By Khalid Hassan:
Madam Noor Jehan, the melody queen who reigns over our hearts in death as much as in life, died in Karachi on December 23, 2000. When about twelve years ago, she was diagnosed with a heart ailment, some of us who have been her fans for as long as we can remember said it would have to be the heart, considering how many claimants it had and how often it had fluttered for those on whom she chose to smile.
We always believed Noor Jehan, the light of the world, to be indestructible like the music she brought into our lives.
Madam Noor Jehan had total recall about her early life. She remembered being carried as a child of 8 by her father, Madad Ali, through the streets of Kasur. She said she could not remember when she had started singing. "Maybe I was born singing," she added, laughing her silvery laugh.
From Kasur, the family went to Calcutta, then to Bombay and back to Lahore, only to return to Bombay. It was during those early years that she met the debonair Shaukat Hussain Rizvi with whom she first lived, then married. Her first child was born, she reminisced, when she was no more than a "bacha" herself. She was 15.
For a woman who was women's lib before there was a women's lib, Noor Jehan was conservative. Her views on women were surprisingly old fashioned, or perhaps cynical, which was strange, coming from a woman who had lived life on her own terms. She once told me, "I am Noor Jehan because I have worked hard to become Noor Jehan. I do not owe it to anyone, least of all men. If a woman works, what does she get at the end of the day? The only peace she knows is within the four walls of her home. Who can work harder than I have? And what peace, I ask you, have I known? Once the husband realizes that his wife can earn more than him, he begins to hate her. He wants her to be dependent on him. Only if a woman is entirely dependent on her husband can she hope to make a home".
Shaukat Hussain Rizvi, whom she married after a turbulent love affair in Lahore and Bombay and divorced some years after they came to Pakistan, wrote a book about her. Rizvi, who died some years ago, and whom Saadat Hasan Manto once described as a man with the mind of a watchmaker, may have settled his emotional scores with his former wife but he did not come out smelling very nice from his bitter account of their life together. Madam never responded in kind, certainly not as far as I know. Privately, she could out-swear a roomful of diehard Punjab police thanedary..
Rizvi's account was unrelieved by humour or the intense love he had felt for her once. It was a little late in the day for him to regret having fallen in love with the fledgling enchantress from Kasur with a voice like molten silver. He made repeated mention of the advice given to him by studio owner and filmmaker Dilsukh Pancholi of Lahore, "Shaukat, let this affair with Noor Jehan remain what it is, an affair. Don't carry it further." But Rizvi was besotted with the pubescent, flirtatious girl whose musical talent was prodigious and whose ambition to succeed the size of the rolling Punjabi countryside she had sprung from.
Rizvi's book was made up of a string of allegations against the woman who was to bear him three children: Akbar, Asghar and Zil-e-Huma. He felt no compunction in berating Noor Jehan's name and reputation, whining that she had betrayed him time after time. Men, he wrote, were in and out of her life almost from the first day of their marriage. He tried to portray himself as the long-suffering husband who had borne the infidelities of his wife with stoic heroism. What he did not say was that he was no angel himself and there were more women in his life than he held the courage to admit. He said he had continued the marriage "for the sake of the children," an argument that lacks credibility. If the marriage was as bad as he said it was, and Noor Jehan such an awful mother, then it would have been better for the children if it had ended. Those who knew Madam will stand witness to the great love she always bore her children. Akbar, in particular, she always doted on. He was her weakness and could make her do anything. In Rizvi's small minded and partisan account of their life together, not once did he acknowledge Noor Jehan's musical genius.
Madam was an extraordinary woman whose virtues and failings by the very nature of her greatness remained extraordinary. Women like Noor Jehan cannot be judged by standards applicable to lesser human beings. She may have been avaricious, insecure and possessive but she was always capable of great generosity. All her life, she took care of her family, never forgetting her less than fortunate beginnings. Noor Jehan led her life with great self-confidence and much grace. What is more, in a man's world, she did so on her own terms. I once asked her why she was sometimes accused of being insensitive to her admirers. "I am invited to someone's home, say for dinner, and after everyone has eaten, I am asked if I would sing a song. And I say I won't because I have come to dine not to sing. If I said yes, it would be unprofessional. I have tried to maintain the grace and dignity of my profession".
Madam's liaisons were part of her legend. Did someone ever directly ask her about them? One person whom I can name who did indeed ask her was Raja Tajammul Hussain. "All half truths," she had told him. "Then let's have some half truths," he ventured, "the serious half truths, that is." She was in one of her throwaway moods and she said, "All right then," and began to pull out names from her photographic memory. After a few minutes, she asked Tajammul, "And how many do you have?" "Sixteen so far," Tajammul replied with a straight face. Her response in Punjabi remains a Noor Jehan classic. "Hai Allah! Na na kardian wi solan ho gain nain!”
Madam was a lady, who was better not crossed, especially by other ladies. People tended to forget that there was only one Madam Noor Jehan and the rest was detail. Madam had a famous run-in with Musarrat Nazir in 1988. Madam was not exactly thrilled that Ms Nazir should have scored one of the biggest popular hits in living memory with the song "Mera laung gawacha”. Madam got so tired of everyone raving about "Mera laung gawacha” that she recorded her version of the song which sank without trace, much to her chagrin. When I asked her why she had done that, she told me, "Everyone came to me and said if I did not sing the song there would be bloodshed in Bari studio." I have now forgotten why there was going to be bloodshed in Bari studio, Lahore, though Madam did at the time explain to my full satisfaction why. I remember asking her if she was envious of the success of Ms Nazir. "Envious of a singer, but Musarrat...?" she had left the sentence hanging in the air.
When some time later, I asked Musarrat in Toronto what had happened, she swore to me that when she was in Lahore, messages had been conveyed to her on Madam's behalf that if she did not return to wherever she had come from on the very same pair of feet that had brought her to Lahore, the consequences would not be pleasant. Even black magic (which Shaukat Husain Rizvi said Madam was adept at) was mentioned.
I first met Madam Noor Jehan in 1967 when she was going through a messy divorce with Ijaz, an actor with no talent except perhaps his looks, whom she had married some years earlier and whose film career she had helped build. Three daughters and many infidelities later, it was over. During those days, I saw a good deal of her. Always smitten with her voice, I came to admire her sharp intellect, her puckish sense of humour and her insight into life. "He was never anything but trash," I remember her saying of Ijaz.
Years later, when Ijaz was picked up .it Heathrow airport, London, with a cache of narcotics concealed in film cans, tried and sentenced to four years in the clinker, it was Noor Jehan who came to his help. She paid lawyers' fees which were considerable and this despite her reputation for being tight-fisted. The man who had let her down and left her to raise three daughters, she helped generously in his adversity. That was a side of Noor Jehan which was not commonly known.
I remember my first meeting with Madam as if it was yesterday though it is now more than thirty years since I first set eyes on her. I was doing a story on her divorce for The Pakistan Times for which I was then a reporter. I was taken to the living room which was small but very proper with Madam's awards sitting in a glass cabinet. Tea came first on an elegant silver tray. A few minutes later. Madam appeared. She looked stunning in a white sari. She wore diamonds in her fingers and her golden bracelets jangled as she made a cup of tea for me. I asked her if she always wore white. "When I came to the film industry' at the old Pancholi studio in Lahore, I was very young and uncertain of myself," she said. "On my first or second day on the set, I was struck by a tall, elegant woman who wore a shimmering white sari. She looked so graceful, she came often and whenever I saw her, she was always in white. She looked so good, so much at peace with herself and the world". What her name was Madam did not tell me. I had a feeling she was some producer or director's mistress. "From that day on, I have worn white. I am a hoarder of clothes and jewellery and I have so much of both that it is sometimes years before I get to wear the same sari. I do wear colours sometimes, but white it is that is my colour". She talked about Ijaz and said she had really loved him when they married. He was a nobody, a bit of a boy from Gujarat whom she had taken under her wing. She admitted that she had been in a few relationships since Shaukat Rizvi but they had left her unhappy and dissatisfied. Emotionally, she had been adrift. "I have to be intensely involved in a man, otherwise I cannot sing. My music abandons me." She said she had helped launch Ijaz's career. Ijaz, his head swollen by success, had begun to drift away from her. He had even hit her on a couple of occasions, but what had broken the marriage was his almost public affair with the actress Firdaus whom Noor Jehan called "common." She predicted that the Ijaz-Firdaus thing would end in disaster. Madam was right. It did. Ijaz, she said, had begun to play around with extras and starlets, most of them from "the area." As time passed, his escapades became more and more indiscreet. "I have been around long enough to know that all men like to play around. A wise woman accepts this and lives with it. But there is one condition which must never be violated. The philandering husband must conduct his liaisons with discretion. He must not flaunt his lechery." She told me where she had "drawn the line," although she had known about the affair Ijaz was having with Firdaus. "Every evening he would drive in front of our home with that woman sitting next to him. He would stop the car briefly, honk a couple of times and then move on. Pack your bags and get out!' I said, and that was that".
She said people often asked her how old she was, "I have the experience of a hundred year old woman," she said. What sort of men did she like? Would she name someone she found irresistible? "Yes," she smiled, "That American actor in the movie, 'Ben Hur.'" "Charlton Heston," I replied. "That's the sort of man I like, "she had said." Tell me more about men," I said. She smiled coquettishly, threw her head back and laughed. She said in Punjabi, "Jadon mein koi sohna banda takni aan te mainu khud bud shooroo hojandi ai.”
One of Madam's most celebrated affairs was with the late Nazar Muhammad, Pakistan's stylish opening batsman whose career ended at its height because in a house of assignation where he was with Noor Jehan, Shaukat Rizvi's goons had burst in and would have killed or injured him if he had not jumped from a window and escaped. Unfortunately, he broke his arm and the local bone man, a "pehlwan" from the old city set it wrong. It is one of the great tragedies of Pakistani cricket that Nazar who scored the first century for Pakistan in an official test match was never able to play again.
The late Naseer Anwar once told me a lovely story about Noor Jehan. It was the late thirties and the city was Lahore. The devotees of a local pir had arranged a special “mehfil-e-sama”. At some point in the evening, a little girl was brought in who proceeded to dance and sing. "Sing us something in Punjabi, little daughter," the pir said to her. She immediately launched into a Punjabi folk song one of whose lines went something like: may the kite of this land of five rivers touch the skies. As she belted this out in that amazing voice, the pir went into a trance. Then he got up, put his hand on the girl's head and prophesied, "go forth, little girl, for your kite will one day touch the skies."
How we have regressed as time has passed was brought home to me some time in the late seventies when a mullah in Lahore issued a fatwa against Noor Jehan, declaring her "outside the pale of Islam for having said that music was a form of worship." Noor Jehan once said to me, "It is all a gift from God, that is what it is. When I begin to sing, the voice which leaves my throat is not my voice. It is not my speaking voice. I do not know what happens. Something takes over, a spirit, the grace of God, something I can't explain. I sing but it is not I who is singing. I feel I am not there in person, in a physical sense. It is a strange, other-worldly feeling. It is a gift with which I have been blessed. That is my faith and I feel its truth in the innermost recesses of my being."
Noor Jehan made her first film in Lahore at the Pancholi studio, either Yamla Jat or Gul Bakaoli. She was then Baby Noor Jehan. She also used to sing from the Lahore station of the All India Radio. Her song “Shala jawanian manay” was a big hit. Her fame spread quickly. The breakthrough came with Shaukat Hussain Riwi's "Khandan" which was made in Lahore. This was followed by "Zeenat". Everyone remembers the famous qawwaali, the first one recorded in female voices, in which Noor Jehan's voice rose above all others, including Zohra Bai Ambalawali's and Amir Bai Karnatki's, like a leaping flame. “Ahain na bhareen shikway na kiye”.
Noor Jehan left Lahore around 1940, travelled to Bombay via Calcutta and was taken under the wing of the resourceful film director and producer Nizami who had created many stars. She starred in a big, all India hit called "Panna" whose song with the refrain, "Kali ghata chhai re papi” became very popular.
It was Nizami who got Noor Jehan her first big break in Bombay with the producer Seth V. M. Vyas who chose Rizvi to direct his movie, little knowing that he would make away with the star of the film, the young Punjabi nightingale, Noor Jehan. In Bombay Noor Jehan made one hit after another including Bari Ma. Dost and Gaon Ki Gori,, the last starring the young Lahore born actor, Nazir who was to marry Swaranlata, the heroine of the all time musical blockbuster Ratan. Noor Jehan's last film in India was “Jugnu” which launched the legendary Dilip Kumar. The music by Feroz Nizami was a smash, including hits like Aaj ki raat. The film also made Muhammad Rafi famous. His duet with Noor Jehan, Yahan badla wafa ka bewafai ke siva kia hai was an all India sensation. Another distinguishing feature of the movie in which Noor Jehan played a college girl who dies of consumption and unrequited love was a song by Roshan Ara Begum: Des ki pur kaif rangeen si fizaon mein kahin. The movie climaxed the career of Shaukat Hussain Rizvi who was never to equal that success.
Noor Jehan was a woman of great intelligence and wit. During the 1965 war, when Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum wrote a special song for her, one among many celebrating her sona shehr Kasur. He proposed that they both travel to the town from which she hailed. What Noor Jehan said to Sufi Sahib remains a classic. The flavour of her words can only be conveyed in the Punjabi that she used' "Sufi ji, othhay hawai hamla ho gia te doojay din mein te tussi doweinmalbe thale dabbey labbey, te mein te kisay noon moonh vikhaan jogi nahin rawan gi.” (With regular air raids over Kasur, how will I show my face to the world if you and I are found buried together under the debris?)
Immediately after the breakup of Pakistan in 1971, there was a sustained campaign against NoorJehan for her "amorous" links with General Yahya Khan. While it is true that he was fond of her company, the salacious stories circulated about their relationship had little basis in fact. Yahya enjoyed good company, and there was no better company than Madam. She used to call him "sarkar," she once told me. There was one song he was particularly fond of and one she sang for him: "Saiyo ni mera mahii merey bhag jagawan aa gya”. Once Yahya Khan said to General Hamid, his friend and evening companion, "Ham, if I were to make Nuri Chief of Staff, I tell you she would do a damn better job of it than the lot of you put together." I asked Noor Jehan about Yahya Khan and she said, "He was a gentleman, kind, humorous and very human. I had tremendous respect for him. I sang at his son Ali's wedding."
Which amongst her songs was her favourite? "They are like my children. How can I differentiate between them?" She had said but when I insisted, she thought long and hard and replied, "Badnam mohabbat kaun kare" from the pre-1947 movie Dost. She said it was composed by that finicky perfectionist Sajjad. This is really true and if you do not believe it, try to hum one of Sajjad's songs, say “darshan pyaasi aayi dasi” or “aaj mere naseeb nain mujh ko rula rula diya”. I once begged Madam to hum that song for me and she smiled and relented. She sang it, sitting in her living room, her eves half shut, looking almost transported. That is one magic moment I will never forget.
Madam Moor Jehan was a great woman and a great artiste. And now the gods have made her immortal, like her music. She was the toast of India when Pakistan and India were one country. She chose to come to Pakistan because this was where her heart lay. The little town of Kasur where she was born in the 1920s always remained close to her, and Lahore was the city she loved. One of her great regrets when she fell ill in Karachi was that her doctors would not let her travel to Lahore.
Malika-e-Tarannum Noor Jehan stands dignified in death as in life, mourned by millions and remembered with love. She was truly blessed because the devotion that people feel for her is denied by God to all but the elect. Awaz dey kahan hai...
Courtesy: The Friday Times, Lahore 5-11 February 2001