Ghulam Haider – The Game Changer
The year was 1943 with the Second World War at its peak. In the small town of Ferozepur, one of the biggest wartime concerts was organized to raise funds for the war. On stage was a film orchestra specially brought from Lahore – about 20 strong, all impeccably clad in white churidars and kurtas. A little girl appeared on the stage and sang a thumri followed by a song set in raga Malkauns.
When she had finished, the maestro who was controlling the orchestra but who took no active part in the proceedings that night, came on the stage, patted the girl on the back and paid glowing tributes to her singing ability. He forecast then and there that one day she would become a famous singer – whether or not he would live to see that day, he could not say.
The little girl was Sudha Malhotra and the maestro, the famous Master Ghulam Haider (1908 – 09 Nov 1953) of Lahore who became a legend in his own time. Music-lovers will realize how true his prophesy turned out to be. But for the man who had the distinction of introducing on the screen such outstanding singers as Noor Jehan, Shamshad Begum, Zeenat Begum and later Mohammed Rafi, the incident at Ferozepur was not an isolated case. It flowed naturally from his uncanny knack of spotting talent and then grooming and encouraging it to blossom forth.
At the same concert at Ferozepur he introduced a small urchin picked up from the streets of Lahore. The boy made everybody sit up with his powerful presentation of the song ‘Meri ankhon mein mere man mein, piya chaye. Alas, his name has vanished with the years.
The nightingale of India, Lata Mangeshkar was probably his biggest discovery. After her care taker Vinayak’s death in 1948, music director Ghulam Haider mentored her as a singer. Haider introduced Mangeshkar to producer Sashadhar Mukherjee, who making Shaheed (1948), but Mukherjee dismissed Mangeshkar’s voice as ‘too thin.’
An annoyed Haider prophesised that in the future the producers would ‘fall at Lata’s feet’ and ‘beg her’ to sing in their movies. Then putting his money where his mouth was, Haider gave Lata her first major break with the song ‘Dil Mera Toda,‘ from the movie Majboor (1948).
Born in Hyderabad (Sind), now in Pakistan in 1908, Ghulam Haider started his career as a dentist but his heart was not in the profession. It was music which was intently his first love and to music he soon turned under the guidance of one Babu Ganeshlal. Like other Punjabi music directors of his times, Ghulam Haider attained a high degree of proficiency as a harmonium player and in the course of time, left dentistry to take up employment with the roving theatrical companies of those days like Alfred Theatrical Company and Alexander Theatrical Company as a piano player in Calcutta,
He made his début in music direction by composing music for A R Kardar’s ‘Swarg ki Seerhi’ (1935) in Lahore but the film did not prove a ladder to fame. Next film was Pancholi’s Punjabi hit ‘Gul Bakavali’ (1939). This was the film which contained Noor Jehan’s evergreen songs ‘Pinjre de wich qaid jawani’ and Shala Jawanian Mane which at once won the hearts of Punjabi film fans.
By 1940 when the Second World War was in full swing, our film music had become stagnant and somewhat stereotyped. The great music directors who, with the advent of talkies drifted into films from the world of classical music had ear catching tunes steeped in classical traditions, but after nearly a decade, film music needed to be pushed into a new direction.
It was given to Ghulam Haider to fulfill this vacuüm. He gave music-lovers some tunes and brought about a renaissance in Indian film music by cleverly blending it with Punjabi folk songs, without sacrificing the classical base. Audiences loved his tune and Ghulam Haider sky-rocketed to fame. Among his popular songs were: ‘Tu kaun badli mein mere chand’ and ‘Ur Ja Ur Ja Panchhi’ (Khandaan, 1942), ‘Bas bas ve dholna’ and ‘Bas Bas ve Dholna’ (Chaudhary, 1941), Mohe apne hi rang mein (Zamindar) and Ab jaag uthe hain hum (Poonji).
His orchestra consisted of hand-picked musicians from the old Princely courts and Rubabis’ (who sang bhajans and shabads in temples and gurudwaras) such as Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, a sitarist from the Patiala ‘gharana’ and Soni Khan, the clarinettist. Ghulam Haider’s pieces each had their own rhythms. His ‘tabla’ master had to create his own ‘bols’ to suit the action in the song sequence. For instance, in one scene, the rhythm had to harmonize with the bullock carts wheels falling into ruts and coming up again with a screech.
Ghulam Haider had an open mind and welcomed suggestions for improvement from his musicians. These would be discussed and those found suitable finally incorporated in the tunes. He had established an excellent rapport with his men.
By 1944, his stock had risen high. He was asked by the Mehboob Khan to compose music for his film ‘Humayun’. The film proved a box-office bonanza with such haunting tunes as ‘Naina bhar aye nir’ and ‘O chand chamka’.
Other films in Bombay for which he was music director were ‘Chal Chal re Naujawan’ (1944), ‘Majboor’ (1948) and ‘Shaheed’ (1948). The latter named which portrayed the life of an underground revolutionary, became the most popular.
In the long history of our film music, patriotic songs have been tuned by some of the most famous and talented of our music directors but perhaps there is none to beat ‘Watan ki rah mein’ in appeal.
A distinctive feature of the song was that it was sung in both fast and slow tempo: the former for rousing the public against the foreign rule and the later while the martyr’s dead body was being carried to the cremation ground. Shaheed made Dilip Kumar a star. It was also in this film that Ghulam Haider introduced playback singer Surinder Kaur to Hindi films with such songs as ‘Badnam na ho jaye’.
While in Bombay, Ghulam Haider also gave music for K. Abdulla’s ‘Phool’ (1945), Standard Pictures‘ ‘Bairam Khan’ (1946), Din Pictures ‘Jag Biti’ (1947), Fazli’s ‘Mehndi’ (1947), Wali Saheb’s ‘Padmini’ (1948) and Minerva’s ‘Shama’ (1946). Music was an outstanding feature Shama with such memorable songs as ‘Ek tera sahara’
Like some other music directors of the days such as Firoz Nizami and Khurshid Anwar who had their roots in Lahore, Master Ghulam Haider migrated to Pakistan after partition. His glorious career in India thus came to a close, a career which had its own lustre. He was a music director of rare calibre, range and depth.
After independence, he returned to Lahore and his first Pakistani film was Shahida (1949). He composed music for many other films like Beqarar (1950), Akeli (1951) and Bheegi Palken (1952) but the films flopped. He died just a few days after the release of Gulnar (1953).
In common with other music directors of his genre, Khemchand Prakash, Pt. Amar Nath and Master Krishna Rao – his name has almost elapsed from public memory except for the occasional playing of his master pieces by Vividh Bharti. Ghulam Haider’s rich treasure in song is still with us but forgotten even though his contribution to the development of Indian film music has been substantial and memorable.