How Malika-e-Tarannum worked her magic

Naveed Riaz discusses with Noor Jehan the vocals which endeared her to millions across South Asia - in the final part of a conversation never before released to the public. Transcribed and translated by Aima Khosa

How Malika-e-Tarannum worked her magic
Note: Naveed Riaz recorded this interview at the close of the 1980s. Noor Jehan was to sing 16 songs at a fundraising concert for the SOS Children’s Village. She had recently undergone heart surgery and could not sing more than four songs without resting. The interview played with slides of her photographs during four intervals of rest, covering the themes: “Baby” Noor Jehan and Noor Jehan the film actress; Noor Jehan the singer; Noor Jehan the 1965 war heroine; Noor Jehan the person.

Readers are encouraged to have a look at ‘Gul-e-Daudi’, Umar Riaz’s unique tribute to Nur Jahan:

Naveed Riaz: Our nation’s people are very fortunate. They have heard you sing. But there is also a kind of gap here: they know the voice of the singer, but not the human being behind it. Tell us more about your relationship with your voice.

Noor Jehan: People often say to me that my singing voice is quite different to my speaking voice. People have asked me about this in Urdu and some women have asked me in Punjabi: “Bibi ji, when you speak, why is your voice so hoarse (moti)?” [laughs]

I say to them, it is the recordists who do some magic with my voice! [laughs] When I stand before the mike, there should be no doubt: it is not me. It is the blessing and role of many elders (buzurg) which makes my singing voice possible. I think it is a miracle. When I sing onstage, or on the mike, my voice is indeed not at all like this. That singing voice is granted to me by Him alone (The Divine).

NR: Once you had undergone (heart) surgery, how long was it before doctors permitted you to sing again?

NJ: After six weeks. The doctor told me to get back to practising after six weeks, and he said: “After three months, you can sing onstage.”
"When I sing, I feel closer to God. This is my world, this is my faith and this is my worship"

When I tried my voice after seven weeks, the result was quite alarming for me. My voice trembled, it would not stay on notes (aik jaga kharri hee nahin hoti thi). I was quite afraid, thinking that if this was how it would be from now on, it was futile to even imagine singing. You see, for a whole month after the surgery, I had been unable to eat. I lost 32 pounds in 30 days! Even after that, it was difficult to digest anything beyond a spoonful or two.

Three months after my surgery, I was still not singing. Nevertheless, the music directors of Lahore began to hound me (jeena haraam kar diya). They had already been waiting six months for me, with films on hold due to my surgery. Then I thought to myself, “Noor Jehan you will have to quit this line of work” But I couldn’t bear to stop singing. And then it occurred to me to leave Lahore, where all the time they were pestering me to sing all the time. So I told all these people I was ill, took my Ustad Sahib with me and went to Karachi. I had to start my singing practice (riyaaz) all over again – as I had in childhood. I swore to myself that I would return to singing only on the day when I was fully capable of it.

After a month of this, I felt the hesitation starting to leave me. I could sing classical for 45 minutes. And from there, it began to progress just how I wanted.

I took another 15 days. My son Akbar Hussain Rizvi made a recording of me as I sang for one hour straight, without palpitations, breathlessness or other problems. Only when I was reassured in this way did I return to Lahore. Such is my passion (shauq).

Now I might have returned to performing after the recommended three months had elapsed since my surgery – especially since people had been willing to pay me for it. But things don’t work that way.

NR: Surely it is one thing to speak of a passion (shauq), and another thing to speak of living one’s life (jeena)?

NJ: Well yes, my life (zindagi) is to sing. When I sing, I feel alive. I don’t know why this is so.

NR: Then it is our good fortune, and yours too, that this is the case.

NJ: Bus ji, I think it is good only for me! [laughs] For you people it is a problem (zehmat)…

NR: When you were able to regain your grip over your singing voice as you described, months after your surgery, did it feel like you had begun your life anew?

NJ: Yes, I was so happy that it is difficult to describe. God had been very merciful to me. I was also secretly pleased because people could no longer think that my career had ended!  People began to ask my recordists things like: “How is it that that Madam’s voice is better than it was before the surgery? Did they do something to her vocal cords?” Of course, no such thing is possible. It is true that before the surgery, near the end of a longer song, after say six or seven minutes, I would begin to have some problems breathing. Now that is no longer so.

NR: Have you followed a particular routine in your practising (riyaaz) – a certain number of hours daily or weekly?

NJ: No. In the usual course of singing, I don’t have to practise for months. I am about to take three months off for Umra and another medical checkup in America. During this while, I won’t be doing very much – my Ustad Sahib won’t accompany me, since he is too old. Obviously, when I return from this break, my voice will not be at the standard that I want.

By the grace of God, you see, due to intensive riyaaz since my childhood, I don’t need to work so much on it now. The amount of effort I will put into my voice for eight to fifteen days will be the equivalent of 10 years. After my surgery, for instance, the riyaaz I did for that one month and a half was as effective as practising for many years. This is due to all the effort since childhood.

Back then, as a child, I would practice from 5 in the morning to 11, then from 2 in the afternoon to 4 and then from 6 in the evening to 11 in the night. Due to such rigorous riyaaz from that early age, it now becomes possible to stop singing altogether for months on end. One can get back to it with the effort of a few days – and your voice returns to where it should be.

NR: I wanted to ask you: why did you quit acting in films?

NJ: Well, I married Ejaz Durrani sahib [second husband], and he did not like my working in films. He did not want to marry an actress. He wanted a wife.

NR: Did you feel you had made a great sacrifice in giving up acting?

NJ: No. Truth be told, as you know, even I didn’t really like that line of work. [laughs]. So, to stop acting in films was not much of a sacrifice for me. I wouldn’t want to lie about this. I may have given him the impression that I was doing him a great favour (ehsaan jata diya ho ga)!… [laughs]…but the truth is I never liked acting since my earliest days. I always preferred singing.

But note that if I worked in four films, at least three were well-received. Because whatever I did, I did naturally. I do not like to deceive people – I hate telling lies. So if an acting role involved dealing with the death of a father, I would think to myself “If my own father died, how would I cry about it?” and so on. And so I was able to win the President’s award in the time of [former President of Pakistan] Iskander Mirza. Before that, I had received an award for Zeenat [1945 hit film], and so on. I believe such awards came from God. I don’t feel as if I did any extraordinary acting. It’s just that acting, if done naturally, is more successful.

NR: Your Ustad Sahib has been with you for so many years – this is well-known. What distinct style (andaaz) or direction did he impart to your singing?

NJ: I believe there are only a handful of people like my Ustaad. But to answer your question, such things are difficult to describe. What did you find distinctive in Iqbal Bano, Farida Khanum, Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Ali, or myself? There are so many different styles. But for me singing became - and stays - my spiritual love (ishq). When I sing, I feel closer to God. This is my world (dunya), this is my faith (eemaan) and this is my worship (ibaadat). Only my God alone knows how I truly feel.