Vanraj Bhatia is one of the most prolific music director of the Indian film & advertising industry and chances, are very few know or have heard of him.
But in terms of music he, IMHO would be there among the top, and I loved his music and found it superlative and on par with the best in the world.
The decades 1980-2000 were boom time for the Indian advertising Industry, and the volume of work was exploding, mostly in TV commercials. This became a powerful source of talent and everyone from A R Rehman, Mani Rathnam, Pankaj Parasher etc have contributed to advertisements.
Vanraj Bhatia had worked on a lot of TVCs and that is one of the true test of talent, doing a catchy, punchy jingle or score that can be on everyone’s lips within 30 seconds. He used to do this successfully and manage the great volume of work despite the limitations of technology from those days -quite an achievement.
But his best fare - the one which he’s famous for and got him famous was of course the work he did for bollywood. He gave background scores for quite a few films (including the ones that didn't have songs like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, where the scenes being played out are strongly etched in our memory to the score being played).
If you however had a chance to listen to his Original Soundtracks then it would be mind-blowing, though this is a far cry from mainstream Bollywood film music. The superlative fare was mostly classical based, including western classical and some of the best most original folk music ever performed in Hindi films. The best work Vanraj has done has been in collaboration with Shyam Benegal across all his films.
The soundtrack for films like Bhumika is a treat if you are into folk and classical. There is a version of Lavani/ tamaasha sung in Hindi which is as faithful to the form as it gets. Then there are classical songs in the movie, which are meditative and I’d read he scoured for original Gurus of this style, and finally cajoled one of the most reluctant, exponents of this gharana singers to sing in the studios. Once you listen to this, it is obvious that this was done ad lib as such a great singer could not be held to a fixed metric.
Vanraj worked mainly with artistes who were not part of the mainstream, and almost discovered various talents like Priti Sagar (who is most famous for her song from Manthan, composed by Vanraj Bhatia).
But he also worked with Asha Bhosle for a few songs - one great one was for the movie Junoon which was based on the first war of Independence in the mid 1800s in India. The music of the movie has a distinct feel of those times, and the song sung by Asha Bhonsle “Saawan ki Aayi Bahar re” is absolutely magical and can be sung without the accompanying music, which was also sung by her daughter Varsha Bhosle.
The film which I absolutely fell in love with the musical track was Sardari Begum where each song is Platinum standard. I can keep it on loop - even though I am not really into Hindustani Classical Music (or even Music per se). But each song from this film is overpowering and I think Vanraj’s music does that. There are two songs by Asha Bhosle which are among her best and one of them is the lighter version of the classical song from the same album and its hard to decide which one is better.
A true testament to his composition skills was when he worked on the mega-tv-series Bharat Ek Khoj or Discovery of India with Shyam Benegal. The series is perhaps one of the best pieces of TV work ever done in india - though its not everyone’s cup of tea (mighty boring if you are not into period or history). All historical incidents and developments contributing to India as it is today from the prehistoric to modern day era are recreated in this.
Vanraj Bhatia did the title track for the TV series which has a poem from Rig Veda - about the creation of the Universe, faithfully translated in Hindi. It is globally considered to be the first scientific poem in the world. The poem talks about how there was nothing in the beginning, not even truth and ponders about how the universe came into being, was it from a womb, an egg etc. The music for this is so dramatically different from standard fare, it brings the words and their import to life (though you need to know Hindi to get the true impact as you listen to the title track).
The TV series was darn boring (based on Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s book) and was hard to keep engaged with each episode nearly an hour. But sometimes there’d be songs as part of the narrative where Vanraj’s music would have its unique flavour.
I saw them as a kid, and one episode which was simply sublime was where some episodes from the Ramayana were re-created with the "Natya sangeet" style of music. One of them included performances from Pallavi Joshi (a terrific actress who’s won several National awards) and she and the others sing in Natya Sangeet - absolutely true to the form. Natya Sangeet is a refined form of folk Marathi theatre and singing. This was as close to watching a great live performance as possible.
Recently the Mumbai Opera house was re-opened in a fully refurbished and recreated by the efforts of a committed talented group who got investors and patrons to use their influence and efforts in rebuilding this heritage landmark. And in the timeline Vanraj who attended the inauguration, spoke about how he spent several great moments as a kid attending Opera and other superlative musical performances at the opera house.
To me this was great news. Mumbai has several great contributions to the world of Music and it is great to see that there is acknowledgement and celebration of these talents. I feel particularly blessed and lucky to have enjoyed Vanraj Bhatia’s music and hope to discover more and many more of his gems since I have only heard a very few of them.