Child prodigies usually fade out early. Only a few live up to their initial promise. Very few have ever made it to the top. This child was unique. At five she could reproduce the style of most leading singers of the subcontinent. Two years later, she rendered her first playback song for a Calcutta-based production.With that commenced a career which has spanned six decades of unparalleled, unchallenged reign. In time Baby Noor Jehan became Madam Noor Jehan, then Melody Queen.
While she got her start from Calcutta, it was in Lahore, close to hometown Qasur where the limelight flooded her. Master Ghulam Haider, a master in the truest sense of the expression put the raw gold in the child's voice in Gul Bakaoli (1939) with "Shala jawanian mane" on the road to lasting fame. In another movie, the same composer's "Bas bas wey dholna" accorded her instant mass popularity. From then on there was no looking back for the precocious child who was just ten at the time. But maturity and professional recognition came with her first film as leading lady, at the age of 14 in Khandan (1942) with "Tu konsi badli mein mere chand hai aaja". Once again the composer was Master Ghulam Haider.
Marriage to Rizvi took her to Broadway, to new and vaster horizons. Director Mehboob cast her in Anmol Ghari (1946) in which she had a chance to work with one of the greatest composers of India, Naushad. Rizvi paired her with a young and promising but little known actor, Dilip Kumar in Jugnoo (1947). Both films were big hits at the box office. The teenaged singer-actress had taken Bollywood by storm; she was heralded as a star of dazzling luminosity.
She was poised for sweeping the Indian cinema, both as actress and singer at that time. But in Pakistan, too, her career continued flourishing though the industry was in its infancy, much smaller in size and resources in comparison with Bombay and operated in a restricted circuit. Professional standards were not of a quality to do justice with her immense potential. Despite such handicaps, she went from proverbial success to success, from glory to glory. A somewhat questionable achievement was becoming that first woman director of films in Pakistan. That was with Chan We (1951), produced by Rizvi. But marriage hit the rocks and floundered after ten years and three children. Another marriage with actor Ejaz ended in a similar way after three more children.
There were ups and downs in her personal life. But her career prospered. The magnificence of her voice groomed in her early years by Kajjan Bai, a famous Indian singer of the 20s and 30s, and enriched by riyaz lasting up to twelve hours or more every day, gave her heights while as an actress she gathered luster with every film. She gave significant performances in Dopatta (1952), Gulnar (1953), Intezar (1956), Lakht-e-Jiggar (1956), Annar Kalli (1958), Koel (1959) and Neend (1959), to name a few of her movies of 50´s. She had indeed become eligible for playing lead only as an actress. It is, however, unlikely that her acting could ever match the excellence of her singing.
In any case, marriage with Ejaz put a stop to her career as an actress. He did not want her on the screen and she acquiesced like a conventional housewife. She herself wasn't much interested in acting.
The decision provided a boost for her singing. With acting out of the way, she could concentrate on singing with single mindedness. As playback singer she touched new heights with Mousiqar (1962), Sawal (1966), Lakhon mein aik (1967), Mirza Jatt (1967), Dosti (1971), Naag Munni (1972), Heer Ranjha (1970), Sher Khan, Sala Sahib & Chan Waryam (1981), Sholey (1984), Moula Bakhsh (1988) and innumerable other movies.
Indeed after the break with Ejaz, she plunged headlong into playback singing, often recording five to six songs in a day. How many songs she recorded in her career is anybody's guess. Estimates place the number above ten thousand. It is a sad commentary on the state of management of arts in Pakistan that an undetermined percentage of her work may have perished. There is no inventory even of songs she recorded; a library of Noor Jehan's songs is a far cry. It is time the Ministry of Culture, along with serious-minded people from the film industry (there still are a few professionally-oriented men in cinema) got down to putting things in order and at least preserving what has survived the ravages of neglect.
While she has been acclaimed as the supreme soprano, a truly gifted artist and adulated, her class and contribution have never been critically evaluated. What exactly is the place of Madam Noor Jehan in the music of, first, the subcontinent, and then Pakistan? "Unrivalled, incomparable," says Nisar Bazmi, virtually the last of authentic composers of Pakistan's cinema.
While she remained confined to light music and popular singing, she always believed in classical music. "Pop" she said: "is like a foundation of sand; a cooking pan of wood. The same songs reappear after some time. Classical is eternal". A strong classical base is reflected in her singing. She effortlessly moved in difficult, demanding trajectories. High and low notes came to her with naturalness to underline and elaborate the range of her talent. The fibre of her voice retained resolution in all scales. Her articulation of turns, enunciation of emphasis, pauses and stresses belong to the most creative dimension of virtuosity.
The government acknowledged her work by awarding the "Pride of Performance Award" to her, making Noor Jehan the first woman to be so honored. She used to be at the Lahore Radio Station every day, rehearsing for hours and recording a song only when she was fully satisfied. This was the patriotic involvement and commitment of a song stress who normally had one look at the score and delivered every note, every syllable in perfect order virtually off the cuff. Financial considerations never featured in that campaign.
Age and illness took hold of her some years ago and she withdrew from public life; her place in the hearts of the people remained intact. When the news that she was seriously ill broke, newspaper offices were inundated with calls from her admirers; it became clear once again that she was widely adulated.
Artists across the sub continent have also been inspired and overawed by her. Indian singer, Lata Mangeshkar, a legend in her recording time, refers to her with veneration. Who else could be Pakistan's personality of the millennium but Noor Jehan?