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Noor Jehan: The Queen of Melodies

Born in penury, Noor Jehan went on to script a rich legacy as an aristocratic artist who braved many odds to continue singing and enthralling millions of fans across the subcontinent

"I am Noor Jehan because I have worked hard to become Noor Jehan. I don't owe anything to anyone, least of all men…" Noor Jehan made this statement 40 years ago in an interview. Noor Jehan was self-made, having spent her childhood in utter penury. At a tender age, she became the bread-earner of the family.

Born in Kasur (now in Pakistan) on September 21, 1926, she was named Allah Rakhi Wasai. She started singing at an early age. Recalling her childhood, she once said, "Maybe I was born singing." Her father Madad Ali carried her on his shoulders and she would be singing in the streets. Later, she received formal training in music from Mohammad Khan.

When her family moved to Calcutta, Allah Rakhi Wasai got an opportunity to sing during the short intervals in

theatres – during the screening of silent films. She was introduced by Sukhlal Karnani of Indra Productions as a child artist and rechristened Baby Noor Jehan. She acted in Mehra's film, Sheela Urf Pind Di Kudi, wherein her singing was noticed. She also learned the intricacies of acting from Kajjan, who was reigning supreme in films.

By the late 1930s, a number of studios came into existence in Lahore, and Pancholi Arts owned by Dalsukh M Pancholi was one of them. Master Ghulam Haider was the star composer of Pancholi Studios and was sent to Calcutta to study the music of New Theaters, which was a rage across the country. During his visit to the city of joy, Master Haider was impressed with her song – Langh Aaja Patan Channa Da Yaar, which soon became a hit upon its release.

With the rise of motion pictures in Punjab, the family moved back to Lahore. She was offered small roles in Pancholi films. She also started singing in Punjabi films – Sassi Punnu and Yamla Jat in 1939; Choudhary in 1940 and Gul Bakabli in 1941. Master Haider was the composer of all these films. His composition, Shala Jawaniyan Mane, in Noor Jehan's voice, became a smashing hit. Pancholi's Khandaan was a turning point in Noor Jehan's career. The film was directed by Shaukat Hussain Rizvi, whom she married later. While Khazanchi became the foundation stone of Shamshad Begum's career, Khandaan was a milestone in Noor Jehan's repertoire.

The entire credit goes to Master Haider, who composed those golden nuggets. Tu Kaun Si Badli Mein Mere Chand Hai Aaja became the signature song of Noor Jehan, and Mere Liye Jahan Mein Chain Hai Na Qarar Hai, Hum Aankh Micholi Khelenge and Ud Ja Panchi Ud Ja made Khandaan roar at the box-office in 1942. Noor Jehan started getting offers from Bombay and was invited by producer Seth VM Vyas to act in his film Duhai.

Renowned Urdu writer Manto went on to say, "I am not impressed by her acting, which is average, but I am a great fan of her singing. Her knowledge of Hindustani classical music is that of any Ustad." She could sing thumri, khayal and even dhrupad effortlessly, holding a note for what seemed like an eternity. Her technique was perfect, but to that technique, she would add some peculiar juice. Only then her songs emerged so beautifully. It was quite a wonder that before going for a recording she would eat a lot of pickles and then chase the pickle down with litres of icy cold water.

Manto was offered to write the script for Rizvi's film Naukar, starring Noor Jehan, Shobhna Samarth and Chandra Mohan. He has written about the making of Naukar in detail in his pen portrait of Noor Jehan. The film was well-received by the audience. The same year, Noor Jehan acted in Naadan based on a romantic adventure story. Composed by Datta Korgaonkar, Noor Jehan went on to sing six songs from the movie including one of her greatest hits – Ab To Nahi Duniya Mei.

1944 witnessed the true magic of Noor Jehan in Dost directed by Razvi. Sajjad Hussain composed a tune for Noor Jehan, Koi Prem Ka De Ke Sandesa, which became yet another turning point in her career. The Nargis-Motilal starer Dost was a huge hit. The same year, another film of Noor Jehan was released with singing star Surendra Lal Haveli who composed some popular compositions. All the solos of Surendra and Noor Jehan along with their duets became instant chart-busters. Noor Jehan's solo Banati Nazar Aati Nahi Tadabir Hamari was a lilting number.

The magic of Noor Jehan's voice and dedication impressed the composers and she became their favourite in no time. In Badi Ma, K Datta's composition with her voice – Diya Jalakar Aap Bujhaya, became one of her greatest hits. The Punjabi composers enjoyed working with her as she was a typical, innate Punjabi. Shyam Sunder was another such composer besides Master Haider and Rafiq Ghaznavi. Shyam Sunder got an opportunity to work with Noor Jehan in film Bhai Jaan and together they produced four sweet songs – Aaja Bedardi Balma, Aye Baada-e-Saba, Chupke Se Dil Mein Aa Bassey and Apne Na Ho Sakey Jo. But their best was yet to come in Gaon Ki Gauri, wherein Noor Jehan sang unforgettable numbers: Ye Kaun Hasa, Kis Tarah Bhulega Dil and Baithi Hoon Teri Yaad Ka Leke Sahara.

By this point, Noor Jehan was numero uno and Naushad Saab used her talent to the optimum in Anmol Ghadi. This combination gave unforgettable gems like Jawan hai Mohabbat, Aaja Meri Barbad Mohabbat Ke Sahare and Mere Bachpan Ke Saathi Mujhe Bhool Na Jana, besides the evergreen classic duet with Surendra, Awaz De Kahan Hai. She also worked Pandit Amarnath in Mirza Sahiba – based on a famous love story, where she played the lead with Tirlok Kapoor. The gems of Mirza Sahiba in her voice were Aaja Tujhe Afsana Juddai Ka Sunayen and Kya Yahi Tera Pyaar Tha.

Jugnu was her last film before leaving Pakistan, directed by her husband Rizvi. She was paired with Dilip Kumar and the film had evergreen hit numbers: Umange Dil Ki Machli, Tum Bhi Bhula Do Main Bhi and Hamein To Sham-E-Ghum Mein. Her impact was also on Mohammed Rafi who sang his path-breaking duet with Noor Jehan, Yahan Badla Wafa Ka Bewafai Ke Siva Kya Hai.

In a short span of five years (1942-1947), Noor Jehan became the most popular singing star, next to legendary KL Saigal. She was at the peak of her career when she left for Pakistan, where along with her husband she bought the Roop K Shorey's Studio and renamed it, Shah Noor. She acted in Gulnaar written by Imtiyaz Ali Taj and also in Laila. Both were directed by Rizvi with music by Master Haider. She also produced a Punjabi film, Channa Vey. Noor Jehan was like a philosopher's stone, for whatever she touched turned into gold. Her last film as a lead was Ghalib and her last appearance in a film was Baazi. After quitting films she was preoccupied with live stage shows across various parts of the world and Pakistan television. She also recorded a musical series, Tarannum, in two parts.

Noor Jehan came back to India after 36 years, in 1983, since her visit to Calcutta and attended a show in Bombay with a galaxy of superstars of yesteryears. Dilip Kumar introduced her in an emotional speech and Noor Jehan went on to sing her classical gem, Awaz de Kahan Hai, in the presence of legendary Naushad Saab.

Noor Jehan's fans were from all walks of life. She was equally popular among the common masses as well as the elites. From Allah Rakhi Wasai to Baby Noor Jehan; from Noor Jehan to Mallika-e-Tarranum, she had lived life to the fullest. She was a legendary predecessor to another legend, Lata Mangeshkar, and passed away on December 23, 2000. I had the privilege to pay a tribute to her and produced an obituary programme, Awaz De Kahan Hai, which has been telecasted multiple times on Doordarshan.

Sharad Dutt

Sharad Dutt

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