Variety

Ad World’s Jingle King: The extraordinary composer called Vanraj Bhatia

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on May 10, 2021

Simplicity and total harmony were the hallmarks of his music, and his arrangements flawless

Mero gam katha pare ja

Dhudh ki nadiya wahe ja

Koyal ku ku gaye

Mare ghar angana na bhulo na

Hey mare ghar angana na bhulo na

The folksy Gujarati song from the film Manthan in the lilting voice of Preeti Sagar touches your heart every time you hear it. So captivating was the song that dairy major Amul used it as its corporate tune and went back to the extraordinary genius who composed it - Vanraj Bhatia - time and again for more pieces. “The Manthan music gave a good identity to our co-operatives and is a signature tune of our campaigns,” says R S Sodhi, Managing Director of GCMMF, which owns brand Amul, describing how the versatile composer’s last work for the company was the chimes of the clock at IRMA, the rural management institute at Anand.

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On Friday, May 7, Vanraj Bhatia, who composed over 7,000 advertising jingles and created music for the best of India’s parallel cinema, especially for Shyam Benegal’s path-breaking films, breathed his last at his beautiful home on Napean Sea Road, surrounded by his beloved music, curios, lamps, books and opera. Music director Zubin Balaporia who was a close confidante of Bhatia, and has been organising moving virtual tribute meetings for him, said the 93-year old opera-loving composer, who died a bachelor, was a man of refined sensibilities and his positivity and zest for life will remain unmatched. He was a great chef, a connoisseur of good food, art and beauty. His house, which he designed himself, was so lovely that it was used for many a film shoot. “He was very old school in everything, be it music or food. He could not tolerate the synthesiser or the microwave. He would serve a proper three course meal, with soup first, and finishing off with brandy at the end. He made the best quiche I have ever tasted” says Balaporia.

At a Facebook Live tribute organised by the Music Composers Association of India (MCAI) on Sunday, movie director Shyam Benegal for whose films Vanraj Bhatia scored the music, called him an extraordinary genius. “He was mad in a wonderful sort of way. He was irascible, difficult to deal with, yet when it came to work he was so fluid,” said Benegal, describing how he and Bhatia disagreed on literally everything but miraculously at the recording studio, everything magically worked out.

“His knowledge of music – both western classical and Indian classical - was outstanding,” says Balaporia, who says Bhatia also grew up listening to a lot of Gujarati theatre music.

Balaporia, who played both the acoustic piano and electronic keyboard, first met Bhatia in 1986 along with his drummer friend Mark Menezes when they both got a call from the music composer’s agent. He went on to record music with Bhatia for over three decades and became so close to him that in the last ten years not a day went by without the composer phoning him to either get help in solving a crossword puzzle clue or discuss and debate a piece of music. “He had very rigid views. He disliked jazz and he would often tell me why are you wasting your time on rock and roll,” says Balaporia, who is keyboardist for the cult rock band Indus Creed.

For Balaporia, who worked with Bhatia on later versions of the iconic Garden Vareli ad, which he says, along with the music track of 36 Chowringhee Lane, was among his favourite works of the composer, what stood out in these pieces was the orchestration and arrangement.

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The Garden Vareli score, which sounded very western and yet had very Indian strains with the sarangi, was actually an interpretation by Vanraj, from one of the movements of his original composition - Sinfonia Concertante for Strings. Years later, the full piece was played by the Birmingham Orchestra, he says. The Garden Vareli tune based on the raga Desh was to be an inspiration for another prolific jingles-maker-turned-film-composer AR Rahman for the song Kaadhal Rojave in his runaway debut hit Roja. 

A pioneer in ad scores

Balaporia describes how Vanraj Bhatia during his daily calls would often slip into recollections of his old jingles. In the 1960s and 70s, the ad jingles were often three minutes long, and later cut to 30 seconds with the full versions playing on radio. It was all about the orchestra then and very different from now. Bhatia’s first ever ad jingle – and many say that he was the Indian ad world’s first music composer – was for Shakti Silk Sarees. Balaporia describes how Bhatia was asked to bring along an orchestra and he scrambled around to find one, finally getting one from possibly the Taj nightclub. “They turned up dressed in their regalia, much to the shock of everyone at the studio. But it went off very well,” says Balaporia. There was no looking back after that.

The ‘ la la la’ song for Liril and the ‘ tandoorusti ki Raksha karta hai” one for Lifebuoy sealed Bhatia’s position as a legendary composer in Bombay’s advertising world. “For a long time, he was the reigning king of ad jingles. He was recording every week – be it Liril, Britannia, Maggi,” recalled Kailash Surendranath, the ad film-maker who shot to great fame after the Liril shoot, at the MCAI tribute session. He acknowledges that the track which Bhatia composed before any shot was taken had a great part to play in the Liril ad’s success.

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At the MCAI tribute, Kailash Surendranath also brought up Vanraj Bhatia’s curio collections and wondered what would happen to those. He collected fine crockery and cutlery and glass pieces and Surendranath recalls many a dinner he and his wife Arti enjoyed at the home of the composer admiring the beautiful glass pieces.

“In the 1970s and 80s , there were just two legends - Louis Banks and Vanraj Bhatia,” says Ambi Parameswaran, former CEO of FCB Ulka, which created the Amul corporate film with Bhatia’s Manthan music. “Vanraj Bhatia was a true musical genius and advertising pioneer. He was adept in a multiplicity of genres, including folk music,” he says.

Parameswaran recalls how The Advertising Club Bombay (it has since then dropped the word Bombay) honoured Bhatia with a Lifetime Contribution to Advertising Award. “As he came up on stage to take the award, we played a montage of his jingles. The entire 3,000-strong audience got on its feet hummed and clapped for many minutes. This turned Vanraj Bhatia emotional on stage,” he recalls.

Making his own path

Bhatia was an unlikely musician, given his heritage. The son of a traditional Kutchi businessman, there was no exposure to western classical music at home. However, at the age of ten, he entered the world of art and western classical music at the house of his close friend Jehangir Sabavala, the modernist painter. “They grew up together. He told me he first heard Tchaikovsky at Jehangir’s house and was completely blown away. He said it tormented him, and he couldn’t sleep,” says Balaporia.

Bhatia convinced his family and after his graduation from Elphinstone college, Mumbai went abroad to study music. He trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London, where he was a gold medallist and then went on to Paris Conservatory, where he was the only Indian student of Nadia Boulanger, perhaps the most famous music teacher ever - the guru of the likes of Quincy Jones, the American musician with 80 Grammy nominations. “Vanraj told me she would make him study harmony, theory and counterpoint for 13 hours a day,” exclaims Balaporia.

But that training made him what he is, he says. His style was unmatched in India. He could blend Western classical with Indian classical music effortlessly. And though his music was predominantly western, he was well grounded in Indian languages. Look at the way he wove the Rig Veda chants to electronic music and drums in Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj series creating an electrifying effect.

A tribute meeting held on May 9 where Shyam Benegal, Javed Akhtar and others shared their memories of Vanraj-Bhatia, ad music composer.

 

 

At the MCAI tribute, composer and guitarist Ehsaan Noorani (part of the Shankar Ehsaan Loy trio), noted that Vanraj Bhatia’s compositions stood out for their simplicity and their arrangements, which were absolutely flawless.

Both Noorani and Balaporia recall how Vanraj Bhatia would nag them constantly to play Bach. “Finally, when I learnt a piece of Bach and went and played it in front of Vanraj, he heard it silently and said, you have no feel for Bach,” recalls Balaporia, describing him as a very hard taskmaster.

Noorani also shared how impeccably dressed Vanraj Bhatia was always and how he expected the same standards from others. He recalls how at Zubin Balaporia's wedding, Bhatia criticised Noorani's suit, saying it was a bad fit. "But I am wearing a Raymond suit," protested Noorani. At which point Bhatia drew attention to his own Armani suit. "I am not so classy like you," Noorani argued. To which Bhatia retorted, it's not about showing off to the world, but how the clothes make you feel.

For Shyam Benegal, what was amazing about Vanraj Bhatia’s jingles was that he would make a five-member music team sound like a 50- person orchestra.

“People like Vanraj Bhatia made Indian advertising a much loved part of Indian popular culture,” sums up Ambi Parameswaran.

Balaporia says the legendary composer spent the last ten years immersing himself in writing an opera called Agni Varsha. “It is a full-blown opera. Every single note from the vocal melody to all the orchestration is meticulously written and notated. We are hoping it will get staged someday,” he says.

The good news, according to Balaporia, is that all of Vanraj Bhatia’s music is meticulously archived thanks to a young lad called Shwetant. “He just landed up one day to meet Vanraj Bhatia saying he was a huge fan of his.” Shwetant took upon himself to archive all of Bhatia’s music. All his scores which are handwritten are now beautifully preserved and will hopefully go to NCPA or Prithvi theatre and be available for fans and students of music,” says Balaporia.

(with inputs from Rutam Vora)

Published on May 10, 2021

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