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Noor Jehan belonged to a family of musicians but her classical training came primarily from musicians outside of her family. She studied formally with Ustad Ghulam Muhammad Khan, for several decades, and with Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, briefly, before he migrated to India. She developed a deep understanding of music by listening intelligently to the songs of all good singers of her time. Madam Ji maintained a close association with Malika E Mausiqui Roshanara Begum and hosted her whenever she visited Lahore from Lala Musa. Roshanara Begum used to refer to Madam Ji as siyaahi chut because of her unique ability to acquire musical knowledge from everyone that she listened to. She played gracious host to Rasoolan Bai when she visited Lahore for the All Pakistan Music Conference. Madam Ji made great efforts to attend mehfils of Ustad Salamat Ali Khan, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Mukhtar Begum. The close association with the stalwarts of classical music built a solid foundation for Noor Jehan. She had the intelligence to employ her knowledge of classical skillfully into her singing of ghazal and geet. Contrary to popular belief, Madam Ji spent several days preparing for recording songs based on raags. She would immerse herself in a raag that was the basis of the song she was to record for a few days before the recording. She would diligently practice the raag with Ustad Ghulam Muhammad and sometimes sing the raag and the song with other members of her Ustad's family and her own, to get ready for her recording.
Aiman was Noor Jehan's favorite raag. Her sharp Gandhar and Nikhad were ideally suited for the raag. She sang a chota khayal, Raseelay More Rasia Najariya Mila, for Rasheed Attre in Mausiqar (1962). The song begins like a Lakshan Geet starting with the aarohi and avrohi followed by a short pakar. Noor Jehan shows her knowledge of both Hindustani and Carnatic sangeet in this song. The use of the pa DHA NI SA phrase, instead of MA DHA NI SA, several times in aarohi is clearly a Carnatic practice whereas the taans employed in the song are decidedly Hindustani. During the second half of the song, while singing sargam and taking taans, she moves to the taar saptak with the grace of a leopard and, once there, roars like a lioness. The taans are crisp and clean, breath control perfect, and the notes pitch perfect. The song is a lesson in singing Aiman for students of music.
Noor Jehan sang hundreds of songs in Aiman, yet she brought great individuality to each song, exploring the raag in different ways to suit the mood and the text of the song. The Punjabi song by Wazir Afzal in Aiman, Weh Ja Aj To Mein Teri from Yaar Mastaane (1972), is playful and full of hope, energy and happiness. Gul Bakauli's Aao Ri Piya Sung Khailain Hori, composed again in Aiman, is serious and maintains a sobriety apropos for supplication. Hassan Latif Lilak's Ae Wattan Ke Sajeelay Jawanoo is regal. The ghazal, Jab Yeh Jan E Hazeen Waqf E Aalam Hui uses a complex and intricate structure in Aiman whereas Mujh Se Pehli Si Muhabbat from Qaidi (1962) employs Aiman in a simple and graceful
form. While in the same raag, each song is distinct in mood, spirit and structure. Noor Jehan's singing was not just about maintain fidelity to classical raags; it was about getting the emotions and mood of the song right.
A large number of songs sung by Madam Ji were not composed in classical raags. he understood that, while a lot can be said about raags, they are essentially tonal frameworks for singing. A raag is defined, to a large extent, completely by the aarohi, avarohi and pakar. Even when she sang a song not composed in a classical raag, she made sure that the aarohi, avarohi and pakar was correctly established for the song. This firm and assured establishment of tonal parameters essentially made each one of her songs a raag. Her recorded pieces were obviously short but when she sang her songs privately and in concerts, she would expand and improvise them like khayals.
Her famous ghazal, Diyar E Noor Main Teera Shaboon Ka Saathee Ho is not based on a classical raga. One sees glimpses of several raags in the song composed by Ustad Nazar Hussain. Noor Jehan uses both Nikhaads and both Gandhars making parts of the song unmistakingly Malgunji. The almost complete omission of Pancham and her emphasis on the Madham are a part of Rageshri. There is a glimpse of Bageshri and that of the Carnatic Natakurunji in the antaras. The fact is that the song is neither Malgunji nor Rageshri, and certainly not Bageshri and Natakurunji; it is a raag in itself with rules clearly defined by Nazar Saab and Madam Ji, rules that she follows with remarkable fidelity.
In addition to sur and raag, Noor Jehan had mastery over laya and taal. "Every singer understands laya and taal," she once told me. "But more is needed. You need to understand the chaal of the percussionist to sing well." In her Punjabi song from Duniya Pyar Di (1974), Bara Ji Karda Si Tun Milain, she changes the style of her singing with each new chaal of keharwa effortlessly to maintain the spirit of the Nazir Ali's composition. Master Abdullah's song, Mahi Ve Sanu Bhul Na Javin, from Malangi (1965) is a masterpiece; the use of different chaals of keharwa in the song, borders on genius. The antaras begin in simple keharwa in line with the sad mood of the first two misras of the antara.
As the mood of the antara changes to hopeful in the third misra, the tabla moves to a more celebratory keharwa. Noor Jehan handles both chaals masterfully clearly delineating the changing mood of the poetry. Her knowledge of percussion was not only limited to ghazal and geet. Farrukh Bashir recorded a few classical pieces for PTV's second Tarranum series. I remember her singing Puriya for that program draped in a purple silk sari surrounded by her musicians, attendants, daughters and grandchildren. She sang vilambit in the rarely used taal Ikwai and the drut in ektala. In the drut portion, Madam Ji said both a bedam and a damdar tihai with such precision that, when I played the video for my friend Ustad Tari Khan, he exclaimed, "Vah! Vah! Kya ustad aurat hai!" and had me replay the piece three times.
Ustad Nazar Hussain's ghazal, Nigah E Jaur Sahi Dekhiye To Kam Se Kam, is a particularly complex composition. I remember the rehearsal sessions with Madam Ji, Nazar Saab, tabla player Ghulam Sabir, and a few other musicians. When Nazar Saab sang the ghazal, one of the musicians present exclaimed that the composition was betaali. Ghulam Sabir, too, felt that the Nazar Saab had composed a song that was off beat in parts; But Noor Jehan got it, knowing fully well that Nazar Saab had made no mistakes in composing the ghazal. She understood his masterful use of rhythm and got it right the very first time. Indeed, it was a challenge to gather the long antara, take a short pause, and land on the sam for the mukhra, while maintaining correct tempo, but that is something Madam Ji did with great facility and confidence.
Noor Jehan sang comfortably in a range of three octaves. It is true that some musicians sing over larger ranges. However, the vocal range of a singer is only of value when the quality of voice, pitch and singing is maintained throughout the range; traversing a large vocal range at the expense of the quality of singing and voice has no merit. It is here that Noor Jehan is incomparable. She maintains the natural nasal quality of her voice and her tremendous singing skills in all of the registers that she sings in.
Lata Mangeshkar chose to comment on Noor Jehan’s vocal range when paying her a posthumous tribute by acknowledging that Noor Jehan could sing as low and as high as she wanted and that the quality of her voice always remained the same no matter which register she sang in. "Woh jahan tak chahti thein, gaati thein, " Lata said. "Aur aawaz oopar aur neechay aik jaisi rehti thi."
Madam Ji's throw of voice was exceptionally strong. Her voice filled the movie theater where her songs were played. This attribute made her range seem larger than three octaves and allowed her to record qalandari dhammals in an inimitable matter at remarkably high pitches. The famous dhamaal, Shahbaz Karay Parwaaz, from Maan Te Maama (1973) is sung at a high pitch and in the mandar, madh and taar saptaks. The quality of the song, however, is not only maintaining her voice and tone over the three registers. Her real talent is demonstrated by the alankaars she employs once she reaches the high notes of the taar saptak. The virtuosity of her murki, aakaar ki taan and phirrat demonstrated here is one for the ages. In Khan Chacha (1972)'s song, Jina Teri Marzi Nacha Beliya, she employs a short gammak at the end of each antara, an alankaar rarely used by female vocalists and almost never in ghazal and geet.