'Lonely end': Musical maestro Vanraj Bhatia, left penniless, dies a heartbroken man

·Contributor
·9-min read
'Lonely end': Musical maestro Vanraj Bhatia, left penniless, dies a heartbroken man

“Ultimately, you’re left with the people you love and who love you – everything else fades into oblivion.” – Nicole Kidman

But the tragedy with maestro Vanraj Bhatia was that he didn’t even have anyone to call his own...

Except for a distant sister, all that he could claim as his own were copious sheets of handwritten notations and curios that festooned his vintage house at Napean Sea Road. In those tangible possessions, perhaps, he clung to intangible memories.

Fraught with weary knees, trying to make sense of a 'foggy' reality... Bhatia once possessing an extraordinary ear for music, found his world had also turned inaudible – given his diminished hearing.

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The only semblance of human company was his domestic help. The death of his pet feline, a few years ago in an accident, had pushed him into further silence. Vanishing friends and finances… the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award winner and Padma Shri dwelled for years in a twilight zone.

Hailed for his grip over Western and Hindustani classical music, for his scores that lent tenor to arthouse cinema and television shows, for the countless jingles he created, Bhatia felt let-down by the mediocrity around him.

An aficionado of the operatic musicals created by Raj Kapoor, Vijay Anand and Manmohan Desai, he craved to be part of mainstream music.

“A lifelong opera-lover… it’s 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,” wrote composer/musicologist Shwetant Kumar (scroll.in).

Associate and filmmaker Shyam Benegal had summed up the musician's desolation in a piece (by Khalid Mohamed for Mumbai Mirror) saying, “I think unfortunately, Vanraj painted himself into a corner over time. Apart from financial needs, he doesn’t have friends, who can match his intelligence, sense of humour and world view. He needs someone to talk to on a day-to-day basis. A tough call in this day and age."

Perhaps, Vanraj Bhatia's music will keep the conversation going in eras to come…

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Vanraj Bhatia was brought up on Indian classical music at New Era School in Mumbai.

At the age of ten, he was introduced to the world of art and western classical music by friend/modernist painter Jehangir Sabavala. 

He first heard Russian maestro, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, at Jehangir’s house and remained forever ‘tormented’ by the compelling piece.

Bhatia learnt Western piano music for four years with a music teacher. Though he could not play a single piece well, he knew ‘Brahms, Chopin, Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart’ by heart.

His conservative community of Bhatias slammed his inclination towards music. “They wanted to burn my piano… My cousin’s father-in-law used to say that if you send him to learn music, he will be selling chana at Chowpatty,” said Bhatia in an interview with film music scholar Greg Booth (scroll.in).

After graduating from Elphinstone College in Mumbai, encouraged by his father, Bhatia studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Paris Conservatory. He got many scholarships, including a Rockefeller Fellowship. He was the only Indian student of famed French educator Nadia Boulanger.

In 1960, he was appointed Reader in Western musicology at the University of Delhi. He returned to Mumbai when actor Durga Khote asked him to do an advertisement for Shakti Silk Mills, a brand she was endorsing. The Liril soap, Dulux paints and Vareli sarees were among the around 7000 jingles he created.

Advertising brought Bhatia into contact with avant garde filmmaker Shyam Benegal. Nishant (1975) is remembered for the traditional Piya baaj pyaala piya jaaye na, penned by Sultan Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah of Golconda for beloved courtesan Bhagmati. Written in the Deccani dialect, it was sung by Preeti Sagar.

Manthan (1976) spotlighted the ‘white revolution’, spearheaded by women in Gujarat. Preeti Sagar’s effervescent rendition Mero gaam katha parey captured the romance of the movement.

Benegal’s Bhumika (1977) was set in the 1930s-1950s. Conversant with the period, Bhatia used the piccolo trumpet in the classic Saawan ke din aaye and the jaltarang in Tumhare bin jee na lage ghar mein. The subliminal music captured the emotional template of the protagonist (Smita Patil) and the era outside.

Reportedly, when he was to record Tumhare bin jee…, the recordist was upset for bringing ‘a chit of a girl’ to sing the song. “I wanted a clean voice. That was Preeti Sagar, she was 14 at the time,” said Bhatia (scroll.in).

Bhatia scored for Shyam Benegal’s Junoon (1979) and Kalyug (1981), and Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), produced by Shashi Kapoor’s Film-Valas.

The score of Junoon comprised Middle-East instruments like the qanun and the rabab, which conveyed Pathan Javed Khan’s (Shashi Kapoor) obsession with British Ruth Labadoor (Nafisa Ali). Mohammed Rafi’s Ishq ne todi is a searing interlude. 

Bhatia considered the kajri Saawan ki aayee bahaar as one of his finest scores. The arrangement simulated ‘lightning’ to correspond to Asha Bhosle’s ‘bijuriya chamke’.

The background score of 36 Chowringhee Lane resonated the waning world of Anglo-Indian teacher Violet Stoneham (Jennifer Kendal). 

“Her theme echoes the opening of Sunrise, Sunset from the Fiddler On The Roof… (while) the theme for the lovers (Debashree Roy -Dhritiman Chatterjee) is in raga Miyan Ki Malhar,” wrote musicologist Shwetant Kumar (scroll.in).

Kalyug was a contemporary spin on the Mahabharata. Reportedly, Bhatia adapted Peter Brown’s club track Can’t Be Love (Do It to Me Anyway) as the opening of Preeti Sagar’s What’s Your Problem?

Regarding Chubti hai yeh toh nigodi for Mandi (1983), written centuries ago, Asha Bhosle reportedly refused to sing the ‘dirty song’. “She cancelled the recording three times… Writer Ismat Chugtai told her; you have come this far by singing kotha songs. What difference does another one make?” Bhatia revealed in an interview with Greg Booth (scroll.in).

If Kundan Shah’s satire, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), juxtaposed an ominous, war-like score with funny visuals, Saeed Mirza’s Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho! (1984), had Shailendra Singh croon Bambai in a melodic manner.

Bhatia was often lampooned for being ‘ Western’, but Benegal’s Mandi (1983) and Sardari Begum (1996) celebrated Hindustani music with its thumris Ghir ghir aayi and Raah mein bichhi hain.

Another Vanraj Bhatia gem is Lata Mangeshkar’s Barse ghan saari raat, from Kumar Shahani’s Tarang (1984). The seven-minute dirge of yearning, replete with eroticism, was composed in raga Mand Jogiya and Bhimpalasi. Bhatia dubbed this as his ‘marathon song’.That Lata cites it as one of her favourites validates its complexity.

In Benegal’s Tero hari naam (Susman 1986), Bhatia harmonized his music with Ramulu’s (Om Puri) weaving. Just as he employed the mandolin to convey the vibe of Goa in the filmmaker’s Trikal (1985) and the accordion to conjure the Parsi ethos in Vijaya Mehta’s Pestonjee (1987).

Benegal’s Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda, Mammo, Hari-Bhari and the background scores for Ajooba, Damini, Pardes, Chameli and Escape From Taliban were his other notable outings (between 1992-2003).

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Bhatia’s music for Govind Nihalani’s television film Tamas (1987) balanced a Western score with chants of O Rabba followed by the tormented cry of Nathu (Om Puri), as he attempts to kill a pig. 

“The theme of Tamas… started with a shriek so filled with anguish, it could… break anyone’s heart,” wrote Farhan Akhtar in praise of the score. It won Bhatia the National Film Award for Best Music Direction.

Bhatia collaborated with Benegal for Bharat Ek Khoj (1988) based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India. Vedic chants were used in the opening credits.

His other TV shows include Khandaan, Yatra, Wagle Ki Duniya and Banegi Apni Baat (between 1985-1994) as well as numerous documentaries. He also composed spiritual albums titled Bhagavad Gita and Anant.

Known as the best composer of Western classical music in India, his frequently performed works are the Fantasia and Fugue in C for piano, the Sinfonia Concertante for strings and the song cycle Six Seasons.

The first two acts of his opera Agni Varsha, based on Girish Karnad’s play of the same name, premiered in New York City in 2012.

Few know that Bhatia, whose work was largely for parallel cinema, debunked its ‘fake realism’. An excerpt from Jyoti Punwani’s recent article on the maestro in rediff.com reads, “It remained Bhatia’s unfulfilled dream to do… films like Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony or Naseeb, ‘where all action stops and the song takes over’.” He hailed Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor and Vijay Anand for befriending songs in their narratives.

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The professional frustrations, the inability of peers to appreciate his genius and the gnawing loneliness of advancing years, led him to become a recluse. In 2019, an article in Mumbai Mirror by veteran journalist Khalid Mohamed brought to light the dire straits the virtuoso was in.

The article reported that Bhatia was battling age-related ailments, knee pain, hearing loss and memory lapses. “I have no money, not one rupee left in my bank account,” the octogenarian was quoted saying. “Leave me alone. No one comes to visit me, no one. Why should they? No one has use for me any longer,” he added wistfully in the same piece.

A 27-year-old domestic was Bhatia’s only companion at his Napean Sea residence. He informed Mumbai Mirror that the composer couldn’t afford medical check-ups.

The heart-breaking piece also mentioned that priceless crockery from Bhatia’s household collection was being sold for financial support. His home was maintained by individual donations and charity foundations but that was hardly sufficient.

Bhatia was extremely attached to his pet cat Papsoo and was left further traumatised after she was run over in a car accident near the house. “Ever since Papsoo left sir turned silent. I can often hear him calling out her name in sleep,” the help said (Mumbai Mirror).

The report sent ripples and help poured in generously thereafter. Reportedly, the Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs), which safeguards the rights of authors, composers and music publishers, headed by screenwriter Javed Akhtar, stepped in to help as well. 

Two years later, Bhatia passed away after a brief illness on 7 May, 2021. He was 93.

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Amongst many tributes the finest came from dairy brand Amul. The doodle featured Bhatia seated beside a piano. “You created a manthan (churning) of melodies. Vanraj Bhatia 1927-2021,” read the acknowledgement. It may be recalled that Bhatia's Manthan tune, Mero gaam katha parey, went on to become the signature tune of Amul.

The manthan of memories will keep his melodies alive...

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