Noor Jehan
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Noor Jehan’s immortal melodies

She sang her swan-song for Sakhi Badshah, a Punjabi movie released in 1997 and then Noor Jehan, the Melody Queen, gave her last bow on the stage of South Asian music on December 23, 2000.

The story of Noor Jehan’s incredible success that started during the British Raj in Calcutta, crossed the entire breadth of the subcontinent to cosmopolitan Bombay, making Lahore its last abode. Presidents and prime ministers, generals and politicians came and left; parliaments assembled and dissolved; writers and poets held their pens, composers, musicians and singers made their mark and left; from Sabiha and Shamim Ara to Rani and Anjuman, heroines came in young and fresh, left old and withered — but Madam Noor Jehan fought to stay, crossing the hurdles that came her way.

Friends were honoured by her creative association, foes devastated with the lift of an eyebrow. The onslaught of age was dealt with effectively, and with glamorous smiles and glittering saris. An ailing heart was forced into compliance with surgery, but still the enchanting melodies kept flowing.

Noor Jehan stayed away from the limelight for three years — a period which seemed like ages to her fans, and during which she received treatment at various hospitals. Fans and family, friends and foes, prayed for a magical cure. Her ex-husband, sons, daughters and grandchildren waited in attendance. Admirers carried fragrant bouquets, well-wishers sent get-well-soon wishes. Dilip Kumar visited from Mumbai, General Musharraf from Islamabad. But none could stop her ailing heart from its downslide. It had taken much and could take no more.

Restless days and sleepless nights, gruelling sessions of sur and taal, fiery ambitions and cutting rivalries, fans expecting utter perfection, children demanding undivided attention, betrayals, treacheries, accusing headlines — she had paid the price and now it was time to go.

She had sung for the village crooner in Mauseqar (1962):

Kitnee raatein jaag guzareen

Kitnee khushian in per wareen

Geeton mein tab yeh bol dhaley

Gaaye gi duniya geet mere

(How many nights have I passed unslept

How many joys, have I sacrificed

Only then, have these words moulded into songs

The world will sing my songs)

The journey that Noor Jehan started 74 years back in a small house in Kot Murad Khan in Kasur ended in a cemetary of a posh Karachi neighbourhood and at hearing distance from the seashore. The same shores where she had sung that famous song for Koel, her last movie as an actress (1959):

Sagar roaey, lehrein shor machaein

Yaad piya ki aaye, nayna bhar aayein

(The ocean cries, the waves wail

As I remember my lost love, my eyes well with tears)

Standing there, one can still hear the ocean crying and the waves wailing, for in Noor Jehan’s death millions lost a voice, a presence that they loved with all their hearts.

Had it been another country, we would have had by now scores of books on the life and work of a legendary singer like Noor Jehan. But four years after her demise, we can claim to have only one authentic account of her rise to stardom and that is: Malika-i-Tarrannum Noor Jehan Fun Ke Ainaey Mein by veteran film journalist, Yaseen Goreja. And the only book in English that we can acquire is a collection of newspaper articles compiled and edited by S.M. Shahid under the title: Melody Queen — Tributes to Pakistan’s Super star Noor Jehan. Few as they are, these books provide an interesting insight into the life of the singer-turned-legend.

In Melody Queen — Tributes to Pakistan’s Super star, the reader comes across some interesting quotes. In his article Noor Jehan and her Art, the writer refers to Quratulain Haider’s comment on Noor Jehan’s known evasion of any reference to her age. “Noor Jehan umr ke lihaaz se kabhi solaah saal se nahin barhteen. Lekin woh itni bari aur itni bemisaal gaikaa hain, keh unhein iss muaamle mein, saat khoon bhi muaaf hain.”

Saeed Malik in A Voice of the Century quotes Pakistan’s music wizard Khurshid Anwar thus: “Without her voice, I would not have been able to accomplish a tenth of what I have. She has been the only real voice in Pakistan.”

And in case you are seeking an answer to the million-dollar question as to which amongst her thousands of songs was Noor Jehan’s personal favourite, we will have to go back to what she once said: “They are like my children. How can I differentiate between them?” But on the writer’s insistence, she thought long and hard before replying: Badnam Mohabbat Kaun Karey from the pre-partition film, Dost, composed by Sajjad Hussain.”

That she herself was a perfectionist is mentioned by renowned composer Arshad Mehmood, quoted later in the same book in the section on personal tributes. “She was very committed to her work. I was present for the recording of her famous ghazal Jab Se Yeh Jaan-i-Hazeen, composed by Nazar Hussain. She did at least seven to 10 retakes but was not satisfied with the result, even though everyone told her that she had rendered it perfectly. It was only when she had completed the 11th retake, that she was satisfied and finished the recording.”

Another writer, well-known journalist Khalid Hasan, goes on to add: “Noor Jehan was a woman of great intelligence and wit. During the 1965 war, when Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabbassum wrote a special song for her, one among many celebrating her sohna shehr, Kasur, he proposed that they both travel to the town from which she hailed. What Noor Jehan said to Sufi saheb remains a classic. The flavour of her words, can only be conveyed in the Punjabi that she used, ‘Sufiji, othhay hawai hamla ho gia te doojay din mein te tussi dowain, malbe thale dabbey labbey, te mein te kisay noon moonh wikhaan jogi nain rawan gi’ (If an air-raid occurs and the next day, you and I are found buried together under the rubble, then I will not be able to show my face to anyone ever after).”

In the end, it is Zia Gurchani who captures the moment of her death in A Fan Recalls: “So much has been written and said about her, yet her life is impossible to summarize. How can you? When at age six, she stood up on her two little feet to sing and didn’t stop for 70 years, a lot must come between the beginning and the end. Suffice it to say, Allah chose to bless her in more than one way. And brought her life to an end when He deemed fit. Buried on the eve of the 27th of Ramadan, she abandoned the world of cinema and song, in the here and now. Away from Lahore and its studios, away from showbiz and music. In death she dissociated herself from those she kept her company all her life, and left in the company of taraveeh prayers. When news of her death spread, people could not resist and turned on their TVs, in the middle of the holy night’s prayers. For one last look of that smiling, dimpled face — that magic, that charisma, that legend, they called Malika-i-Tarrannum Noor Jehan.”