Vanraj Bhatia, master of background scores and composer of less-heard melodies

Vanraj Bhatia  

Vanraj Bhatia, who died in Mumbai on Friday, aged 93, was one of India’s finest music composers and the man behind memorable background scores in several iconic films.

He took the road less travelled. Unlike most of his contemporaries, whose hit songs made them household names, his focus was more on background music. He was at home both in Hindustani and Western classical music, and also tuned some 6,000 jingles.

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His scores enriched some of India’s most celebrated films, especially those belonging to the parallel cinema which thrived in the 1970s and 80s, thanks in no small measure to pioneering directors like Shyam Benegal.

Bhatia, in fact, scored the music of many of Benegal’s best-known films, including Ankur, Nishant, Manthan, Bhumika, Junoon and Kalyug. He also composed the background score of Benegal’s classic television series Bharat Ek Khoj, adapted from Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India.


He may not have to his credit hundreds of film songs, but he delivered when he was asked to tune them. Among his compositions are Bar se ghan saari raat... (Tarang), More Kanha jo aayee... and Ghar naahin hamre... (Sardari Begum), Dil zinda rakhne ke... and Woh ek dost jo... (Surkhiyaan), Ek lamha to bina... (Mohre), Ek subah ek mod... (Hip Hip Hurray), Saawan ke din aaye... and Tumhare bin jeena... (Bhumika), Piya baj pyala... (Nishant), Zabaane badalti hai...(Mandi), Yeh shamein... (Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda), Ye faasle... (Mammo), Ishq ne todi sar...and Saawan ki aayi bahaar... (Junoon), Hum honge kamyaab... (Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron).


If those songs didn’t exactly climb the charts — except perhaps Hum hone kamyab..., which has gone on to become an anthem for struggles — that is probably because the films that featured them weren’t mainstream. Bhatia’s creativity and deep knowledge in music are evident in those songs, for which he used singers like Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Yesudas and Preeti Sagar.

It is unfortunate though that some gems he tuned are rarely heard. Bar se ghan saari raat..., for instance, is one of the most beautiful and intricately composed songs ever in Indian film music. He set it in three ragas — Bhimpalasi, Jogiya and Maand — and used just one tabla, a sarangi and 50 strings.


It was brilliantly sung by Lata in just one take. The singer was so impressed with the song that she wanted to listen to its recording straightaway at the studio, something she normally wouldn’t do.

Such songs show Bhatia’s versatility as a musician. He was trained in Hindustani classical as well as Western. He, in fact, learnt Western classical music from reputed institutes in London and Paris.

On his return to India, he taught Western musicology at Delhi university before moving back to Mumbai, where he started working in advertisements. His jingles impressed Benegal, who signed him on for his directorial debut Ankur.

He also composed music for other directors in parallel cinema like Kundan Shah, Kumar Sahini, Aparna Sen and Prakash Jha. He was indeed the go-to composer for the sensible filmmaker.

Unlike what one usually came across in the mainstream Bollywood of those times, his background music was never loud. He knew when — and when not — music was required in a film.

He won the National Award for the best music for Tamas, but it may be no exaggeration to say that the gifted musician, who faced financial difficulties in the evening of his life, never got his due.

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2021 10:18:35 AM |

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