The One Behind the Film Score

An Interview with Veteran Music Director Saleem Haider

Scrolling through a list of popular patriotic songs, it is disappointing to see how few song-writers and composers are credited. Only the singer’s name is seen, everyone else is deemed unimportant. One of these unsung heroes is Saleem Haider, a music director who helped orchestrate the hit songs ‘Ae Watan Pyare Watan’ and ‘Ae Jazba e Dil Gar Main Chahoon’.

 Mr. Haider’s family has long been connected to the stage, with their career in drama starting with his great-grandfather, Miyan Sandhi, a friend of the great playwright Agha Hashir Kashmiri. Miyan Sandhi was a great classical singer, but he encouraged his two sons to become actors rather than musicians. Saleem Haider’s mother’s side of the family also has a long tradition of classical music, as seen in his uncle Ustad Nathu Khan, a sarangi maestro. Incidentally, he was also the grandfather of Hassan Ali, another of our interviewees (it’s a small world after all!). Interestingly, Saleem Haider’s father, breaking the mold, was an English professor at M.A.O College. He himself broke the family tradition when he decided to learn music from the music director Akhtar Hussain Akhiyan in 1960, despite his family’s disapproval. Surprisingly, he states that he actually disliked music at first, and was persuaded into learning it at the age of nineteen by his cousin, Mujahid Hussain, a famous music director, who talked him out of continuing his education.   

He tells us that he started off his classical music training with the harmonium, and then started to learn the principles of music direction from his ustad much later on. His basic training was mostly provided by his mother’s side of the family, with his uncle, Faiz Khan, playing an important part in his education. He started professionally playing music when he was around twenty-three, in 1964, and also worked at PTV at that time too.  He was also an apprentice under Akhtar Hussain Akhiyan at that time as well, continuing his training with him up till 1971.

At the risk of being political, Saleem Haider recounts how the previous government was much more helpful to musicians than the current one is and how he used to receive a stipend of Rs. 20,000 under them. Nowadays, the government pays him small amounts erratically, perhaps Rs. 5,000 after four months.

Talking about his students, he names a few, who were sitting near him during our interview. When pressed as to what he teaches them, he states plainly that it is impossible to directly teach someone an art such as music or poetry. One can only learn them from watching and practicing, day in and day out.

Relating an amusing anecdote about his training, he tells us how his own training under Akhtar Hussain Akhiyan began. Saleem Haider used to get up each morning, catch the five o’clock bus from Bhatti Chowk to get to Kasur, where his ustad lived, bring him to Lahore, and then drop him back each evening. He dutifully followed this routine for three years, a time period in which no formal music instruction took place. It was only then that Akhtar Hussain accepted him as his pupil and said that he had wanted to scare him away with the onerous routine but Haider’s persistence had convinced him otherwise.

At the end of his interview, he advises the younger generation of musicians to try to do things as they were done before, and above all, sing live. He believes that only through performing live on stage can a musician’s worth be actually recognized. After all, with digital technology ‘hum suray ko besura aur besuray ko sureela kar datay hain’ (we turn the in-tune to the out-of-tune and the out-of-tune to the in-tune).

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