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Vanraj Bhatia’s extraordinary, multi-faceted oeuvre

Vanraj Bhatia   | Photo Credit: Zubin Balaporia

“The Brahma-rakshasa needs more lines!” “The chorus can’t drown out the High Priest!” “The duet works, now shorten the moonlight aria!” For six years, between 2003 and 2009, enigmatic communications like these would fly across Mumbai — by phone, by fax, and by courier — between Vanraj Bhatia’s studio and mine. During those years, I worked closely with the legendary composer and music director on an opera, Agni Varsha (‘The Fire and the Rain’), based on Girish Karnad’s play, which the playwright had translated into English from his original Kannada. While I developed the libretto, Vanraj composed the music. In the process, I spent many delightful — and sometimes exasperating — hours with the maestro, listening as he played passages from our evolving work on the piano, imbibing a series of masterclasses on tempo, orchestration, polyphony, and the seemingly impossible project of creating an opera entirely through a choreography of Hindustani ragas.

Trained in Western classical music at its wellsprings and also in Hindustani classical music, Vanraj Bhatia (1927-2021) was that rare figure — a composer whose transcultural experiments were always intense and persuasive, never perfunctory. Constantly experimental, curious about how musical systems could come together in convergence or counterpoint, he always sought out fresh challenges of scale. Whether it was an advertising jingle, a tune or score for a film, or a formal composition, Vanraj brought the same degree of artistic engagement to the occasion, resulting in a vivid and memorable body of work. His vibrant tune for ‘Mero gaam katha parey’, the signature song of Shyam Benegal’s 1976 film, Manthan, sounds as fresh and vital as it did when we first heard it, 45 years ago. His magnificent opening music for Shridhar Kshirsagar’s Khandaan (1985), India’s first TV series, still commands attention. His sonorous score for Benegal’s TV series, Bharat Ek Khoj (1988-89), inspired by Vedic chanting, remains compelling, decades after the series was first screened on Doordarshan. As does his brooding, ominous score for Govind Nihalani’s 1988 Doordarshan mini-series based on Bhisham Shahani’s Partition novel, Tamas.

Training in music

Born to a Kutchi business family, Vanraj studied at Mumbai’s New Era School and learned Hindustani classical music with Professor B. R. Deodhar, whose pedagogy marked a break with the gharana system and introduced students to a spectrum of styles. As a teenager, he became captivated by Western classical music and eventually — after having studied Sanskrit and English literature at Elphinstone College — convinced his father that this was his true métier. He spent the 1950s in London, where he studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music, and in Paris, where he studied with the legendary French-Russian conductor and composer Nadia Boulanger at the Conservatoire de Paris. He would look back fondly at his five years in Paris, crediting Boulanger with having pushed him to master the balance between discipline and epiphany. To place Vanraj in his proper milieu, let us remember that the honour roll of Boulanger’s students includes, among many grand figures, the composers Igor Markevitch,

Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland and Philip Glass; and the conductors Daniel Barenboim and John Eliot Gardiner.

I have often felt that Vanraj did not receive the full acknowledgement that he deserved for his extraordinary, multi-faceted oeuvre. Awards certainly came his way. These included stellar tokens of recognition such as the Rockefeller Foundation grant and the Lili Boulanger Memorial Award, which sustained him as a student in Europe, as well as the National Film Award for Best Music Direction in 1988 for Tamas, and, in 2012, the Padma Shri. But his practice always remained beset by the question of context. To votaries of Hindustani music, he was an interloper from the world of Bach and Beethoven. Devotees of Western classical music were puzzled by his interest in the raga world-view. Was he a pure musician, or was he a man of the market, with his nearly 7,000 advertising jingles and his music for movies and television?

Such questions were more important to people who wanted to fit him neatly into a box than to him, but their persistence certainly got under his skin. He struck back with solo piano compositions like Toccata No:1 in Raag Bahar and the Agni Varsha Rhapsody, the solo flute nocturne, Sangeet Raat, and the heart-stopping choral compositions, Rudranaam, Vaasansi Jeernani, and Six Seasons. As an independent practitioner, he negotiated a difficult intermediate terrain between the pursuit of his own music and the work that he did as a cultural entrepreneur who did not have the security of a conservatory or academy to fall back on.

The only academic position he ever held was a chair in Western musicology at the University of Delhi (1960-1965). Established by the Rockefeller Foundation, the chair did no one any good. Vanraj always said that, as a practitioner, he hated teaching music theory; and the university cordially detested Western classical music. As he told the musicologist Greg Booth in a 2017 interview, “They were very glad to get rid of me.” Consider, also, how solitary his career was for much of his life. Apart from the Paranjoti Academy Chorus, directed and conducted since 1967 by the formidable Coomi Wadia, and the relatively recently established (2006) Symphony Orchestra of India at the NCPA, there was very little by way of infrastructure for Western classical music in Bombay, Bhatia’s home city and operational base.

Formidable range

Between the 1970s and the 1990s, Vanraj produced the music with which the popular audience most readily associates him — the score for Shyam Benegal’s iconic films, Ankur (1974), Manthan (1976), Bhumika (1977), Junoon (1978), Kalyug (1981), Mandi (1983), Trikal (1985) and Sardari Begum (1996). He also worked with other directors in India’s parallel and art-house cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Aparna Sen (36 Chowringhee Lane, 1981), Kundan Shah (Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, 1983), Saeed Mirza (Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho! 1984), Kumar Shahani (Tarang, 1984), Vijaya Mehta (Pestonjee, 1987), Pervez Merwanji (Percy, 1989), and Arun Khopkar (Katha Doan Ganpatraoanchi, 1996).

Less well known is the music he composed for theatre. He conceived the music for Ebrahim Alkazi’s productions of Tughlaq (1972) and Andha Yug (1974), and for the Brecht productions on which Alkazi collaborated with Fritz Bennewitz, Teen Takke ka Swang (‘The Three-Penny Opera’, 1970) and The Caucasian Chalk Circle (1972). In years to come, as archivists, scholars and lovers of music embrace the expansive arc of his oeuvre, we will celebrate Vanraj Bhatia as the highly original and trail-blazing creative intelligence he was.

The poet, essayist and curator’s latest book is Hunchprose.


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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 5:26:54 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/vanraj-bhatias-multi-faceted-oeuvre/article34551344.ece

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