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The boy who fell in love with Tchaikovsky
Inever let anyone play any music in the house, " says Vanraj Bhatia, 85, who received the Padma Shri for music in January this year. "It disturbs the music playing in my head all the time. " He gestures to the grand piano in the corner of the room, where neatly arranged sheets of music are evidence of work in progress. The bookshelves behind him are lined with titles such as Wagner's Die Walkure, Mozart's complete string quartets and the complete works of Johannes Brahms. Several ornate lamps light up the room that is decorated in a manner to resemble a salon in Prague. Time seems to move at a gentler pace here, where details and beauty are foremost. A rather chubby cat named Bobsum, Bobs for short, sits on the table between us. Dressed in a green polo shirt and white shorts, with a gold-rimmed cup of green tea placed in front of him, Bhatia looks meditatively around him and says, "I like beautiful things to surround me. "
Born in 1927, Bhatia spent his childhood in Gilbert Building in Babulnath, which now houses the Bombay International School. He was born into a wealthy Gujarati family, and had a lavish upbringing. However, young Vanraj was always something of a rebel. He preferred the lifestyle of his Parsi friends, who introduced him to European culture. In their homes, he first saw chandeliers, cut-glass crockery, marble floors and colonial furniture - and he fell in love with it all. Unlike his family, who were all vegetarian as is the norm in a traditional Kutchi Bhatia family, Vanraj opted to eat meat and showed a liking for Western food. "From the age of 13, I never ate with my parents till they died, " says Bhatia. "I was always rebelling. Their timings were different, their foods were different, and I didn't want to eat that stuff. "
His musical education commenced at an early age, as he sat by his mother and aunt as they played the dilruba, an Indian string instrument much like a sitar. He then attended the New Era School where he topped his class in music. "I remember my first music teacher, Mr Kulkarni, forbade me from answering in class because I always knew which raag was which, " says Bhatia shaking his head nostalgically. "He said you just keep quiet and give the others a chance. Now what has happened is that I know all the raags but I have forgotten the names. "
Bhatia's initiation into Western music happened by chance. When Kulkarni died of a sudden accident, the school was on the lookout for another music teacher. It was 1942, Singapore had fallen to the Japanese, and many Singaporeans had fled the country and arrived in India. One such lady, a Miss Yo, who specialised in Western Music replaced Kulkarni at New Era. "That is the first time I had heard Western Music and soon I heard Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto, " says Bhatia. "And that did it. I couldn't sleep for a month. It haunted me. And I said that is what I want to write. Because Indian music, on which I was brought up, is contemplative, it's almost like meditation. Western music is not like that, it is a dynamic, that's what attracted me. "
Bhatia graduated with an English Honors from Elphinstone College in Bombay in 1949 while studying Western classical music locally with Dr Manek Bhagat. When he expressed his wish to study music in England thereafter, his family was sceptical. "It was the time of the big Congress movement. Going abroad - to England of all places and to study music of all things - everyone was very against it, " says Bhatia. "My father wanted me to be a lawyer. I remember my cousin's father-in-law saying, 'Bhejo bhejo, Chowpatty pe chana bechega, kaun kaam dega isko' (Send him abroad, he'll end up selling peanuts at Chowpatty, who will give him work?). "
Yet, his father supported him and gave him enough money for six months, after which he would have to either get a scholarship or return to India. In 1950, he left for the Royal Academy of Music, London, to study music composition. Within three months, he received the Sir Michael Costa Scholarship, followed by the Rockefeller Fellowship, and then a scholarship from the French government.
After his time at the Royal Academy, Bhatia entered the Paris Conservatoire and studied with Nadia Boulanger. He recalls his time in Paris as severe yet rewarding. He would practice harmonies for up to 13 hours a day, never once entering a restaurant of a show. "My music was shaped in Paris, " says Bhatia. "As Boulanger said, now that you got the teaching I have given you, you will be able to do anything you want. And she was absolutely right. " In his free time, he worked odd jobs at restaurants and hotels. "I remember working in Paris at a hotel called the Camelia, it was almost like a brothel, " says Bhatia with a laugh. "The first floor was for regulars, they were given up to an hour and if they went beyond an hour they had to use the secondfloor rooms. What people didn't realise is that I had to clean the room afterward. "
In 1960, when he returned to India his family was not in good shape financially and he had to find a job immediately. He took a position as a Reader in Musicology in charge of the Western Music Department, at the Faculty of Music in Delhi University where he remained until 1965. Upon his return to Bombay, his family went through a rough period. He moved into the house he currently occupies at Nepean Sea Road, but rented out one of the rooms to a lithograph press while he shared the other with his parents.
At a chance meeting with Shyam Benegal at a party, he was offered the chance to work on an advertising jingle. "I said it was totally beneath my dignity and I would never do such a thing, " said Bhatia, who became one of the foremost jingle makers in India, and is often referred to as the 'jingle king'. "He said, look you've got no money, if you want to earn a living, do it. After that I did 7000 jingles over 40 years. Sometimes I used to compose four or five a day. "
In 1972, he composed the music for his first feature film, Shyam Benegal's Ankur. "I remember going into Mehboob Studios to do the recording during the film industry strike when no recordings were allowed, " says Bhatia. "They said Shyam Benegal, it must be a documentary let them do it. And we did it. I liked working with Shyam because he left me alone to do what I wanted. " He went on to compose the music for the majority of Benegal's films, working on over 40 films during the course of his career. His most celebrated works were Shyam Benegal's film Sardari Begum (1996) and Vijay Singh's film Jaya Ganga (1998).
He has also composed the music for several Indian theatre productions such as Tughlak and Andha Yug, and various television series such as Tamas. He has received several awards for his work including the National Film Award for Best Music Direction for Tamas in 1988, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1989 and the Maharashtra Rajya Puraskar in 1990.
His latest achievement has been the music for an opera based on Girish Karnad's play Agni Varsha that premiered in New York on May 11, 2012. Having been brought up on classical Indian theatre and Sanskrit theatre, Bhatia always wanted to make an opera with an Indian touch. He was attracted to Agni Varsha because it reminded him of Sanskrit theatre that brings together comedic and tragic elements with action and music.
Even today, Tchaikovsky remains one of his greatest influences. "I remember meeting Stravinsky at the Venice Biennale in the 1960s when Boulanger had taken me, " says Bhatia. "He was asked who he thought was the greatest composer Bach, Mozart or Beethoven? And he replied, Tchaikovsky. "
However, Bhatia says that his music is still deeply Indian in its character - just like him. "I hate the word fusion - it's like two wires sticking together, " he says. "No, the Indianness has to come from inside, you don't have to wear this and that to be India. What am I? I'm talking in English, I'm dressed in Western clothes, but I'm Indian. My music is exactly like that. "
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