Ashish’s FaceoftheMonth: Noor Jehan


The bittersweet relationship between India and Pakistan has always been sweetened by the countries’ shared tastes in music, and we’ve always (until the last 5/6 years) exchanged our musical talents since the partition in 1947. It pioneered with Mubarak Begum, Geeta Dutt, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Nazia Hassan — to name a few — and continued with Adnan Sami, Hadiqa Kiani, Sonu Nigam, and Kavita Krishnamurthy — contemporarily speaking. Yet, none of these names ring a bell as Noor Jehan’s, for she was as much Indian as Pakistani. She belonged to two countries, and both India and Pakistan equally claimed ownership over her established stardom in music and film (though Noor Jehan was a Pakistani citizen!), and this tug–of–war consecrated Noor Jehan as the ultimate surviving link between those two geographical borders. Certainly, Lata Mangeshkar was another iconic link, but we’re not talking about Mangeshkar today, so I hope the Mangeshkar fans forgive me. 

Noor Jehan spurred the beginnings of musical stardom in India. Not to imply that figures like K. L. Saigal, Kajjan Bai, Saraswati Devi, Bibbo, Gohar Mamajiwala, Gyan Dutt, Sitara Devi, and Amirbai Karnataki were not nationally felt, but quite not as Noor Jehan. I may admit my sharp pangs of prejudice(s), but against this swarm of big names, it is Noor Jehan’s that endures. Jehan was trained by Kajjan Bai and Ustad Ghulam Mohammad Khan, and those large influences soon began reflecting in her tonal versatility. Her unique faculty to hold musical notes and levels of intonation, sustaining them without losing balance, were not just appreciated but rather celebrated by her contemporaries. Within this context, Saadat Hasan Manto, in Stars from Another Sky, once mentioned that Jehan’s

voice was as pure as crystal. Even the suggestion of a note was discernible when she sang, perfectly in command, whether the notes she employed were in the lowest range, the middle ones or the highest. [He] was sure, if she so wished, she could stay on the same note for hours (p. 142).

No wonder she was later bestowed the honorific title of Malika–e–Tarannum (Queen of Melody), though she wasn’t much distant from being considered the Malika–e–Adakari (Queen of Acting). As Ashok Ranade, in Hindi Film Song: Music Beyond Boundaries, writes: ‘Noor Jehan created an early prototype of a singing heroine — in fact, a model of how to sing for cinema’ (p. 344). This prototype, undoubtedly, existed since the introduction of talkies in 1931, but what Ranade proposes is the iconoclasm of the blurring distinctions between singer / actor. Because Noor Jehan usually playbacked for herself, she somewhat blurred the lines between playback singer/screen actor and rather coalesced these two concomitant values. This style was followed by another legendary superstar, Suraiya, who reigned between 1945–50, and who co–acted with Noor Jehan in the 1946 classic Anmol Ghadi (which is where we witness the above–stated phenomenon: Jehan sings for herself, while Suraiya sings for her character). Furthermore, Jehan’s name is even associated with box–office success; during her heydays (1940s), she starred in several blockbuster films, including Khandan (1942), Naukar (1943), Dost (1944), Zeenat (1945), and Jugnu (1947) which helped producers deploy her name as a brand star–vehicle. Ahead in the new land of Pakistan, Noor Jehan went on to star in another range of blockbusters like Chan Wey (1951) and Dopatta (1952), where she grounded herself as a classical/pop singer. Pakistan later honoured her legacy by bestowing her the Sitara–e–Imtiaz (the third highest civilian award of Pakistan) in 1996, some years after awarding her the Tamgha–e–Imtiaz in 1965.

The legacy of Noor Jehan remains unparalleled. She long passed away in 2000, but still . . . the echoes of her resonant voice seem capable of plundering a thousand hearts. One of the most feared—and—revered artists, Noor Jehan, embodied a distinctive power exhumed through her melodies’ sharpness, only to enshrine her in the manifestos of glamourous nostalgia. I believe both India and Pakistan owe her an inescapable sense of love for every contribution she made towards the establishment of the music industry in the Indian subcontinent. Her existence should remind these neighbours that — though politics have drawn us apart — those invisible cultural links are the only resources that enable us to breathe with one single heart.

I think that’s how we should go about it — Noor Jehan’s musical art is unifying. 

Why not use it?

Here’s a clip featuring Noor Jehan, singing ‘Jawan Hai Mohabbat’ (Love is Young)
Movie: Anmol Ghadi (1946)
Music by Naushad
Lyrics by Tanvir Naqvi
Source: Shemaroo Filmi Gaane


About Author

Former Film Editor (2022-23) | PhD student of Cinema Studies | Writer/Editor of Poetry and (Creative) Nonfiction.

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