a music composer grew. And an opportunity came by soon. In 1976, a low-budget Muslim social called Noor-e-Elahi hit the screens. The opening titles credit the music to Babloo-Dheeraj. But Babloo was none other than Varman, who was composing under his nickname. Dheeraj was Dheeraj Dhanik, a musician about whom little is known.

The young composers showed great promise in Noor-e-Elahi, tuning about half a dozen lovely songs, including Sufiana qawwalis and soothing romantic numbers. Sadly, the partnership broke up after that film. Varman went back to playing in orchestras, silently biding his time.

Bada Lutf Tha Jab Kunware The Hum Tum, Noor-e-Ilahi (1976).

It was with Aakrosh that Varman turned independent music composer. He then scored music for Nihalani’s Vijeta (1982) and Ardh Satya (1983) in quick succession. Impressed by his work, Mahesh Bhatt roped him in for his (and Anupam Kher’s) career-defining film Saaransh (1984). By this time, Varman had come into his own as a composer.

Indian classical music and Western harmonies are equally prominent in Varman’s music, giving it a unique sound. While you love some of his songs instantly, others are an acquired taste.

A hallmark of Verman’s music is its rich and complex texture. His background music drapes any story well; taut at certain points of the screenplay, and supple at others. It heightens the tension in certain scenes, while creating a deep sense of loss or foreboding in others.

Zindagi Zindagi, Janam ((1985).

Take Saaransh, for instance. This story poignantly captures the rudderless life of an elderly couple who have lost their only child. The abject grief, despair and hollowness of their existence are highlighted beautifully by Varman’s music. And the two songs of the film are among the best tunes of the respective playback singers.

In Andhiyaara Gehraya, Bhupinder’s deep, melancholic voice, the chorus and the brooding tune don’t make you feel like bawling. They make you go numb with grief. Varman is said to have used the chant Buddham Saranam Gachaami as a melodic reference for this song. He has layered it with a favourite device of his: the choral harmony, a gift from his days in Kolkata.

Har Ghadi Dhal Rahi captures a similar mood. This song is one of Amit Kumar’s best, though hardly ever found on any list of his hits. In fact, Varman gave Kumar at least three of his best songs.

Har Ghadi Dhal Rahi, Saaransh (1984).

Being experimental by nature, Varman brought in fresh voices. Artists such as Madhuri Purandare, Satyasheel Deshpande and Vandana Khandekar enriched their songs with not just their superb voices, but also their training in classical and folk music.

Even when he used familiar voices, such as those of Manna Dey, Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle, Varman presented them in a fresh style. Listen to Kishore Kumar’s Badi Hai Beqaraari from Bhatt’s telefilm Jeevan Sandhya (1984). You will instantly know that it isn’t the creation of any of the regular music composers.

Badi Hai Beqaraari, Jeevan Sandhya (1984).

When Asha Bhosle immerses herself in raag ahir bhairav in Man Anand Anand Chayo (Vijeta, 1984), you find yourself in a state approaching bliss. Bhosle too must have found herself in a similar state, because she declared that this is one of her favourite songs.

Varman composed for Hindi films in the 1980s and 1990s. Yeh Aashiqui Meri (1998) is the last film for which he composed songs, while Ananth Mahadevan’s Life Is Good (2012) carries his last background score.

Man Anand Anand Chayo, Vijeta, 1984.

Varman’s body of work is small but memorable. He composed for just about 25 films, in addition to a few popular TV serials of the time, such as Imtehaan, Agni and Apne Jaise Types.

His was a life steeped in music and principles. Nisha Varman, his daughter, said, “We grew up exquisitely poor. Though our childhood was rich in experience, character building and understanding the depths of life, we also struggled. That’s because dad never worked for money, he worked for music. He was a complete Saraswati bhakt.”

The composer worked diligently on his harmonium and Yamaha keyboard, recording all his music in tapes and neatly labelling them, Nisha Varman added. Hundreds of his compositions are lying in tapes, even today. His family and close friends want to have at least some of these recorded, and release them.

Ajit Varman with a friend. Courtesy Nisha Varman.

A man of simple tastes, Varman’s best flashes of inspiration came as he drank tea and smoked a cigarette, or went on long walks. He was the rare composer who would also arrange and conduct music for his songs. He would hum a tune, develop it, work out the arrangement and orchestration, and get his singers to rehearse them well.

Given his sensitive nature and his passion for perfection, he vibed best with others who had similar sensibilities. His best work was with directors Govind Nihalani and Mahesh Bhatt and lyricists Majrooh Sultanpuri, Vasant Deo, Suraj Sanim and Dev Kohli. They were positive influences in the life of a man who had few friends in the industry.

Ajit Varman (third from left) with Kishore Kumar (fourth from left) and Amit Kumar (extreme right). Courtesy Nisha Varman.

Varman’s refusal to bend his principles (which included not lobbying for work) meant that he was shunned by mainstream filmmakers. He was labelled fit only for small-budget arthouse films. This hurt him deeply, and led to a depressive state of mind that became marked in his later years.

Varman died in 2016, unsung and dejected. Hardly anybody from the film industry visited him or helped him in his last days. But even as he lay in hospital, his entire being seemed to be anchored in music. His son, Varun Varman, told me that his father suffered memory lapses but remembered all his songs clearly.

As a music composer, Ajit Varman was a meteor in the firmament of Hindi film music: a streak of light that was extinguished too soon. But his incandescence stays on.

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