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By Ally Adnan
Malika E Taranum Noor Jehan was not in a good mood when I met her for the first time in my life. She was standing behind the glass wall of the recording room at Shahnoor Studios in Lahore and was very upset. Everyone could hear a litany of obscenities in Punjabi coming out of her mouth on the Speakers. I had been waiting for as long as I could remember to see Madam Ji - as she was called by those in the industry and those close to her - in person and had been unable to sleep with excitement the night before. These were not the words I was expecting to hear in her voice. Once she had the obscenities out of her system, she took a brief pause, and said something decidedly naughty but rather charming and started laughing.
Madam was recording a song for Nazir Ali that day. Flautist, Khadim Hussain, was the target of her ire. She was unhappy with the interlude he was playing and with his interpretation of raag Darbari. And standing behind the glass wall she made sure that he - and everyone else present - knew. Her words, albeit crass, were delivered with style and a tinge of humor. Her laugh at the end of the tirade was silvery and naughty, showing pleasure, embarrassment and incredulity simultaneously at having said something off color in public. In meetings that followed, I sometimes saw her utter profanities that would make bouncers at the kothas in Heera Mandi blush, some that I do not understand to this day; but she was never vulgar. Only Madam Ji could do this - deliver every word she uttered with style and class. Everything she did was
done with class. No one had more class in the industry at the time; and no one has had it since.
Khadim Hussain was no ordinary flute player. The tone of his bansuri and his breath control were remarkable. When Khawaja Khurshid Anwar had trouble with several flautists while recording Heer Ranjha (0791 )'s famous song, Sun Wanjhali Di Mithri Taan, he had sought the celebrated flautist out. Khadim got the song right in three takes. Yet, Madam Ji was not satisfied that day. The song was loosely based on raag Darbari. She wanted the komal dhaivat to be softer and kept recording over and over again until Khadim Hussain got Darbari's ati komal dhaivat just right. Madam Ji not only had perfect pitch, she also understood shrutis, and knew that the dhaivat used in Darbari is lower than the komal dhaivat. I was in awe of her knowledge, her singing and her towering personality. I had never seen anyone like her in my life. I knew then that I had been a fan of the right person all my life.
A few years ago, some musicians were discussing Noor Jehan and Lata Mangeshkar at the Sangeet Natak Akademi in Delhi. A lot was being said about Lata's accuracy and mastery over music notes. I was the only Pakistani in the group and could not resist sharing my opinion. "Lata has complete control over the twelve notes," I remember having said. "When she starts singing, the twelve notes stand before her with their hands folded, in respect, waiting obediently for her to command their movements. Little wonder then that she sings with such ease."
Noor Jehan, on the other hand, does not desire to have control over music notes. When Madam Ji starts singing, the twelve notes come alive and start dancing with pleasure. She creates music that makes the notes mast - I am sorry I do not know how to translate this word into English - and notes that are high on music cannot and should not be controlled. Madam Ji lets these djinns dance in their euphoria and tames them into making music for God. Singing is, therefore, not effortless for her. It is, in fact, an emotionally, spiritually and physically draining exercise for her. "
Geetanjali Lal, renowned kathak guru and, today, the chief of the repertory company of the Kathak Kendra in Delhi, was one of the people present. She smiled when I had said my piece. " You are so right. All of us know the truth about Lata and Noor Jehan," she said. "Not everyone has the courage to say it like you did."
Singing did not come easily to Madam Ji. She put her heart, soul, mind and spirit into recording songs. Sometimes she would allow me and others to join her in the recording room. We used to sit behind her and could always see her bare back on ample display due to the very low cut blouses she liked. She would start fresh but very soon small beads of sweat would start appearing on her back. These would soon turn larger in size and, at the end of most songs, Madam Ji was drowned in sweat, drained and restless with exhaustion. She had given the song all she could!