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The Enigmatic Vanraj Bhatia

There exists a direct proportionality between the quantum of genius and the extent of idiosyncrasies that inhabit a person. History has shown enough instances of highly creative individuals, brilliant thinkers, people with concepts ahead of their times, and their particularly eccentric traits. The greater the genius, the more extreme their peculiarities. Vanraj Bhatia, who passed […]

There exists a direct proportionality between the quantum of genius and the extent of idiosyncrasies that inhabit a person. History has shown enough instances of highly creative individuals, brilliant thinkers, people with concepts ahead of their times, and their particularly eccentric traits. The greater the genius, the more extreme their peculiarities.

Vanraj Bhatia, who passed away on May 7 at the age of 93, was one such genius. He was a music composer like none other. Enough has been said about his specific achievements to bear repetition; the only footnote that needs to be added was a comment made by Ustad Zakir Hussain. On the occasion of a felicitation of Bhatia at the NCPA in March 2017, Zakir Hussain said, “Vanraj Bhatia is India’s greatest ever composer. Period.” Pretty definitive praise from one of the greatest musicians India has produced.

Even others who have worked with Vanraj Bhatia — film-makers, musicians or advertising executives — have expressed a sense of awe about Bhatia’s music. Not just admiration or respect, but a sense of wonderment about how perfect the musical end product has for the context it is meant. One film director has said that when you commission Vanraj Bhatia to do the music for the film, “you get a gift from him, not just music.”

Image2 Young Vanraj with his family
Young Vanraj with his family

Vanraj Bhatia was born on May 31, under the sign of Gemini. This sign of the zodiac is meant to typify a person with a dual personality, two identities rolled into one. If any researcher needed working proof of this phenomenon, Vanraj Bhatia would serve as a perfect example. Vanraj Bhatia was surely a one off. It would be impossible to find another quite like him, but for all his uniqueness, he was two people living in one body. I should know, he was my uncle, after all. Vanraj Bhatia was my mother’s first cousin. In reality, being brought up in a joint family, their fathers were brothers, Bhatia and my mother were very close. They thought of each other as siblings rather than cousins, and music was a commonly shared interest. I got to know Bhatia quite well. We were in regular contact right until the very end.

There is plenty of documentation and detailing about Vanraj Bhatia’s contributions and accomplishments as a musician. There is a large body of work he has left behind. However, he never cared to cultivate the right people in the film industry (as is the wont) or indeed care to please potential ‘clients’ to boost his demand. He was anything but a businessman in the Bollywood scheme of things. In fact, he might even have had a certain disdain for the mediocrity churned out by Bollywood. Bhatia would never settle for such a compromise. He would absolutely not ‘dumb down’ his work for the money it would fetch. He would never ‘sell his craft’. He was a purist to the core. However, there was a second Bhatia inhabiting the genius’ skin, an amusing, quirky, hugely eccentric, offbeat man, living on a tangent, as it were. It is this Bhatia we will speak of in this article.

He was generous and compassionate, almost to a fault. Living in the proximity of Priyadarshini Park in Mumbai, Bhatia would walk the short kilometre to the park every evening. This was his regular routine for years. One evening, sadly, he had an accident. As he was walking on the pavement to Priyadarshini Park, an errant motorcyclist lost control of his two wheeler, mounted the pavement, and drove straight into Bhatia. It was a serious accident with direct impact; his right leg was broken in two places. A fractured bone stuck out of the injured leg and he was in pain, and bleeding profusely. Even as he was lying helplessly on the sidewalk, Bhatia noticed that the motorcycle rider was just 15 or 16 years old, and absolutely terrified at what had happened. Sprawled on the pavement and in pain, Bhatia said to the boy, “you obviously don’t have a license. Just take your bike and run away before the police arrive.” Bhatia chose not to report the incident. Even in his agony Bhatia was extremely generous and sympathetic to the boy. Hopefully, a strong lesson was learnt by that motorcyclist that day.

However, what transpired thereafter also deserves a recall. When he was taken to hospital, he asked his domestic assistant to be sure to pack a bottle each of whiskey and vodka along with his clothes for his hospital stay. The attending doctor was horrified to see Bhatia propped up in bed with a drink in hand. “This is a hospital, Sir. Strictly no alcohol allowed here.” Our man, continuing to sip, responded with a straight face, “I am here to be treated. Doctor, you cure me your way, I’ll cure me my way.”

He funded the school and college expenses of every children of all the domestic help that he employed. His help would get very generous bonuses, and were often treated to luxury holidays. One year, Bhatia and the entire family of his retainer flew to Goa and stayed at the Taj Aguada Hotel. And this wasn’t an exception. Regular vacations with help was the norm in Vanraj Bhatia household. All this extravagant spending very often left him in financial trouble. But his habits never changed. It cost him dearly towards the end when friends and relatives had to help him out financially. But his Karma Bank was in very good shape.

For some strange reason, Bhatia seemed almost suspicious of music other than his beloved Western classical and Hindustani classical genres. He was disapproving of Carnatic music for some mysterious reason. Perhaps the bending of notes or the vocal styles from the South did not meet with the great man’s approval. His disapproval was never convincingly expressed — nor did it make any sense to me.

He never really cared about jazz either.

I have a deep love for and involvement with jazz. However, my dear uncle thought it was a hopeless addiction — like heroin, or worse. “If you are spending so much time listening to music, why not listen to something good, like classical music?” Always rhetorical, this question would not tolerate any response. My love for jazz seemed like a big disappointment to him, I suspect.

“Do you have friends who work in advertising whom you entertain at home?” was a question thrown at me one day in the late 1980s, a question quite out of nowhere. But then it came from Bhatia, so it seemed normal. Yes, I responded, I have such friends and they occasionally do visit me, not knowing where we were headed.

“Aha. So you are the reason my work is slowing down”. Mystified, I asked how these dots connected. “You play jazz for these ad people. They like the sound, and then go to Louis Banks for the next jingle.”

There was another time when “jazz” became a point of issue in an otherwise harmonious evening with the great man. “Jazz will never match up to classical music,” he declared. I said that jazz is the classical music of America. “Oh don’t talk to me about jazz and Americans” he thundered, obviously not impressed with either.

Image3 Vanraj with Alyque Padamsee. He had scored music for Padamsee's famous production of Othello in 1991
Vanraj with Alyque Padamsee. He had scored music for Padamsee’s famous production of Othello in 1991

Have you been exposed to jazz, I asked. “Some, he said, “but when I was in Paris in Nadia Boulanger’s Conservatoire there was this young, American jazz trumpet player. He was pesky, and was always asking me to help him with notations and technical things that jazz musicians just don’t understand.”

Any idea who this musician was, I asked. “Yes, he was Quincy something”. Incredibly, I asked, “was it Quincy Jones?”

“Yes, he said, how do you know?”

Bhatia had no idea what Quincy Jones had achieved for himself, and particularly with the iconic Michael Jackson album Thriller, and that it had become a runaway hit. Bhatia had probably never heard of MJ. Nor, it would seem, really cared. I doubt that if he had known he would have had changed his mind about that “Quincy somebody”.

“I’m in America. Meet me at 12.30 on Saturday at Grand Central Station at the restaurant”. A phone call out of the blue, and a line that easily rivals Humphrey Bogart’s immortal — “Sam, If it is the first of December in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?”

Vanraj’s “I’m in America“ had to be deciphered as “I’m in New York.” I mentioned this need of translation to him and he responded, “America is New York and New York is America. What else is there in this country?”

I was a student at Syracuse University in upstate New York at that time. It was a few days before Christmas in 1963, and my university was on Christmas vacation. “It is a six-hour train ride but I will be there. What are your plans?” I asked gingerly. “We will go off to Yale for Christmas, and stay with my old friend Howard Boatwright. He has a special Christmas eve celebration planned.” Boatwright was the head of the music department at Yale and had spent some time in Bombay, where he and Bhatia had become good friends.

I made it to the 12.30 meeting. Bhatia was already seated, nursing a vodka martini. Let me interject that although he was my mother’s cousin and a generation my senior, I was forbidden to call him Vanraj mama, as would be natural- “don’t you dare call me anything but Vanraj. Otherwise, people will think I am old” was the instruction from the great man.

Back to Grand Central Station and the restaurant. “So, what are you drinking? was his first question even before he said hello. “I’m happy with a Coke, thanks” was retorted brusquely by, “You expect me to sit here drinking by myself while you have a silly Coca Cola? Rather than argue, I opted for a beer. But to him a beer was just not a ‘drink’ and he felt let down.

“The good things in life” were his style, but they had to be tasteful, and always elegant. His beautifully and tastefully appointed apartment home was a testament to his aesthetic sense. He believed that he had lived in Prague in a previous life, and the decor of his flat reflected this sensibility. Perhaps his great love for Western classical music was also associated with the Prague and Europe of that previous life.

His pursuit of beautiful things is well demonstrated by his invitation to visit Moscow. The Soviet Union wanted to honour the people involved in making the documentary film “Nehru” in the late 70s. Shyam Benegal had directed the film, for which Bhatia had created the music. The movie was financed by the Soviets, and the premiere was to be held in Moscow. Those involved in making the movie were to be official guests, all invited by the Soviets for the grand premiere.

Being Bhatia, he had to get there his own way. A little digression here. Bhatia would choose his airline by what they served on board; he wanted the flight timing to include cocktail hour and a maximum number of meals. Forty years ago, it was possible to make changes to airline tickets, their routing and timing within the specified air miles. He planned to visit western Europe en route to Moscow. He decided to fly first to Rome and get his tailor to make him a suit or two, then to Paris to catch up with friends and visit some restaurants, and finally to London to buy his favourite branded shoes and to socialise with old friends. All this took about a month.

He then noticed that the Moscow premiere date was approaching and decided to apply for his visa. The Soviet embassy in London told him quite firmly that he could only get their visa in his home country. He should have got it in India, said comrade visa officer. Bhatia argued that he was to be their guest in Moscow. The official held firm — the law is the law. Cannot do here, tovarish. He told them that if they didn’t want him to go to Moscow, that was fine with him. He returned to Bombay, thrilled with his new clothes and shoes. He had no regrets about missing the Moscow trip or the premiere. He thoroughly enjoyed his Italian suits and his Bally shoes.

Bhatia was honoured with a Padma Shri by the Indian President in 2012. In the same year, he was honoured in Kolkata for his music with the Sangeet Natak Academy Tagore Ratna award. Soon thereafter, a Lifetime Achievement Award was conferred on him in Mumbai by a well-known radio station honouring eminent Bollywood musicians. Every known musician from Bollywood attended the fancy function.

We had attended the ceremony as Bhatia’s family, and were waiting for Mr Bhatia to show up. A car and escort had been sent to bring him to the venue, but the great man was nowhere to be seen. As the moment got closer for his felicitation, I was worried for his wellbeing. I went around the venue looking for him and found him seated comfortably at the bar, far from the stage, with a large whiskey in hand. “I’ve been here for over an hour and am very comfortable here. Much nicer here than in that boring hall,” was his response.

We hurried him onto the stage just as his name was announced. He got his award but did not care to linger with his industry brethren. I think by staying away from the ceremony and leaving abruptly as he did, Bhatia was expressing his disapproval of those of the music and film community driven by commercial considerations. Either that, or he wanted his drink refreshed. That was his way. He was even disappointed with the Padma Shri award ceremony because Rashtrapati Bhavan did not serve him a drink.

It must be apparent that Bhatia had strong likes, and particularly dislikes. There was no concession given by him to those not meeting with his approval. He had no hesitation in saying ‘I hate this’ or ‘I hate the lot of them.’ The game of cricket certainly did not have his approval.

As a music student in London in the 1950s, Bhatia lived in St.John’s Wood. Ironically, his room directly overlooked the famous Lord’s Cricket ground, regarded as the Mecca of cricket. This vantage would be considered by most as a heaven sent opportunity to view cricket at Lords. For Bhatia, though, it was a sort of punishment. He would shut his window to keep out the ‘noise’ of the cricket matches. He also strongly discouraged his friends from visiting him during a Test match if they intended to sneak a view of the game in progress.

Another on his ‘hate’ list was driving. “Why this obsession with driving a car?” Why do it when you can get someone else to drive? It is so menial”. For all that, he decided to acquire his first car in the late 1980s. He called one morning and said, “Get me a car. My cook has just got a driving license and he can take me around”.

“What kind of car are you looking for?” I had to ask.

“It has to be white outside with white upholstery, and possibly those white walled tyres. And yes, a good music system.”

That was it. The make wasn’t important as long as the colour was white.

Maybe Bhatia did belong in the Europe of a few centuries ago, when no cars or cricket entered the scheme of things, when Beethoven and Mozart were alive, and the decor in people’s homes was similar to that of his home in contemporary Mumbai. That would all add up.

Although Bhatia was born a Kutchi Bhatia, his sensibilities were influenced considerably by upper class Parsis. He even looked like a Parsi, spoke Gujarati like one, and was comfortable with the ways of that community, including a fondness for British royalty and it’s dynamics.

Bhatia was invited to a fancy sit down dinner by one of his Parsi friends in the mid 1960s. During the meal, he was seated next to a lady who must have considered herself to be almost English royalty. She noticed that Bhatia used the ‘proper’ knives, forks and spoons for each course of the multi course meal, that he broke — and not sliced his bread and that he even knew the proper way to butter his bread. Impressed by her observations, madame turned to Bhatia as the coffee came around, and said, “I must say, you Hindoos are really up and coming socially these days.”

Bhatia never missed the chance to recall this tale. Like many of his generation, Bhatia — sometimes called ‘Jungle King’, a translation of his name or Jingle King because of the 7000 plus ad jingles he composed — was at war with computers and their electronic spin-offs.

Image4 Vanraj with the author and his wife
Vanraj with the author and his wife

Trying to persuade him on one occasion that a lot of wonderful information, including discussions about his music were available on the Internet, I mentioned Facebook. Curious, but still highly suspicious, he said to me: you say they mention my work on Facebook. Tell me, where do they keep this book? I’d like to see it.

In his later years, Bhatia took to doing crossword puzzles, especially the one in the Sunday Times of India. Typically, starting Sunday afternoon, I would get three or four phone calls from him asking for help with one clue or another. His good friend Zubin Balaporia, likewise, would get a few calls asking for his help. I suspect that between us, Balaporia and I solved a large majority of the puzzle.

By Wednesday or Thursday, there would be a triumphant call saying, “I’ve cracked the crossword. All of it is done.”

He well and truly lived his life without compromise, which, I suppose, made him look eccentric. He was particularly noncompromising about his music, so sure he was about his precision in delivering his required brief. There was probably a lot of music in him that would have enriched several Bollywood films, including ‘masala’ films. But then, he would have created even masala music on his own terms and with his own concepts.

Vanraj Bhatia might have become a very rich man by tweaking his music (and values) to please a client. But that was just not his style. Ever. He might have suffered because of this attitude, but made sure that his music never did.


(Feature image courtesy: Getty Images)