rodigies usually fade out early. Only a few live
up to their initial promise. Very few have ever
made it to the top. This child was unique. At
five she could reproduce the style of most leading
singers of the subcontinent. Two years later,
she rendered her first playback song for a Calcutta-based
With that commenced a career which has spanned
six decades of unparalleled, unchallenged reign.
In time Baby Noor Jehan became Madam Noor Jehan,
then Melody Queen. Artists across the sub continent
have been inspired and overawed by her. Indian
singer, Lata Mangeshkar, a legend in her recording
time, refers to her with veneration. Who else
could be Pakistan's personality of the millennium
but Noor Jehan?
The exact point in time when the title of Melody
Queen was bestowed on her cannot be fixed. She
was coronated by popular acclaim by admirers,
connoisseurs, experts and critics of music and
has ever since ruled the realm of music here with
the consent of the masses and classes who have
any interest in music.
she got her start from Calcutta, it was in Lahore,
close to hometown Qasur where the limelight flooded
her. Master Ghulam Haider, a master in the truest
sense of the expression put the raw gold in the
child's voice in Gul Bakaoli (1939) with "Shala
jawanian mane" on the road to lasting fame. In
another movie, the same composer's "Bas bas wey
dholna" accorded her instant mass popularity.
From then on there was no looking back for the
precocious child who was just ten at the time.
But maturity and professional recognition came
with her first film as leading lady, at the age
of 14 in Khandan (1942) with "Tu konsi badli mein
mere chand hai aaja". Once again the composer
was Master Ghulam Haider.
Khandan was directed by Syed Shaukat Hussain Rizvi,
a handsome young film editor from Calcutta who
had been inducted as director by necessity. The
movie led to a tumultuous real-life affair, elopement,
marriage, to a saga of romance at times bordering
on madness, plunging often into sadness, then
despair, finally snapped ties and a scandal-filled
relationship marked by the deepest and the most
expressive of ambivalence-mostly hate. The two
spent years running each other down only to underline
that they could not get over their first love.
However, much before Rizvi's death the news of
his demise was not conveyed to her as she lay
ailing in the US for fear that it would disturb
her. They had accepted each other's presence and
made peace with each other.
a period when singer-actresses ruled the silver
screen, Noor Jehan was amply endowed with them.
Vivacious, young, only 14, wide-eyed Saadat Hasan
Manto described her facial features as exuding
excitement, seductiveness and vitality. She was
a young beauty whose looks scored with both film-makers
and cine-goers and was cast as leading lady even
though her short stature caused a few production
problems. Teamed with Pran bricks were used in
many scenes to raise her to the required physical
height. As an artist, whether as singer or actress,
she never needed help. Almost from day one, she
had a position all her own.
to Rizvi took her to Broadway, to new and vaster
horizons. Director Mehboob cast her in Anmol Ghari
(1946) in which she had a chance to work with
one of the greatest composers of India, Naushad.
Rizvi paired her with a young and promising but
little known actor, Dilip Kumar in Jugnoo (1947).
Both films were big hits at the box office. The
teenaged singer-actress had taken Bollywood by
storm; she was heralded as a star of dazzling
was poised for sweeping the Indian cinema, both
as actress and singer at that time. But in Pakistan,
too, her career continued flourishing though the
industry was in its infancy, much smaller in size
and resources in comparison with Bombay and operated
in a restricted circuit. Professional standards
were not of a quality to do justice with her immense
potential. Despite such handicaps, she went from
proverbial success to success, from glory to glory.
A somewhat questionable achievement was becoming
that first woman director of films in Pakistan.
That was with Chan We (1951), produced by Rizvi.
But marriage hit the rocks and floundered after
ten years and three children. Another marriage
with actor Ejaz ended in a similar way after three
were ups and downs in her personal life. But her
career prospered. The magnificence of her voice
groomed in her early years by Kajjan Bai, a famous
Indian singer of the 20s and 30s, and enriched
by riyaz lasting up to twelve hours or more every
day, gave her heights while as an actress she
gathered lustre with every film. She gave significant
performances in Dopatta (1952), Gulnar (1953),
Intezar (1956), Lakht-e-Jiggar (1956), Annar Kalli
(1958), Koel (1959) and Neend (1959), to name
a few of her movies of 50´s. She had indeed become
eligible for playing lead only as an actress.
It is, however, unlikely that her acting could
ever match the excellence of her singing. In any
case, marriage with Ejaz put a stop to her career
as an actress. He did not want her on the screen
and she acquiesced like a conventional housewife.
She herself wasn't much interested in acting.
decision provided a boost for her singing. With
acting out of the way, she could concentrate on
singing with singlemindedness. As playback singer
she touched new heights with Mousiqar (1962),
Sawal (1966), Lakhon mein aik (1967), Mirza Jatt
(1967), Dosti (1971), Naag Munni (1972), Heer
Ranjha (1970), Sher Khan, Sala Sahib & Chan Waryam
(1981), Sholey (1984), Moula Bakhsh (1988) and
innumerable other movies.
after the break with Ejaz, she plunged headlong
into playback singing, often recording five to
six songs in a day. How many songs she recorded
in her career is anybody's guess. Estimates place
the number above ten thousand. It is a sad commentary
on the state of management of arts in Pakistan
that an undetermined percentage of her work may
have perished. There is no inventory even of songs
she recorded; a library of Noor Jehan's songs
is a far cry. It is time the Ministry of Culture,
along with serious-minded people from the film
industry (there still are a few professionally-oriented
men in cinema) got down to putting things in order
and at least preserving what has survived the
ravages of neglect.
While she has been acclaimed as the supreme soprano,
a truly gifted artist and adulated, her class
and contribution have never been critically evaluated.
What exactly is the place of Madam Noor Jehan
in the music of, first, the subcontinent, and
then Pakistan? "Unrivalled, incomparable," says
Nisar Bazmi, virtually the last of authentic composers
of Pakistan's cinema.
of the master composers whose work she brilliantly
rendered are no more alive or across the border.
Master Ghulam Haider, Feroz Nizami, Rashid Attre,
Khurshid Anwar, G. A. Chishti, Master Anayet Hussain,
Master Abdullah, A. Hameed, Nashad, Kamal Ahmad,
etc. are all part of our cultural history, albeit
a neglected one. Naushad, one of the first composers
for whom she sang in Bombay is in India. Only
Nisar Bazmi is around. For him, she is a "gift"
from nature, an artist with no peer. He says:
"The throw of words by her remains unmatched.
She was the first singer to bring expression to
film music. She could render love songs, compositions
depicting joy, sadness, tragedy with facility
of movement." Saying this, he uttered a prayer
for her recovery.
recording engineer Sayed Afzal Hussain who teamed
with Khurshid Anwar for many films, emphasizes
expression from another angle. Her rendering always
matched the expression of the artist and her voice
had "intangibility, resonance, depth and strength,"
he says. Afzal Hussain recalls many songs to exemplify
this point. One of them is a lori she sang in
Lakht-e-Jigar (1956; producer: Agha G.A. Gul;
director; Luqman; music; Chishti, cast: Noor Jehan,
Santosh, Yasmin, Habib). According to him, there
has been "no lori like this in the music of the
Ahmed Rahi, who penned the poetry for many a song
by the Melody Queen, among them the immortal lyrics
of Heer Ranjha (1970) and Mirza Jatt (1967), marvels
at her comprehension of words. He found in her
a "capacity to decipher good verse from versified
lines." He recalls and incident from Jadoo (1974)
music: Anayat Hussain: Noor Jehan was then only
playback singer). "A verse was considered too
heavy by the producer and he wanted it replaced.
Sure of his ground, Rahi disagreed, arguing that
the people for whom he wrote would know why he
had written it. When Noor Jehan came to the verse
while recording the song, she looked in my direction
and waved to acknowledge the quality," he says.
Qateel Shifai also has a word of praise for her
rendering of poetry. "She sang with understanding;
her delivery was remarkably fluent," he says.
While she remained confined to light music and
popular singing, she always believed in classical
music. "Pop" she said: "is like a foundation of
sand; a cooking pan of wood. The same songs reappear
after some time. Classical is eternal". A strong
classical base is reflected in her singing. She
effortlessly moved in difficult, demanding trajectories.
High and low notes came to her with naturalness
to underline and elaborate the range of her talent.
The fibre of her voice retained resolution in
all scales. Her articulation of turns, enunciation
of emphasis, pauses and stresses belong to the
most creative dimension of virtuosity.
Noor Jehan has been a controversial figure in
many ways, often marked by contradictions that
made her a target for slings and arrows of critics.
But great artists are not to be measured by a
yardstick. She has also been criticized for a
certain harshness in behaviour at times and of
greed, too. But she couldn't have survived in
the cutthroat world of showbiz without toughness
- she could be emotionally blackmailed though.
Weakness is exploited more ruthlessly in showbiz
than any other area of life. And the reputation
for being a hard bargainer is more than offset
by her contribution to the 1965 war. It demonstrated
that if her heart was set on something, she could
sing a song for a song. She endeared herself to
the people of Pakistan with her unrelenting, emotionally
charged support for the war effort, motivating
troops and the rest of the populace. She had legend
status in her field even before that. Her war
songs, rendered with inspiring conviction, stirred
the people like nothing else and made her a very
government acknowledged her work by awarding the
"Pride of Performance Award" to her, making Noor
Jehan the first woman to be so honoured. She used
to be at the Lahore Radio Station every day, rehearsing
for hours and recording a song only when she was
fully satisfied. This was the patriotic involvement
and commitment of a songstress who normally had
one look at the score and delivered every note,
every syllable in perfect order virtually off
the cuff. Financial considerations never featured
in that campaign.
Age and illness took hold of her some years ago
and she withdrew from public life; her place in
the hearts of the people remained intact. When
the news that she was seriously ill broke, newspaper
offices were inundated with calls from her admirers;
it became clear once again that she was widely
adulated. PTV's former General Manager Marketing,
Khalid Ghias, a film buff and a devoted Noor Jehan
fan says: "She is an honest lady, a grand one.
For us, she is immortal, eternal". That just about
sums up the kind of sentiments and regard many
people have for her art and her person.
(This Article appeared in Daily "DAWN"