Celebrated music composer Vanraj Bhatia died on Friday at his residence in Mumbai. He was 93. He had been facing medical issues for the past several years on account of his advanced age.
Trained in Western classical music and equally steeped in Indian traditions, Bhatia’s career spanned cinema, advertising, television and the stage. He composed over 7,000 advertising jingles (including for Liril and Dulux) and created the scores for many Indian arthouse films, most notably by Shyam Benegal, as well as television shows.
“Taken as a whole, Bhatia’s work across these films is a testament to both his versatility and his technique,” music composer and Bhatia’s archivist Shwetant Kumar wrote in Scroll.in in 2020. “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.”
Bhatia was born on May 31, 1927, in Mumbai. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Paris Conservatory. After his return to India in 1959, he worked as a Reader in Western musicology at the University of Delhi alongside creating advertising jingles. In 1972, he composed the background score for his first Shyam Benegal film, Ankur. Sixteen more followed, including Bhumika and Sardari Begum, until Hari-Bhari in 2000.
“I used to take five musicians and make it sound as though I had used 50,” he told musicologist and film music scholar Greg Booth during an interview with Scroll.in in 2017. “That is because I gave all of them something different to play, which is unlike what usually happens.”
Apart from Benegal’s movies, Bhatia composed the scores for such films as 36 Chowringhee Lane, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro!, Pestonjee, Tarang, Percy, Droh Kaal, Bangarwadi, Naseem and Jaya Ganga. His background score credits in Hindi movies with songs include Ajooba, Beta, Damini, Ghatak, Pardes, Chameli and Rules: Pyar Ka Superhit Formula.
Bhatia also created the opening tunes for well-known television shows, including Khandan, Tamas, Wagle Ki Duniya, Naqab, Lifeline and Banegi Apni Baat. Among his most enduring compositions for television was for Benegal’s television series Bharat Ek Khoj.
“The chanting in the opening credits is from the Vedas,” he told Greg Booth. “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.”
In his later years, Bhatia devoted his effort to “developing an operatic form that combines Indian and Western musical styles”, Greg Booth wrote in Scroll.in. He had been working for years on an opera based on Girish Karnad’s play Agni Varsha, which had been staged only once in New York, he told Booth.