Published on 24 December 2012

By Ally Adnan

 noorjehan dupatta

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.

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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!


I met Madam Ji for the second time at the Tai Wah restaurant on Main Boulevard in Lahore. She was having dinner with a large group of people. I went up to her to introduce myself and she asked me to join her party. There were about thirty, or so, guests at the long dinner table and I recognized poets Parveen Shakir, Qateel Shifai and Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi. Madam Ji was, of course, the center of attention. The topic of discussion was poetry and she was holding her own, reciting her favorite couplets by Daagh, Sauda, Ghalib and Faiz. I found out that she was very fond of poetry and wrote herself, as well. She recited a ghazal she had recently written in the Hazaj Musamman Saalim behar which I found very charming due to its simplicity and innocence. I remember a few couplets from the ghazal even today.

      ‫جسے تم دیکھ لیتے ھو وہی دیوانہ بنتا ہے‬ ِ
  ‫زرا سی بات بھی کر لو تو ایک افسانہ بنتا ہے‬
‫تری آنکھیں، یہ تیرے لب، ترے رخسار، یہ قامت‬
        ‫جہاں بھی تم چلے آؤ وہیں میخانہ بنتا ہے‬

The party went on for hours, well past the restaurants closing time. All through the evening, Madam Ji led the conversation in chaste Urdu and demonstrated a knowledge and understanding of poetry rivaling that of Lahore's literati. Everyone present wanted her to sing and she relented towards end of the evening. She sang Khawaja Khurshid Anwar's Saagar Roye Lehrein Shor Machaien from Koel (1959), improvising the song with new taans and behlavas, for a good ten minutes. The restaurant was almost empty by that time. Madam Ji's voice filled the hall and floated over all of us. The recorded song is loosely based on raag Shudh Sarang but flirts with raag Des as well. Madam Ji displayed her knowledge of both that evening.

Khawaja Khurshid Anwar's song employs meends as the preferred alankaar mostly eschewing taans. The mukhra of the song illustrates a perfect meend traversing the whole saptak, executed flawlessly by Madam Ji without even a hint of strain on the vocal chords. At the end of the piece with the words Nainan Bhar Aaiyen, she executes a swift and subtle four note murki getting back to Nikhad in the mandar saptak to start the mukhra. Her execution is masterful.


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.

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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.

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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."

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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.



Noor Jehan was a wonderful and indulgent mother. As a daughter, she supported her family for as long as needed. A great sister, she paid for the treatment of her mentally challenged brothers for as long as they were alive. She was a dutiful and devoted wife to both her husbands. As a mistress, she was a true enchantress. Noor Jehan was a seductress, indulgent yet playful, as a lover. She knew how to love and how to be loved. She was a dutiful shagird who supported her Ustad and his entire family for most of their lives and an Ustad who faithfully tied a ganda to only one but a talented student - Tarranum Naaz. She had led the life of a mother, a daughter, a sister, a student, a teacher and a friend and led it honestly. She had keenly observed the dynamics of each relationship and experienced the entire spectrum of emotions involved with these relationships. She had felt them all.The understanding of emotions and the intensity with which she maintained all of her relationships added a unique - and incomparable - dimension to her singing.

Noor Jehan created artistic truth in front of the microphone using her memories to express emotion and feeling. Stanislavski's method was best employed by Noor Jehan while preparing to sing. She would get into the right mood and requisite frame of mind for a song well before starting to sing and sometimes take hours after the singing to return to her normal self. Noor Jehan was a master of raag and taal, gifted with a    brilliant voice, a broad vocal range and remarkable tonal quality. She had a great knowledge of music and was a master of both aakaar and alankaar. Yet none of these qualities made her Malika E Tarranum; it was her unique ability to add emotion, feeling and sentiment to her music that made her the greatest singer of her and, perhaps, all times. No other singer - not even the great Kundan Lal Saigal - has ever been able to match the emotional veracity of Noor Jehan's songs. No one.

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Noor Jehan had a great magnetism in her personality. Always the center of attention, the life of the party, she held most people in awe with her beauty, voice, social skills, wit and a naughty innocence.

I interviewed Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma for a monthly publication many years ago. Among other things, I asked him about musicians from Pakistan. Noor Jehan was the only one he wanted to talk about. Pandit Ji was not just enamored by her musical prowess but was also a fan of persona and presence. He told me that he wanted all other sound to stop when Noor Jehan's songs were playing so he could listen intently. He reminisced about a dinner party at poet Zehra Nigah's flat in London where Noor Jehan was the guest along with Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, Ustad Shuakat Hussain Khan, Ustad Sultan Khan and several other senior musicians who were in London to record for Navras Records. After dinner, Madam Ji chose to sing for the guests and started by singing Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poetry using the dining table for percussion. She followed with a khayal in raag Jaijaivati singing the bandish, Binti Ka Kariye, made famous by her Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. She ended the evening with the thumri, Gori Tore Nainan Kaajar Bin Kaare. Her rendition of the thumri in Pilu lasted over an hour. Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma remembers the night well. “Some of the biggest names in music sat at the dining table listening to Noor Jehan all night, with rapt attention, “ he told me. “She kept us entranced for hours. Her Pilu brought tears to our eyes. The quality of her voice, the sangat of the komal Gandhar and tivar Nikhad, and the roohdari touched my heart. One does not hear such singing often. ”


 Noor Jehan loved to visit London. She loved shopping for Sari's at Selfridges, meeting touring musicians from India, eating at the Shezan restaurant at Cheval Place, and generally enjoying the city's bright summers. But not all her trips to London were made for pleasure. She visited the city several times to help bail her ex husband, Ejaz Durrani, out of trouble he got himself into by trying to smuggle contraband drugs into the United Kingdom. And while Ejaz never did anything to earn her love, Noor Jehan had never gotten over her feelings for Ejaz. During one such visit, she was particularly depressed and asked Ghulam Ali and Ustad Tari Khan, who were touring, to pay her a visit. She wanted to listen to good music and promised to cook for them. Tari Khan told me that Noor Jehan had prepared Qorma, But Karelay and Aaloo Ki Bhujia for them. "I remember the food even today," Tari Khan told me. "I don't think I will ever forget her cooking. She made chappatis for us herself. Just before serving Bhujia, she cooked some whole spices without oil in the frying pan and then crushed them after tying them in a napkin.
She then covered the Bhujia with the spices and covered the dish so that the aroma of the spices would sink into the potatoes which she had cut into very small pieces, and cooked in a way that their insides were soft and the outsides crisp. I have never had something as delicious in my life. I am not just a fan of her singing but also of her cooking. I will forget Noor Jehan's cooking only when I forget tabla." After the dinner,     Ghulam Ali sang for Noor Jehan with Tari Khan on the tabla. A few hours later she decided to sing. She picked Nisar Bazmi's composition from Meri Zindagi Hai Naghma, Tera Kisi Pe Aaye Dil. During the third antara, Madam Ji broke down and started crying uncontrollably. Ghulam Ali, Tari Khan and her companion, Achi Mian, all failed to console her and she left the room and retreated to her bedroom. A full thirty minutes later, she emerged from her room, having refreshed her make-up, and asked them, "Tussi Dasso, Kehra Gaana Suno Ge?" All of them started laughing, spending the rest of the night singing and sharing anecdotes and jokes. She was emotional, temperamental and sensitive, but always in control.

 Noor Jehan held Faiz Ahmed Faiz in very high regard. She canceled her recordings to visit him at his residence after he returned home after a protracted period of incarceration to celebrate with him and their friend, Sanjan Nagar's Raza Kazim. Faiz Saab asked Noor Jehan to sing some of his poetry for him and Raza Kazim seized the opportunity to record her without any musical instruments and equalization, just her pure voice. Raza Kazim recounted the events of the evening for me when we met years later at a wedding at the Islamabad Marriott and very graciously shared his recording with me a few days later. Faiz Saab kept picking poems for Noor Jehan to compose on the spot and sing for him, that evening. Mujh Se Pehli Si Muhabbat, Aaj Ki Raat, Donon Jahan Teri Muhabbat Main Haar Ke, Aa Ke Wabasta Hain, and many other poems were sung by Noor Jehan for the first time that day. A few hours of music, poetry recitation, food, and drink later, all three were high on Cherry Brandy when Noor Jehan started to sing her famous Punjabi song, Ve Mundiya Sialkotiya, flirting innocently with the newly released and young Faiz Ahmed Faiz who, of course, hailed from Sialkot. Only Madam Ji could do this with class!

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In 1989, I decided to do a detailed and comprehensive interview of Madam Ji. I called her to set the interview up and was surprised when she immediately agreed to sitting down and talking to me about her life and her music. She did not give me a date and time but asked that I call her in a few days to make an appointment. I did just that a few days later and many times subsequently. Madam Ji always answered her phone herself and always had a good excuse to postpone the interview she had promised. I asked film actor Muhammad Ali to help me secure the interview. He immediately called Madam Ji who told him that she herself wanted to sit down with me but had been busy. She promised Muhammad Ali to call me herself with a date and time. She never did.

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I was far too young and far too much in love with Madam Ji to give up, and enlisted television actor Azmul Haq's help to get me the interview I wanted. He and I visited Madam Ji's near Liberty market at two in the morning. Her home was alive and bustling with activity even at that hour. There were several guests sitting on the floor in a room next to the dining room eating a late dinner. Daughter Tina and her friends were planning a trip to Peshawar to  buy clothes and kept asking Madam Ji for more money, ten grand at a time. Several young maidservants were sleeping on the floor all around the house. Madam Ji's companion, Acchi Mian, kept bringing saris on hangers to help Madam Ji choose what she would wear the following day. An older gentleman, dressed in a suit and wearing a necktie, sat in the drawing room having tea and sandwiches, served elegantly from a well laid dumbwaiter tea cart. And a few beggars kept trying to enter the home and ask Madam Ji for money. Madam Ji was at the center of this very active, if somewhat chaotic, household and paying attention to each and everyone. She seemed to be in full control of all the activity in her home and aware of all that was going on. When Azmul Haq introduced me, she told him that she already knew me well and had been planning on sharing the story of her life with me for some time. She turned to me and said, "Mujhe maaf karna beta. Life is very busy. Main chahti hun ke aap jaise parhe likhay naujawan ke sath interview karoon magar waqt nahin milta." She promised an interview within the month. The interview never materialized and in August that year, I left Pakistan for the United States. When I called her to say goodbye, she was very kind. "Beta, wahan ja kar mehnat karna, maan baap ko khush rakhna, mulk ki izzat barhana." she said. "Do not forget us when in the United States. Hum ab wahan aa kar tumhein interview denge." She never did.


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Dedicated to Priya

Priya Gainneos

We are a group of volunteers trying to make a site in honour of Madam Noorjehan probably the greatest singer-actress ever to grace the silver screen. It is dedicated to the memory of one of Madam's biggest fans the late Priya Gainneos. Priya, we are sure you are up there listening to Madam live in heaven. May your soul rest in peace and May God give your family and friends the strength to bear the loss. We can never forget you.Thanks a lot to the Hamaraforums founders for making this dream of Priya (to have a site in honour of madam) come true.

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