From Allah Wasai, to Baby Noor Jehan, to Madam Noor Jehan, and eventually earning the title of Malika-e-Tarannum (Queen of Melody) in a country which is literally spoilt for riches in the female singing department, is the musical road Noor Jahan traversed. A temperamental character who rushed through life at breakneck speed, she led a glamorous life complete with torrid liaisons with co-stars, marriages to film personalities and relationships with Pakistani Presidents. The journey began much before Partition. Had she not crossed over in 1947, she would have continued to sing in India. How that would have panned out in terms of the musical landscape that developed in the Hindi film industry since Independence is anybody's guess. But the fact is that she did migrate and continued to weave her magic in Pakistan.
She was born in Kasur, Punjab on September 21, 1926. When she was barely five years old, her mother noticed her interest and potential for singing. Noor Jehan was sent for classical training to the best Ustad there was — Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. After her training was over she began singing in Lahore — usually in the live song-and-dance performances prior to film screenings. She then moved to Calcutta along with her family to join the film industry. It was at this stage that she came to be known as “Baby” Noor Jehan. She acted in several Punjabi films, all made in Calcutta. At this stage, however, she was too young to be taken seriously by the Calcutta film industry and was overshadowed by greats like Mukhtar Begum and Kajjanbai.
She then moved back to Lahore in 1938. The renowned music director Ghulam Haider composed some songs for her which became popular. Her first film role as an adult was opposite Pran in Khandaan (1942). Its success led to her shifting base to Bombay with her future husband, director Shaukat Hussain Rizvi (whom she would marry in 1943). From 1945 to 1947, she became one of the biggest film actresses with films like Badi Maa (1945), Zeenat (1945), Gaon Ki Gori (1945), Anmol Ghadi (1946) and Jugnu (1947). Her sensuous face backed by stunning singing made her a rage.
She put her classical training to full effect, infusing her singing with emotional modulations and lyrical expressions. Her competitors — Suraiya and Kanan Bala — stood no chance.
Anmol Ghadi was directed by Mehboob Khan starring Surendra, Suraiya and Noor Jehan (both rivals). The film was tailor-made for singing stars, and Noor Jehan exploited this fully. The film was a musical hit and still remembered for its music by Naushad, with hits like Aawaaz De Kahaan Hai, Jawaan Hai Mohabbat Haseen Hai Zamana and Mere Bachpan Ke Saathi Mujhe Bhool Na Jaana. The film became the highest-grossing film at the Indian box office in 1946.
Aawaaz De Kahaan Hai is inextricably linked to Noor Jehan's brief tenure in India and defines her musically in the Indian consciousness. When she visited Bombay in 1982, she sang this song. She was royalty when she left; she was royalty when she came back 35 years later. The introduction she received from Dilip Kumar, the adulation she received from her fans, stood testimony to it.
After Partition, Noor Jehan moved to Pakistan. Her first film there was Chan Wey (1951) which was directed by her and her husband. Then one film came after another.
One film deserves mention — Koel (1959) — for its outstanding songs. The film is regarded as one of the all-time great films to come out of Pakistan and was a huge success at the box office. Koel was also Noor Jehan's last big, successful film as an actress and her last but one film as a leading lady. One standout song was Dil Ka Diya Jalaya. The timbre and control with which Noor Jehan essayed the song was simply amazing. There were other great solos too by her in the film.
But the song that encapsulates Noor Jehan as a singer, and especially later in her career, as a performer, is Mehki Fizayen.
Her smouldering looks, her quivering lips, her bewitching eyes, her come-hither invitation was mind-blowing. Her coquettishness, her adaa, was in full display in the song.
She would use these elements later in life as a performer on stage and in television studios. She would be flirtatious, playful. She was masterful in exhibiting charisma and had a riveting presence. This persona was backed by an extraordinarily full-throated but soft velvety voice which hit the high notes with felicity without losing the sur or power. It was as clear and innocent as a mountain brook. Lata Mangeshkar reportedly commented that Noor Jehan's vocal range allowed her to sing as low and as high as she wanted, the quality of her voice always remaining the same.
She divorced Rizvi and married Ejaz Durrani — a film actor, in 1959 (it would end in divorce in 1970). He pressured her to give up acting. Her last film as an actress/singer was Mirza Ghalib (1961). Thereafter, it was only to be playback singing. Three decades of acting finally came to an end.
And what a start she got. Legendary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz's nazm Mujhe Se Pehli Si Mohabbat Mere Mehboob Na Maang appeared as a song in the film Qaidi (1962).
Noor Jehan composed and sang the song in the film. Reportedly, she composed it spontaneously in a gathering that was celebrating Faiz's release from prison (where he was sent for his Communist views). Everyone including Faiz liked it so much that Faiz remarked, “Aaj se yeh nazm meri nahin rahi, Noor Jehan ki ho gayi hai.” Seven years later, this nazm would inspire Majrooh Sultanpuri's Teri Aankhon Ke Siwa in the film Chirag (1969).
Noor Jehan had a long and illustrious playback career fetching her several awards along the way. No title can compete with the honorific Malika-e-Tarannum that she received from the Government. I saw a very moving tribute paid by the Shahenshah-e-Ghazal Mehdi Hassan to Noor Jehan, about how he came from a classical tradition and could succeed in the playback film industry due to the breathing techniques and throw of words and other advice given to him by her, much to her embarrassment.
The one song that she will always be identified with her is the evergreen, much copied and extremely popular Sanu Nehar Wale Pul Te Bulla Ke from Dukh Sajana De (1973).
But I will not play the original song. And, here is why: Noor Jehan, like some other singers from her country, became better with age. Like aged wine and malt, the years added depth, richness, and more emoting prowess to her voice. The voice became rounded, mature, and rooted in theraav or calmness. It was redolent of experience, of decades of queenship. But the bedrock was always an abiding innocence-infused voice. She may have become voluptuous, but she could still be childlike.
The singing became more assured. She re-recorded all her old hits with a modern feel and instruments and the result was astounding. An old song, a great one when it was first released, became even more brilliant in the re-recording. She sang all such re-worked songs on Pakistan TV and the entire catalogue captures the greatness of not only the singer but the performer as well. Her shimmering sarees, her dazzling personality, her gestures, her accessing her molten sexuality and shooting it at the audience through her eyes and lips, her pout, her fluttering eyelashes, her lustrous eyes are a treat to watch. She may have become a dowager, but her magnetism had got bigger.
Here is the refurbished song Sanu Nehar Wale Pul Te Bulla Ke from her BBC sessions.
Here is a song from her PTV sessions with a remarkable usage of keyboards suitably altered to Hindustani music sensibilities. This is poignancy with a modern touch.
Noor Jehan was the first female star of Indian cinema and laid the foundation of playback singing. She inspired a generation of singers including Lata Mangeshkar, before singlehandedly kick-starting music in Pakistan and inspiring subsequent generations there.
She died 20 years ago, on December 23, 2000. Her larger-than-life persona remains intact. Between our two countries, she is a shared heritage who shall always be loved and revered. And even though she may not hear our “awaaz”, her duniya of a formidable legacy will always remain “jawaan”.