The story of Vanraj Bhatia is a lot like that of the blind men and the elephant. To some, he is India’s foremost composer of Western classical music, the only Indian student of famed French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger and a man who hobnobbed with the likes of Igor Stravinsky and John Cage. To others, he is a pioneer of spiritual music, with such albums as the Bhagavad Gita and Anant to his credit. To yet others, he is the creator of over 7,000 advertising jingles, at least one of which – for Dulux – is still heard today. But to most people, he is the composer of Hindi New Wave cinema.
Taken as a whole, Bhatia’s work across these films is a testament to both his versatility and his technique. Each score inhabits a unique soundworld appropriate to the film’s setting, and each is unified by one or more themes that are incorporated into either the titles or a song that encapsulates the film. A lifelong opera-lover, Bhatia has always championed the song sequence in Indian film, and it is perhaps the irony of his life that he made his name in a cinema that had little time for music: most of his work was used at low volume levels, edited, and occasionally left out of the film to be included in a difficult-to-find soundtrack album.
Barring an aborted attempt at scoring the Shammi Kapoor starrer Dil Deke Dekho (1959), and being credited for ‘incidental music’ on the Merchant-Ivory production The Householder (1963), Bhatia’s work after he returned to India in 1959 mostly consisted of jingles and documentaries. It was thus that he met Shyam Benegal, whose debut Ankur (1974) would be Bhatia’s first feature film score and the first of 17 productions together – one of the most successful and longest-lasting filmmaker-composer partnerships in cinema, comparable to that of Federico Fellini and Nino Rota.
The music of Benegal’s early films – Ankur, Nishant (1975) and Manthan (1976) – is as rural as their setting: flutes, sitars and sarangis appear alongside the ever-present string section. However, there are already signs of Bhatia’s iconoclasm: the fearsome, taciturn Zamindar (Amrish Puri) in Nishant is represented by a single note on an electric guitar. Manthan is immortalised in Preeti Sagar’s Mero Gaam Katha Parey, which would eventually find new audiences as a jingle for Amul. Remarkably, the song was an after-the-fact studio construct created to function as background score.
Benegal’s fourth film Bhumika (1977) would be a radical departure in this regard: set in the Indian film world of the 1930s through the late 1950s, it has a number of songs but almost no background score. Having grown up in the period and loved RC Boral’s music for New Theatres productions, Bhatia was the ideal person for the job. His deft orchestrational touches simultaneously conjure and subvert the specific era of each song, such as his use of the piccolo (or, as it is known in India, nankhatai) trumpet in Saawan Ke Din Aaye and the jaltarang in one of his best-known songs, Tumhare Bin Jee Na Lage.
It was around this time that Bhatia became an essential part of Shashi Kapoor’s new production company Film-Valas, scoring three of its six films in quick succession: Shyam Benegal’s Junoon (1979) and Kalyug (1981), and Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981). These were the only films Bhatia did whose budget could accommodate a full orchestra.
The germ of Junoon’s score is an insistent two-note motif on the qanun and rabab, which is the aural signature of Pathan Javed Khan’s (Shashi Kapoor) obsession with Englishwoman Ruth Labadoor (Nafisa Ali). The motif gets pride of place in Ishq Ne Todi, an operatic aria disguised as a ghazal – something Mohammed Rafi probably suspected when he entered the studio, saw four trombones in the orchestra, and had to be talked into recording the song.
Bhatia considers Junoon’s other, better known song, the kajri Saawan Ki Aayi Bahaar Re, one of his finest achievements. While the song has a standard verse-chorus structure, the arrangement constantly changes, answering the lyrics: notice how the strings mimic a flash of lightning just after Asha Bhosle sings “bijuriya chamke.”
36 Chowringhee Lane has a poignant score that evokes the fast-fading world of Anglo-Indian spinster Violet Stoneham (Jennifer Kendal, Bhatia’s favourite actress). Her theme perhaps unconsciously echoes the opening of Sunrise, Sunset from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. A surreal nightmare sequence quotes the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Chopin’s Winter Wind” Etude. At several places, Violet’s distinctly Western classical theme is superimposed on the theme for the lovers she befriends (Debashree Roy and Dhritiman Chatterjee) – in raga Miyan Ki Malhar, on tabla, sitar and flute – and they work perfectly together.
On the other hand, Kalyug transplants the Mahabharata onto the 1970s Indian engineering industry, and its music similarly reinvents existing Western music. The antihero Karan Singh (Shashi Kapoor), a Baroque aficionado, gets a funereal theme that appears only on the album; most of the background score quotes the foreboding opening of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Elsewhere, Bhatia takes a string line from a little-known song heard in a discotheque – Peter Brown’s Can’t Be Love (Do It to Me Anyway) – and uses it to open Preeti Sagar’s What’s Your Problem?, a rage when it was released.
Kalyug and its music paved the way for a number of films that dealt with bureaucracy and corruption in urban India, most of them made by a group of friends who had recently graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India. Bhatia’s scores for these films were heavily electronic, with few obvious traces of anything Indian.
The music for Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s thrillers Sazaye Maut (1981) and Khamosh (1985) effectively mine film noir territory, the latter evoking Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Alfred Hitchcock. And while both Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) and Saeed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! (1984) are Bombay-centric satires, their openings reveal their diametrically opposite approaches. The former marries a menacing, martial score to comedic visuals; the latter opens with Shailendra Singh’s seven-minute Bambai, which sets Madhosh Bilgrami’s acerbic lyrics to a sing-song melody and, as filmed by Pankaj Parashar, contradicts the words often enough to become a short mockumentary in itself.
Bhatia occasionally had to weather criticism that he was ‘too Western’, but two Shyam Benegal films on courtesans made over a decade apart prove he was equally adept at Indian classical music. Both Mandi (1983) and Sardari Begum (1996) have songs that hew closely to Hindustani music in style and instrumentation.
However, Bhatia’s predilection for the unconventional meant the songs become as difficult to pin down as the characters singing them. All the songs in Mandi, from Zabane Badalte Hain to Shamsheer-e-Barhana, irregularly divide their couplets to give the words new meaning. While most of Sardari Begum’s thumris stick to a single raga – Ghir Ghir Aayi, recreated by the band Advaita years later, is in Miyan Ki Malhar – the Aarti Ankalikar-Tikekar-Shubha Joshi showcase Raah Mein Bichhi Hain weaves in and out of six ragas: Hameer, Kamod, Kedar, Khamaj, Nand, and Rageshri.
Another song that could end this argument for good is Lata Mangeshkar’s Barse Ghan Saari Raat, from Kumar Shahani’s Tarang (1984). The seven-minute song is filmed on Hansa (Kawal Gandhiok), the wife of upstart businessman Rahul (Amol Palekar), as she poisons herself and awaits death.
Shahani asked Bhatia to set a poem by Raghuvir Sahay, word for word, to raga Mand Jogiya (Bhatia would later add Bhimpalasi) in vilambit ektaal. Despite fuming at these constraints, Bhatia came up with what he would call the “marathon song”, one of the most complex in all of Indian cinema. It would be the only time Mangeshkar worked with him, and she was impressed enough to insist on listening to the approved take (featuring Ustad Sultan Khan on sarangi), something she seldom did. Mangeshkar has since frequently cited the song as one of her favourites.
Bhatia’s closest brush with fame would come with his music for Govind Nihalani’s five-hour television film Tamas (1987). This sweeping, heavily chromatic and distinctly Western score balances a sinuous communal tension theme in woodwinds – heard in the very first scene as Nathu (Om Puri) attempts to kill a pig – against a refugee theme that loosely corresponds to raga Sindhu Bhairavi.
At jury head Salil Chowdhury’s insistence, Bhatia won the National Film Award for Best Music Direction for his efforts.
Despite its unassuming function, Bhatia certainly knew how to make his music stand out. It could be visually, in the way the rhythm of little-known singer KV Kuruvilla’s Tero Hari Naam synchronizes with that of the weaver Ramulu (Om Puri) at his loom in Shyam Benegal’s Susman (1986). It could be through evocative instrumentation, such as the flute that imitates a train whistle in the theme to Benegal’s TV show Yatra (1986), or the mandolin that stands in for Goa in his Trikal (1985), or the accordion for the Parsi milieu of Vijaya Mehta’s Pestonjee (1987), the score Bhatia considers closest to his heart.
Or it could be something completely against the grain, as on Benegal’s TV show Bharat Ek Khoj (1988). The opening titles, which set the Nasadiya Sukta from the Rig Veda to four-part harmony with an almost entirely electronic accompaniment, was an equal-opportunity offender and allegedly got Bhatia into a lot of trouble – but, as he told me when I first met him, “They said ‘You can’t do this,’ and I said ‘F— you, I will do this!’”
While New Wave films were still being made well into the 1990s, technological progress meant Bhatia could now use synthesizers to get the orchestral sound he had always wanted, and the scores began to sound alike. One exception is his fittingly eerie music for Kumar Shahani’s Kasba (1991): its main theme, inspired by Beethoven’s “Pathétique” Piano Sonata, evokes rocks rolling down the titular ravine and perfectly matches KK Mahajan’s cinematography. (Twenty years later, Bhatia would rework the music into his Reverie for Cello and Piano, which was performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma at a concert in Mumbai in January 2019.)
Another is his score for Shyam Benegal’s Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (1992), with a theme for each of its three heroines. Jamuna (Rajeshwari Sachdev) gets a meditation in raga Jayant Malhar, usually on Zarine Sharma’s sarod; Lily (Pallavi Joshi) gets the bittersweet title music that melts into the song Yeh Shaamein; and Satti (Neena Gupta) gets the haunting Nimiya Ka Ped.
And finally, there’s Jagjit Singh’s Yeh Faasle from Benegal’s Mammo (1994), a song written at eleventh hour by Gulzar that could well be about what happened to Bhatia as the New Wave dried up. He began composing music for mainstream films instead, such as the Indo-Japanese animated film Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama (1992) and Rajkumar Santoshi’s Damini (1993). He then moved on to music based on Sanskrit chants, and finally returned to Western classical music.
Now 93 years old, Bhatia lives a solitary and almost forgotten existence in his Mumbai home, hoping that his magnum opus – Agni Varsha, the first opera by an Indian composer – is performed in his lifetime.
Shwetant Kumar (www.shwetant.com) is a composer and musicologist, and has been Vanraj Bhatia’s archivist since 2016. He is currently writing a book on Bhatia’s life and work.