Pandit Balwant Rai Bhatt belonged to the guru-sishya parampara. His musical inclination and keen ear for the finer aspects turned into skilful expertise under the tutelage of Pandit Omkarnath Thakur of the Gwalior gharana and their association for nearly four decades.
Born on September 23, 1921 in Bhavnagar, Gujarat, to Gulab Rai Bhatt and Harkunwar, his exceptional talent as composer and musician of Hindustani vocal music, set him a class apart. He lost his eyesight at a very early age, but his love for music engulfed his whole persona.
A musician who followed his musical urge ‘purely by ear’, Balwant Rai became a master of the Gwalior style of classical singing, renowned for his aesthetic compositions, complex yet exquisite layakari, and moving slokas and bhajans. At the age of 12, he started performing on All India Radio, Bombay, singing and playing the harmonium, jaltarang and tabla. His association with AIR continues to this day.
In 1950, Balwant Rai moved to Varanasi with Omkarnath Thakur, helping him set up the Kala Sangeet Bharati at the Benaras Hindu University. He served on the faculty for 31 years teaching music and working on his own as well as his guru’s compositions, which have been published in book form. A series of books authored by Omkarnath Thakur, Sangeetanjali, was edited by Balwant Rai.
Today, the Kala Sangeet Bharati has become the Faculty of Performing Arts, growing and evolving under his innovative leadership. Under the aegis of the International Music Education scheme, Balwant Rai achieved the significant distinction of recording 65 rare ragas at Pennsylvania University with the help and supervision of Prof. Harold S. Powers.
He was one of the earliest singer-composers having to his credit over 1300 compositions in various styles like the chaturang, dharmar, dhrupad, khayal, tarana and trivet. He was a complete Vaggeyakar.
His compositions are interspersed with intricate ‘laya’ patterns. His Bhavrang Lahiri is a 3-part volume of compositions, the first of which was published in 1964. Bhavrang was his pen name. came in time to be known as Pandit Bhavrang Balwant Rai Bhatt. The second and third volumes appeared in 1974 and 1982. Recently some of his musical recordings were released in compact disc form – a consummate medley of layakari, bhajans and bhakti gaans.
Despite his physical handicap and his numerous roles as educator, singer, composer and social activist, Balwant Rai Bhatt toured the world performing in Afghanistan, Nepal, Canada, Europe and the United States. He became Chairman of the Varanasi Chapter of the National Federation for the Blind, a role he held for over two decades.
Amidst the various state and national awards he received, Pandit Balwant Rai Bhatt was awarded the Padma Shri in 1990, the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 2004 and the prestigious Kalidas Samman for the year 2007-08.
Despite his advanced age, Pandit Balwant Rai Bhatt never turned away a keen and willing music learner. His skills as musician and teacher passed on to his children; his elder daughter Layleena Bhatt teaches dance at the Women’s College, Benares Hindu University, while the younger Geetsudha Parikh is a sitar teacher at the Rajasthan College of Arts, Jaipur.
Pandit Balwant Rai Bhatt’s residence at Nariya in Varanasi is considered an abode of music and learning by his students spread far and wide.