History & Culture

Preserving Vanraj Bhatia’s legacy

In India’s prolific entertainment industry, with all its remakes, remixes and plagiarised ‘tributes’, where do you look if you want to find the originals — the building blocks of our popular culture? It’s not easy, especially since preserving cultural heritage hasn’t featured much on our radar.

Vanraj Bhatia’s residence.

Vanraj Bhatia’s residence.  

“India is currently the largest and most diverse film producing nation in the world, making close to 2,000 films a year in 36 languages, but our record of film preservation is abysmal. We made 1,338 silent films, of which just about 29 survive, many only in fragments. Our first talkie Alam Ara (1931) is lost, as are most of the first talkies in other languages. By the 1950s, we had lost almost 70% of our film heritage, and we continue to lose more every day,” says Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, National Award-winning filmmaker, archivist and founder-director of Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) in Mumbai.

Crowded career

FHF is currently engaged in conserving the works of veteran music composer Vanraj Bhatia, who passed away in Mumbai on May 7. Bhatia, a Padma Shri recipient, studied at the Royal College of Music in London and the Paris Conservatory, and his scores are recognised for their timeless blending of Indian melody and Western harmony. The material, donated by the composer’s family and collected from Bhatia’s apartment in Malabar Hill, where he lived with a caretaker, spans the virtuoso’s prodigiously varied career in advertising, film and Western music composition that began in 1959 and continued well into the 2000s. FHF received what Dungarpur terms a treasure trove of personal artefacts, including Bhatia’s National Award for Best Music Direction for Tamas (1988), his Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, photographs and letters, books from his library and, most importantly, his original handwritten music scores from acclaimed films like 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), Bhumika (1977), Manthan (1976), Mandi (1983) and Junoon (1979).

Vanraj Bhatia’s handwritten musical score for 36, Chowringhee Lane.

Vanraj Bhatia’s handwritten musical score for 36, Chowringhee Lane.  

The credit for the initial archiving of Bhatia’s work in physical and digital form goes to Shwetant Kumar, a 25-year-old musicologist, composer and instrumentalist, who struck up a long-standing friendship with the veteran after looking him up on the Internet in 2016. Despite the 70-year age difference, the duo hit it off well. Kumar, then doing his bachelor’s degree in English literature in Mumbai, would visit Bhatia on Sundays to sort out the material.

“I don’t think the generation gap made any difference to Vanraj. He liked to feel young, which is why he insisted that everyone call him by his first name,” says Kumar. “In a way, the archive began even before I met Vanraj; there was almost no information on him, and his music was not on the Internet then, so I had to find out which films and TV shows he had scored, and track down their copies. Perhaps that is what made him decide I should be his archivist.”

For over a year, Kumar balanced his studies with a routine of making A4-size photocopies of over 3,000 sheets of Bhatia’s handwritten musical scores (on larger leaves) to be scanned and saved as digital files. He also worked on digitising more than 60 audio cassettes and 30 quarter-inch tape reels. While he was able to convert the audio cassettes into soft copies by connecting his Walkman to his computer, the tape reels left him stumped because the machinery to play them was obsolete.

Eventually, Prithvi Theatre trustee and adman Kunal Kapoor (son of actor Shashi Kapoor), helped out. “Mr. Kapoor allowed me to use his own reel-to-reel recorder. I managed to complete the conversion in a week’s time, just before I left for the U.S. in 2017,” he says. Kumar studied film scoring, electronic production and design at Berklee College of Music in Boston, U.S., and in Valencia, Spain from 2017 to 2020, and met Bhatia during his trips home.

A framed photo of the composer at his residence.

A framed photo of the composer at his residence.  

“Preservation is a meticulous process,” says Dungarpur. “The material is first fumigated and a detailed inventory created. Conservators then clean each artefact before it moves into archival storage boxes and albums to be put into the compactor. The final step is digitisation.” Creating an archival showcase can take several months or even years, and funds have to be raised for each project, as preservation in humidity- and temperature-controlled facilities, and digitising the material, can be expensive. “Since we already have a showcase for Benegal, archiving Bhatia’s works, who worked closely with him, will be a plus point,” says Dungarpur.

Shwetant Kumar, meanwhile, is commemorating Bhatia by writing the composer’s authorised biography, which he hopes to complete by the end of the year. “I wish more people could listen to his work and understand his place in the history of Indian music. There’s nobody who managed to do the things Vanraj Bhatia did, and he did them all equally well,” he says.

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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 7:31:35 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/preserving-vanraj-bhatias-legacy/article35744315.ece

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