I always found it difficult to imagine a world where there would be no Madam Nur Jehan, but the unthinkable came to pass as the year 2000 was drawing to a close. Nur Jehan is gone and never shall we see her like again, nor hear that voice, though it will live in the music she left us.
Born in Kasur on Saturday, 21 September 1926 to Madad Ali and Fateh Bibi, she was named Allah Wasai. She was the youngest in a family of thirteen. They were six sisters, the eldest being Eiden who married lyricist Tanvir Naqvi. Her other sisters were Bibi Gulzar, Ameena Begum, Baharo and Umda “Machine”. This nickname she had earned because of her voice which was so finely honed that people said there was some kind of a machine in this girl’s throat. She had seven brothers named Mian Nawab Din, Gul Muhammad “Gulloo”, Muhammad Hussain, Siddique, Inayat Hussain and Muhammad Shafi. Three of the brothers ended up in mental institutions. Nur Jehan looked after the financial needs of her large family - and even family that was not immediate - all her life. Once she said, “People ask me why I don’t stop working. Well, how can I? If I don’t work, who is going to take care of all these people?” Two of Pakistan movie industry’s younger and highly talented women singers, Azra Jehan and Saira Naseem are her direct family.
An entry in Film Stars, a compendium published in Lahore in 1933, says, “She is slim, delicate and beautiful. She has soft black hair and bewitching eyes. She joined Kohinoor United Artists and appeared in some of their films. Later, she was employed by Seven United Artists and played the lead in some of their films opposite Khalil. Later, she joined Sharda Film Co. and has played important roles in several films. She recently appeared in Patit Pawan of Pratima.”
She made her first film when she was only four years old.
Nur Jehan always preferred her year of birth to remain a romantic mystery. When I first met her in 1967 in Lahore, she told me, “People often wonder how old I am. Let me tell you. In terms of experience of life and men, I have always been a hundred years old.”
Her music lives as it has lived from that distant time over sixty years ago when her nightingale voice was first heard in the music halls of Lahore and the smaller town of Punjab. It was an electrifying voice, never false on pitch, never striking an untrue note, but something perfect God had fashioned on a good day. She did not fritter away her gift. She worked hard, unceasingly, devotedly, indefatigably, uncomplaining, all the time honing and polishing this abundance of genius she had been invested with. She worked hard to become great.
She was an extraordinary woman who lived on her own terms. She went through good times and bad, marriages, divorces, heartbreaks, casual and serious love affairs, fame, fortune, loneliness and, in the last years of her life, unremitting ill health. She bore it all with quiet confidence and much grace. She never felt sorry for herself, never looked for pity. She was accused of being possessive. It is true that she was because she wanted to hold on to what she had acquired through her own efforts. But she was also very generous. She bore the financial burden of helping her large family through the years. She came to the aid of her second husband Ejaz Durrani, who had treated her badly and left her for the sake of ephemeral sexual conquests, when he lay in a jail in England on a drugs smuggling charge.
Shaukat Hussain Rizvi, once her great love, who wrote a scurrilous book about her in which he denigrated her origins, she found harder to forgive. I once asked her if newspaper reports that she had made up with him were true. “True?” she exclaimed. “How can I forgive him after what he did to me?” I said that had happened a long time ago and perhaps it was time to overcome that trauma. “No,” she replied, “He is repentant. He says all he wants is that I forgive him. He weeps and wails and cries. But how can I ever forget how he treated me, what he did to me and to my children?” I said, “I thought you had a soft heart.” “Not for him,” she replied. She said not only him, but she did not like his wife, either. “That woman, Gittho Begum”, she added. That was vintage Nur Jehan. That was how she always referred to the actress Yasmin – who came to the movies as Zarina Reshma – whom Rizvi married after divorcing Nur Jehan. Yasmin was short, hence the name.
Soon after her first heart operation, when she returned to Lahore and began to sing again, she said, “This voice is God’s gift and I have preserved it with His grace. In 1992 she told me, “When I stand before the microphone, it is not just me standing there. Behind me, I can feel the presence of my parents. I know they are there. It is a miracle. When I go out, there on the stage during a performance, the voice that you hear is not my speaking voice. Believe me, I do not know where it comes from. It is His gift which He graciously placed in my care. It is His, not mine.”
She said after her heart bypass operation that she was not sure she would be able to sing again, but six weeks later, assailed by doubt and greatly apprehensive, she sat down one morning and began to sing. “I sang for forty-five minutes and my voice was good and strong and I was overcome by my gratitude to God. I love my work. When I sing, I feel the presence of God. It is my world, my life, my faith. Only God knows what goes through my heart, how I feel. I can’t express it. My only aim now is to bring happiness to others, to serve the people, to build hospitals, to help my children. I feel that the life God has granted me after my operation is for some special purpose. I want to use this time in the name of the Holy Prophet, whom God bless! That is the way I feel now.”
In a conversation with Naveed Riaz in Lahore somewhere in the 1980s, she remembered her early years and spoke about them movingly. “I was only fifteen when I became a mother (actually she was sixteen and a half or seventeen, having married Syed Shaukat Hussain Rizvi in 1943). I did not know anything about children. I thought of myself as a child. I really was too young to understand anything.” Then she spoke about her mother. “After my morning riaz, a teacher would come to help me learn how to read and write. At times, I found that a bit much and so one day, I declared that I was not going to study any more. That was the only time my mother hit me. She struck me just once and said, ‘Nahin, Nooriji, tussi parho gai.’ Now that I think about it, had it not been for her, I would not have learnt to read and write. When I record a song, I have the words in front of me on a sheet of paper. And, by God, every time I look at that sheet of paper, I remember my mother. I feel like raising my hands in prayer to God and ask Him to shower His blessings on my dear mother. You know, so much time has passed, but I can still feel the thrill of riding on my father’s shoulder as he walked through the street. There I am, perched high, looking down on people and shops. O I remember those days!”
When Nur Jehan first suffered a heart ailment, I remember saying, “But of course it had to be the heart, considering how many claimants it has had and how often it has fluttered for those on whom she has chosen to smile, even if fleetingly and on a mild summer evening.” We always believed “The Madam” to be indestructible. Her death, therefore, was the kind of loss that it takes a long time to reconcile with. She suffered much pain in her last years. Now at last she is in peace. Once somebody asked her since when she had been singing. “Maybe I was born singing,” she replied.
My friend M. Rafiq who lives in London and who has spent the better part of his working life on researching the Indian and Pakistani cinema, starting with the silent era, is without question the greatest authority on Nur Jehan’s career. He has established that Nur Jehan’s family first moved to Lahore from Kasur where her elder sister, Eiden and Haider Bandi (who has been described as her sister but Shaukat Hussain Rizvi says she was a relative), began a stage career. Nur Jehan accompanied them in a song extolling the Holy Prophet of Islam (may peace be upon him) that became a great hit. Its opening line was: Hanste hain sitaaare, ya Shah-e-Madina and it was composed by G.A. Chisti. From there the family moved again, this time to Calcutta, where, it was hoped, the two older girls would be able to break into the movies. This did not quite happen though they continued to appear on the stage. This would be around 1930. She won a part in a silent movie called Hind ke Tare, made by Indian Pictures, Calcutta. Thereafter, the family moved to Bombay where Nur Jehan made another 11 silent films. The silents she made in Bombay in 1931 were: Brave Warrior, Chandramani, Goodbye Kingship, Heart Thief, Jang-e-Daulat, Magic of Love, Necklace, Prithviraj, Shaliwahan and Song of Sorrow. The first Indian talkie, released the same year, was Ardeshir Irani’s Alam Ara.
The first Punjabi film Sheila or Pind di Kudi was made in Calcutta in 1936, by which time, Nur Jehan was beginning to be known as a singing actress of some merit. The producer, K.D. Mehra, brought the three sisters over to act and sing in the movie and remembering the popularity of their devotional song in the Punjab some years earlier, he put it in his movie although being in Urdu, it was a bit of a misfit in a Punjabi movie. Apart from this, Nur Jehan was given one number in Punjabi to sing. Her first talkie was Sassi Punnu, made in Bombay in 1932 and her last film in India was Mirza Saahibaan, released in 1947, the year the Raj ended and India and Pakistan became independent countries. In between, she made Aab-e-Hayat, Intiqam, Pattat Pawan, Sha-e-Subhan, all in 1933; Cinema Queen, Kala Waagh or Black Tiger, Ghareeb ka Pyara, Neki ka Taaj, Qismat ki Kuswati, Seeta, Waman Autar or Dani Samraat, Veer Bharat or Sher-e-Hind (1934); Alauddin Doem or Aaj ka Allauddin, Ghar Jamai, Jan Alam Anjuman Ara or Prem Purnima, Kala Sawar, Karwan-e-Husn, Misr ka Sitrara, Rangeela Nawab, Satri Dharam (1935); Romantic India, Sheela or Pind di Kudi (first Punjabi movie, made in Calcutta), Top ka Gola, Mr and Mrs Bombay (1936); Adrash Mahila, Bismal ki Arzoo, Chabuk Sawar, Fakhr-e-Islam, Jawahar-e-Hind, Parakh, Mr 420, Sarojani, Taran Haar (1937); Brahmachari, Heer Sayal (India’s second Punjabi film, made in Calcutta), Purnima, Royal Commander, Shareef Dakoo, Na Honay Wali Baat or Impossible (1938); Gul Bakauli (India’s third Punjabi movie made in Lahore), Imandaar, Pyam-e-Haq (1939); Sajni, Yamla Jat (Punjabi, made in Lahore) (1940); Chaudhri (Punjabi, made in Lahore), Red Signal, Umeed, Susraal (1941); Chandani, Dheeraj, Faryad, Khandan (made in Lahore) (1942); Duhai, Nadaan, Naukar (1943); Dost, Lal Haveli (1944); Badi Maan, Bhaijan, Gaoon ki Gori, Zeenat (1945); Anmol Gadhi, Dil, Hamjoli, Jadoogar, Maharana Pratab (1946); and Abida, Jugnu, Mira Bai, Mirza Sahibaan (1947).
Nur Jehan sang 127 songs in Indian films and the number of talking films she made from 1932 to 1947 was 69. The number of her silents was 12. Fifty-five of her movies were made in Bombay, eight in Calcutta, five in Lahore and one in Rangoon, Burma.
In Pakistan, Nur Jehan made 13 films, starting with Chanway (Punjabi, 1951) and ending with Mirza Ghalib (1961). They were: Chanway (1951), Dupatta (1952), Gulnar (1953), Paatay Khan (1955), Lakht-e-Jigr and Intezaar (1956), Nooraan (1957), Anarkali, Chhoo Mantar (1958), Perdesan, Neend and Koel (1959) and Mirza Ghalib (1961). Four of the movies were in Punjabi, nine in Urdu.
In her interview with Naveed Riaz, she said that she did not like to step out of her home and she had never liked parties. She also preferred to avoid hotels and public gatherings. “I want to lead a simple, uncomplicated life,” she added. Her eldest daughter, Zil-e-Huma, she said, only saw the inside of Shahnur Studio in Lahore after she was married. Her three daughters from her marriage with Ejaz Durrani had never done that even once, she added with a tinge of pride.
For a woman who was women’s lib before there was a women’s lib, as we know it today, Nur Jehan was conservative. Her views on women were surprisingly old-fashioned, or perhaps they were cynical. This always surprised me because they came from a woman who had lived her life on her own terms and who owed little to anyone. Although Shaukat Hussain Rizvi claimed in his abusive book on his former wife that it was he who had made Nur Jehan a star, it was not so. Nur Jehan was a star before she met Rizvi. In any case, who could stop a talent as formidable and unique as hers from universal recognition? She said in an interview in 1981, “If a woman works, what does she get at the end of the day? The only peace she knows is within the four walls of her home. Who can work harder than I have? And what peace, I ask you, have I known? Once the husband realises that his wife can earn more than him, he begins to hate her. He wants her to be dependent on him. Totally. She wants to buy a sweater for herself? He would rather that she begged him for it. That is what happens to women in our country. The men do not want them to be financially independent. Only if a woman is entirely dependent on her husband, can she hope to make a home and have a life.”
She once told me, “The moment a man knows that his wife has the ability, the talent or the intelligence to earn money, even a lot of money, he gets insecure, hostile. That is the lot of us women who work. That is what women get in return if they work – contempt and rejection. All men whose wives are successful suffer from feelings of varying inferiority. I think in this country a woman should not earn. It seems to me that she can only have a good marriage if she has nothing.”
She narrated with pride how one of her daughters was able to learn French, use a typewriter and ride a horse. “You know what I told her?” she asked. “I said you should think of making a home. What do you want to be? A polo player? A woman’s ultimate fulfilment is her husband, her children and her home. That’s what it’s all about in this society.”
She talked once about the stirring songs she sang in 1965, Pakistan’s first war with India. “Let me tell you about those days. No one asked me to sing. I myself phoned Radio Pakistan one morning and said I wanted to come and sing. They did not believe it, just kept asking, ‘Is that Madam Nur Jehan?’ They thought it was some kind of a hoax. Finally, I said, ‘You think I am joking with all these bombs falling, these shells exploding?’ I first had to get a pass to get out of the house because there was a curfew in the city. When I arrived, they were happy and surprised. ‘It really is you,’ they kept saying. ‘Well, you can see for yourself,’ I said. There were no musicians around but I said it did not matter. I had taken four of my own, one of them Mubarak who played the santoor. I set the lyrics to music myself. Merya dhol sipahaya, Mera sohna sheher Kasur ni and Aai puttar hattan te nahin vikday are all my own compositions. It took me literally minutes to compose the tune for Aai puttar. I was accompanied on the tabla by Sabir and the sarangi was played by Nizam sahib. The recording was done by Azam sahib and then there was, of course, Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabussum sahib who wrote the words. There were just a few of us, weren’t we!”
She continued reminiscing, “I used to load the musicians in my car and off we would go to the Mall where the recordings were done. I would not go home till I was sure everything had gone right. Once as my car moved into the studio, a shell fell, killing the sentry who had just waved me in. It could have been me. I had three little girls at the time, ten, nine and two. They were all ill and there was nobody to look after them. Hina, the eldest, took care of the younger ones although she was a child herself. I used to cook for them at five in the morning and then be on my way. And when the siren sounded, I would push them into the trench we had dug.
“My musicians used to tell me to get into the trench when our session was on and the siren sounded. I would tell them, ‘If we have to go, let it be in front of the microphone, singing. Think of the boys who are out there fighting. When I sang Merya dhol sipahaya, it was not pre-recorded. I sang it straight into the microphone and it went live because the tape recorder was not working. It was a very poignant moment for me and I cried a lot. Then I sang. Hassan Latif who was like a brother to me, helped me in those days. He said to me, ‘You have done something very beautiful.’ He gave me a lot of encouragement. He said I was like Umme Kulsum. I have never forgotten his words. They made a deep impression on me.”
Rizvi, whom she married after a turbulent love affair in Lahore and Bombay and divorced some years after they came to Pakistan after independence, recalled the first time he had set eyes on her. His account of his life with her Nur Jehan ki Kahani Meri Zubani has not even one nice thing to say about her, including her voice and its undimmed magic despite the passage of time. However, it is only fair that the gist of what he wrote should by recalled here. He wrote that she was no more than eight or nine. This was in Calcutta. He was film editor at a movie studio owned by Rai Bahadur Seth Dalsukh Karnani, a colourful and eccentric character who, despite his years, always had an eye out for a pretty girl, of whom there was hardly a shortage in his world. He would address all men in his Gujarati accent as “shand” or bull, while all women were “devi”, even those he fired from their jobs. Once he asked the manager of the Corinthian Theatre, a man by the name of Naseer, to go to the Punjab and come back with some girls. The man came back with fifteen to twenty of them, among whom were the Nur Jehan sisters, the two older ones Eiden and Haider Bandi, and the eight-year old future queen of the Indian cinema. These girls were collectively called “Punjab Mail”. One of the girls, Rashida who was related to Nur Jehan, was installed as the Rai Bahadur’s mistress.
When Rizvi was asked to come to Lahore to direct Khandan in 1942, Nur Jehan, who with her sisters was in a dance party which performed from town to town, was in Amritsar. He was to choose a heroine for the new movie which was being produced by Dalsukh Pancholi. He recalls that through the help of S.P. Singha, who was vice chancellor of the Punjab University, several girls were sent over for audition but he did hot like any of them. He wanted his heroine to look no more than fifteen or sixteen on the screen, which was how old Nur Jehan was at the time. He decided that it was she whom he wanted. She was sent for but he did not tell her that she was going to play the lead. That was when their affair began which ended in marriage against the wishes of her brothers who did not wish to lose her. She was the soul and the main draw of the roving dance party.
One day, during the shooting, Rizvi said to Nur Jehan by way of a joke, “What sort of oil do you use on your hair? It smells awful.” He says the moment the words left his mouth, she burst out crying and just would not stop. “What sort of a woman is this!” he recalled saying to himself. “I should have been warned that she was a very dangerous woman but I was in love. I could not see that.” As a result of this incident, the shooting remained interrupted for five or six days. When it was resumed, he says he came back, fully determined that he would ignore her. However, after some cajoling from the Pancholi clan of nephews that hung around the studio, Rizvi made up with her. The love affair was resumed. One day, old Pancholi sent for him and said, “Look Shaukat, my nephews are your friends and I treat you as one of them. Let me give you some advice. Let this remain a little game between the two of you, no more than that. Don’t let it go too far.” He wrote, “To this day, his words ring in my ears. But I was blinded by love.”
In Rizvi’s words, “She was having this affair with me on the one hand, while carrying on with some others on the side. One day, I ran into a friend on the Mall (in Lahore) who said there was someone looking for me.” He was led to a house off the Mall where he was surprised to meet Nur Jehan. But she was not alone. In her wake came Hassan Amin (more about him a little later). It seems they were having a playful pillow fight. “I was taken aback,” wrote Rizvi, “Here was the woman who used to assure me of her love … I asked Hasan Amin what it all meant. He replied that it was Nur Jehan’s idea. She it was who wanted him to send for me. The idea was to make me jealous.” Her family, he adds, was in on the little game, although Amin knew that she was having an affair with Rizvi.
Hasan Amin, I should add by way of a footnote, told me himself that Nur Jehan was his first love. He was a student at Government College, Lahore, when he first saw her, performing with her sisters on the stage. He was smitten. He chased her all the way to Kasur and despite the opposition of her family, Nur Jehan had an affair with him. Last time I met Hasan Amin was at his home in Islamabad in the late summer of 1999 when he told me of his life-long infatuation with Nur Jehan. Earlier that day, there had been a rumour that Nur Jehan had died in Karachi. Hasan Amin said he would phone her which he did. He kept saying to her, ‘Nuri, please forgive me, Nuri, please forgive me.” When I told him to give her my best, he said to her that there was someone with him who wanted him to give her his best. When he told her who it was, she said I was an “old and special friend.” We were thrilled that she was alive, though she was by no means well. I said to Hasan Amin, “We have got to celebrate this.” “Then we will celebrate it with champagne,” he said grandly. “Champagne in Islamabad?” I asked. “Yes, indeed, champagne in Islamabad,” he replied. He did indeed produce a bottle of fine French champagne with which we toasted Madam’s health. I also asked him why he was asking her to forgive him. “She wanted me to marry her, but all wanted to do in those days was play cricket,” he said wistfully.
But returning to Shaukat Hussain Rizvi’s story, Nur Jehan promised to drop all others and the affair revived. Some time later, she began to come to him with stories of her mistreatment by her family, including beatings by her brothers. Rizvi told her to make a declaration to that effect (before a judge) but she did not do that. Meanwhile, their affair became even more torrid. Khandan was now near completion. One day when the studio car went to fetch her from Hira Mandi, Lahore’s famous flesh district (where she was obviously staying), there was word waiting that the family had left. Police warrants were issued, Seth Dalsukh Pancholi being a man of influence, and forty members of her family were arrested from Kasur and brought to Lahore. That day the scene to be shot included the actors Ghulam Muhammad, Pran, the hero, and Nur Jehan. Her elder brother tried to make a protest to Rizvi who told him to be on his way. Nur Jehan, once again, began to cry complaining about her treatment by the family. He told her to go before a judge, tell him the truth and declare that she wanted to marry Shaukat Hussain Rizvi. She promised to do so the next day. The police case against her family was also to be heard the next day. Her brother Shafi told the judge that the family was afraid Rizvi would abduct Nur Jehan. When this was put to her by the judge, she said that to her Shaukat Hussain Rizvi was like a “brother”. This, Rizvi wrote, was typical of her, adding that he could narrate not one but “two thousand five hundred” such stories.
Khandan was released and it was an immediate hit. Shaukat went home to see his parents in U.P. When he returned to Lahore, there were several messages from Nur Jehan waiting. She was in Amritsar with her dance party doing shows at the Rialto Cinema. Rizvi finally relented, travelled to Amritsar with friends and when he met her, she told him the same story. She explained that she had been forced to make the “brother” statement in Lahore because of pressure from her brothers. However, this time, she assured him she was willing to go with him. He told her that he would send for the police which would take her to court where she should make the necessary declaration, but wrote Rizvi, “she again cheated me. The fact was that she did exactly what her brothers told her to do.”
He returned to Lahore and from there he took off for Bombay where he was assigned by V.M. Vyas to produce the movie Naukar. Nur Jehan had also arrived in Bombay and wanted to be cast as the lead. However, Rizvi refused and, when pressed, agreed to make her the “side heroine” but he made it clear to Vyas that he did not wish to speak to her. According to Rizvi, one day Nur Jehan’s brother Shafi came to him, asked for forgiveness and said, “Baby (he called her Baby) is not herself, please forgive her.” Then he stepped out, brought in Nur Jehan, who was waiting outside and left her there. Nur Jehan told him how cruelly she had been treated. She showed him marks on her body resulting from beatings given to her by her brothers. The two made up and, before long, they were married. However, more trouble was afoot. Nur Jehan’s parents filed a suit against Rizvi charging abduction of their daughter. Rizvi sent for her birth certificate from Kasur (reproduced in the book) which listed Nur Jehan’s parents’s profession as ‘tawaif’ or prostitute. The same document gave her date of birth as 21 September 1926.
Rizvi’s and Nur Jehan’s first two children, Akbar and Asghar, were born in Bombay. Their married life appears to have been fairly normal and Rizvi does not mention any wayward behaviour by his wife, except one incident involving her meeting her old flame Hasan Amin who visited her in Bombay. After Khandan, Nur Jehan’s career soared and she made several movies. The family left Bombay, such being the atmosphere at the time, and settled in Karachi where Rizvi bought a house in Garden East. Rizvi wrote that he had decided to change his profession and was interested in buying what became the Hyesons factory manufacturing light bulbs. Nur Jehan, however, insisted that he should only follow a line of work of which he had experience and for which he was qualified. This was sound advice, although Rizvi’s account gives her no credit. They moved to Lahore where Rizvi bought the abandoned Shorey Studio which he turned into Shahnur. Rizvi wrote that while he would go to work, she would have it off with Ajay Kumar, the male lead in her second movie in Pakistan Dupatta.
Her romance with Pakistan’s debonair opening batsman Nazar Muhammad began during the filming of Chanway, according to Rizvi. Nazar who was related to music director Feroz Nizami, would come to Shahnur where the movie was being made. He could carry a tune and he obviously had an eye out for her, as she had for him. According to Rizvi, it was she who encouraged Nazar. Their affair continued even after Chanway was completed. During the 1953 martial law in Lahore after the outbreak of the anti-Ahmediyya riots, Rizvi charges that Nur Jehan who had a curfew pass, would put on a white burqa and go to Hira Mandi to meet Nazar. Rizvi’s informers told him of these secret assignations and one day, he followed her without her knowledge and found that what he had been told was true. Whenever he would ask her about Nazar, she would say that to her he was like Akbar or Asghar. However, the scandal became so embarrassing that Rizvi decided to act. One day, his driver Amir Hasan reported to him that he had just dropped Nur Jehan at Islamia Park where Nazar and she had a place of assignation. Rizvi, along with two carloads of friends and helpers, arrived at the house that had been identified by the driver. It belonged to an old man who sold amulets and traditional medicines. Rizvi knocked at the door – his men had surrounded the place – and when it was answered, demanded to know if Nur Jehan was in there.
The old man pretended that he did not know who Nur Jehan was. The enraged Rizvi, brushing him aside, began to climb the stairs to the upper floor that had only one room. The old man started to shout and scream so that the lovers should be warned of the raid. Rizvi says he saw the two of them lying in bed. Had he had a gun, he adds, he would have shot them both. Nazar jumped out of bed and leapt out of the window to the ground, twenty-five feet below, falling on his arm which broke. Rizvi’s helpers caught him nevertheless. Nur Jehan, meanwhile, began to cry, an art, Rizvi says, of which she is a past master. She came down and began to scream that it was her husband who was passing her on to other men. She made such a racket that people from the neighbouring houses came out. Before long, there were about two hundred people there. Nazar had meanwhile lost consciousness. Mian Ehsan of Crescent Films also arrived on the scene and took Nur Jehan away. Nazar never played cricket again. It was one of the greatest tragedies to hit Pakistan’s cricket.
Rizvi accuses her of affair after affair. According to him she had an affair with the hero of her first film, Anwar Jahangir Khan and cinematographer Raza Mir. Also M. Naseem, owner of the film distribution company, Popular Pictures, Royal Park, Lahore. He was often referred to as Naseem Popularwala. The last affair she certainly had and it lasted quite a few years. Six of her letters to Naseem written from Tashkent are reproduced in Rizvi’s book. These letters date back to August 1958 when her marriage to Rizvi was practically over. She asks him in both letters to look after the two boys, Akbar and Asghar and the little girl Zil-e-Huma. Nur Jehan was in Tashkent on a Pakistan movie industry delegation. The six letters are signed “Your own Nur Jehan” and “Your Nur Jehan” and “Your Nur”. The letters, Shaukat claimed, were given to him by Naseem himself. What a rat! On such people, she wasted her affections.
Rizvi wrote that Nur Jehan also had an affair with movie director Anwar Kamal Pasha who once gave her some brandy to drink and when it hit her, she tore off her shirt. He also accused her of having a casual affair with the brother of a studio employee by the name of Gul Zaman. She asked him to press her feet one day and led him on. Once she was through with him, she told him to get lost. She also tried to have an affair with the actor Santosh Kumar who said he respected Rizvi like his father and would prefer death to having an affair with her. She told him, according to Santosh, in English, “I love you and I love others.” She also had an affair, claimed Shaukat, with music director Nazir Ali. She also had a one-night stand, charged Rizvi, with a crockery merchant in Dhani Ram Road, Lahore, as well as the actor Mazhar Shah. She also had a serious affair with actor Yusuf Khan and a PIA pilot by the name of Ijaz Alam. Rizvi also accused her of practising black art and preparing some potion based on owl flesh which put those to whom it was administered under her power.
I have provided the gist of Rizvi’s diatribe against Nur Jehan in some detail because Saeed Malik, the musicologist, whose opinion I respect and who knew Rizvi well, said to me once that I had been too harsh on Rizvi in the various pieces I had written on Nur Jehan. He said what Rizvi had written or said about Nur Jehan also deserved to be taken into account. I am not endorsing what Rizvi wrote or said - much of it maybe and, probably, is true - but that does not take away from Nur Jehan her greatness. She was an extraordinary woman and it would be unfair to judge her from ordinary standards. She may have done some or all of the things that Rizvi accuses her of, but, in so doing, he betrayed his own arrogance and self-love. There is not one single word he has to say in acknowledgment of her exceptional talent. In fact, he argued that it was he who taught her how to converse, how to act, how to behave socially. However, according to him, she remained faithful to her “origins.” Both Rizvi and Nur Jehan are dead, so if they are still fighting, they can slug it out in the hereafter.
Rizvi’s account is unrelieved by humour or the intense love he had felt for her once. It was a little late in the day for him to regret having fallen for the fledgling enchantress from Kasur with a voice like molten silver. In his memoir, from which I have quoted extensively, he repeatedly expresses regret at having married her when he could have married a high-born girl from a nawab or jagirdar family. Perhaps, but he will ultimately be remembered more for having been once her husband than for his own work. Rizvi and Nur Jehan were married when she was barely sixteen. There is no question that he was besotted with the pubescent, flirtatious girl whose musical talent was prodigious and whose ambition to succeed was as vast as the Punjabi countryside she had sprung from.
Rizvi’s book is made up of a string of allegations against the woman who was to bear him three children: Akbar, Asghar and Zil-e-Huma. He felt no compunction in berating Nur Jehan’s name and reputation, whining that she had betrayed him time after time. Men, he wrote, were in and out of her life almost from the day they were married. He tries to portray himself as the long-suffering husband who bore the infidelities of his wife with stoic heroism. What he does not say is that he was no angel himself and that there were more women in his life than he has had the courage to admit. He says he continued the marriage “for the children’s sake”, an argument that lacks credibility. If the marriage was as bad as he said it was and Nur Jehan was such an awful, uncaring mother, then it would have been better for the children had it ended. Long after she had left him, he complained that she had turned his sons against him. “They are after my blood,” he said.
Those who knew Nur Jehan will stand witness to the great love she always bore her children. Akbar, in particular, she always doted on. He was her weakness and could make her do anything. In Rizvi’s small-minded and partisan account of their life together, not once did he acknowledge Nur Jehan’s musical genius. She was an extraordinary woman whose virtues and failings by the very nature of her greatness remained extraordinary. Women like Nur Jehan cannot be judged by standards applicable to lesser human beings. She may have been avaricious, insecure and possessive but she was always capable of great generosity. All her life, she took care of her family, never forgetting her less than fortunate beginnings. Nur Jehan led her life with great self-confidence and much grace. What is more, in a man’s world, she did so on her own terms. I once asked her why she was sometimes accused of being insensitive to her admirers. “I am invited to someone’s home, say for dinner, and after everyone has eaten, I am asked if I would sing a song. And I say I won’t because I have come to dine not to sing. If I said yes, it would be unprofessional. I have tried to maintain the grace and dignity of my profession.”
While emphasising his high-caste Syed origins most immodestly (are the Syeds the Brahmins of the Muslims?), and extolling his lineage, grooming, upbringing, good looks, and general culture, including his pure “ahl-e-zubaan” Urdu accent with the correctly intoned “sheen and qaaf”, Rizvi made cruel fun of Nur Jehan’s background and family, constantly downgrading her because he was a “kanjar”. He felt no compunction in saying that Nur Jehan came from the gutter and while accusing her of greed and dishonesty, he showed little generosity of spirit himself. He even held her responsible for the collapse of her first-born son Akbar’s marriage. He also mocked her for having brothers who had to be sent off to the mental asylum. Once, he wrote, Nur Jehan had said to him that she would have her revenge by seeing to it that his daughter Zil-e-Huma returned to Hira Mandi. Outside her door, she would place a sign: Zil-e-Huma daughter of Syed Shaukat Hussain Rizvi.
It was typical of the nasty, small-minded and partisan nature of Rizvi’s account of their life together that not once did he acknowledge Nur Jehan as an artist. There is no question that Nur Jehan was an extraordinary woman and so her virtues and failings must, by the same measure, remain extraordinary. Perhaps the narrative tells us more about Rizvi than it does about Nur Jehan. As for myself, I am concerned with the Nur Jehan I admired all my life with all her faults and failings and all her glorious attributes, not least her music and the professionalism that she brought to her work. She demanded respect and she got it. You could not make one slighting remark about Nur Jehan in the movie industry and get away with it. Madam’s network of spies was extensive and their loyalty to her was legendary. When I first met that superb music director Hassan Latif (Lat uljhi suljha ja re balam, meray hathoon mein mehndi laggi and Ja apni hasratoon pay aansoo baha ke sau ja) at her Gulberg Home in 1969 (now demolished), she introduced him by saying, “He is my gang.”
Madam’s liaisons were part of her legend. Did someone ever directly ask her about them? One person whom I can name who did indeed ask her was Raja Tajammul Hussain. “All half truths,” she had told him. “Then let’s have some half truths,” he ventured, “the serious half truths, that is.” She was in one of her throwaway moods and she said, “All right then,” and began to pull out names from her photographic memory. After a few minutes, she asked Tajammul, “And how many do you have?” “Sixteen so far,” Tajammul replied with a straight face. Her response in Punjabi remains a Nur Jehan classic. “Hai Allah! Na na kardian wi solan ho gai nain!”
She told Hussain Haqqani, who saw a great deal of her in her last days because she said she found his company entertaining, when he asked her about her fabled love life. “Husn parast mein hoon magar budkirdar nahin.” Or, beauty I admire, but a loose woman I am not. She one day said to him, “I should have met you when I was young, but I have met you when I am old, so I can only make you my son.” One day he asked her what regrets she had in life. “Two,” she answered. “I could not get an education and I was not able to make a home.” She always urged her three daughters from her marriage to Ijaz –Hina, Shazia and Nazia – that true happiness for a woman lay in a good marriage. She was unhappy about her youngest daughter Nazia’s crush on the actor Shan of whom she did not think much, nor was she much enamoured of his mother, the actress Neelo, who became the toast of Pakistan with the release of the movie Saat Lakh in which she danced to the runaway hit Tu chutti lai ke aaja baalama. Hina, the eldest daughter out of her marriage to Ijaz, had a good voice but Nur Jehan did not want her to follow in her footsteps. Once she told Haqqani, “What is the point really! She will never be able to become Nur Jehan.”
She loved her sons much, especially Akbar, and kept helping them with money all her life. Haqqani told me that the boys’ demands never ceased, even during her long illness. One day, she said to Haqqani, “Kuchh samajh nahin aati, shadi to Syed se ki thi, kya pata tha ke in larkoon mein haram ka khoon aa jaye ga.” Or, ‘I just fail to understand this. A Syed it was whom I married, but how could I know that the blood in the veins of these boys would be of the bastard variety.’ This observation bears Nur Jehan’s unmistakable stamp.
Madam’s last days were painful. She had a bad heart, bad kidneys and many ailments related to those conditions. Once she almost died but came through. She told Haqqani that God had spared her life so that while she was alive, she should divide her property equally among her children because if she did not, after she was gone, there would be disputes and that would make her very unhappy. She was not to be disappointed. Her large home in the Liberty Chowk in Lahore’s Gulberg, which she had been smart enough to get declared commercial property by the Corporation, was sold for Rs. 20 crore. She gave each of her six children, Akbar, Asghar, Zil-e-Huma, Hina, Shazia and Nazia Rs. 2.5 crore each. She was truly happy and relieved after she had done that.
Madam was a lady who was better not crossed, especially by other ladies. Very many years ago, there were stories that she had roughed up the actress Nighat Sultana who had either said something catty about her behind her back or whom she suspected of flirting with her husband. At that time, she still cared. Another fledgling singer who had bragged about being as good as Nur Jehan was given such a tongue lashing that she broke down and had to be helped out. Around 1994-95, she had a run-in with the singer Tahira Syed who had spoken about Nur Jehan in dismissive terms. She said she could not bear to listen to her more than a couple of times as she found her voice tiresome. She had then added that her favourite singers were Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Ataullah Khan Isakhelvi and those two she could listen to endlessly. She had also said that she was not a “professional” singer but only sang off and on to raise money for “good causes.”
The matter might have proceeded no further, except that when Madam reacted, her mother Malika Pukhraj advised her to apologise to her daughter, adding, “Everyone knows who we are and everyone knows who she is.” The reaction in the Lahore film circles was immediate. They rose like a single, indivisible unit in Madam’s defence, denounced the two women and declared that there was only one Madam Nur Jehan. Madam, being a past mistress at the parting kick, had the last word. Of Isakhelvi, the truckers’ favourite, she said, “What he sings does not quite conform to what I have been taught as music.” And well she could say that. Even the great Bade Ghulam Ali Khan recognised her prowess and was proud to accept her as a pupil, a gesture of respect Nur Jehan showed to the legendary maestro, whereas the fact was that whatever there was to know about the mysteries and intricacies of music, she knew better than anyone. There was nothing more anyone could teach her. When she died, one of her great aunts said that when Nur Jehan was born, her father’s sister on hearing her wail, said to her brother, “This one even wails in accordance with the scale.”
Madam also had a famous passage-of-arms with Musarrat Nazir in 1988. Madam was not exactly thrilled that Ms Nazir should have scored one of the biggest popular hits in living memory with the song “Mera laung gavacha.” That was the song about a girl who drops her tiny jeweled nose ornament as she runs on breathlessly at nightfall through a grove of trees followed by a young man whom she consigns to a destiny where he would forever look in vain for the missing ornament that had leapt from her nose on to the ground. Madam got so tired of everyone raving about “Laung gavacha” that she recorded her version of the song which sank without trace, much to her chagrin. When I asked her why she had done that, she told me, “Everyone came to me and said if I did not sing the song, there would be bloodshed in Bari Studio.” I have now forgotten why there was going to be bloodshed in Bari Studio, Lahore, though Madam did at the time explain to my full satisfaction why.
I remember asking her if she was envious of the success of Ms Nazir. “Envious!” she had replied, her voice full of derision, “I can only feel envious of a singer, but Musarrat…?” she had left the sentence hanging in the air. Vintage Madam! When some time later, I asked Musarrat in Toronto what had happened, she swore to me that when she was in Lahore, messages had been conveyed to her on Madam’s behalf that if she did not return to wherever she had come from on the very same pair of feet that had brought her to Lahore, the consequences would not be pleasant. Even black magic (which Shaukat Hussain Rizvi swore Madam was adept at) was mentioned.
I first met Madam Nur Jehan in 1967 when she was going through a messy divorce with Ejaz, an actor with no talent, except perhaps his looks, whom she had married some years earlier and whose film career she had helped build. Three daughters and many infidelities later, it was over. During those days, I saw a good deal of her. Always smitten with her voice, I came to admire her sharp intellect, her puckish sense of humour and her insight into life and people. She often spoke about Ejaz, sometimes caustically, at other times from a sense of disillusionment. She felt betrayed by and in him. She also blamed herself for her poor judgment.
“He was never anything but trash,” I remember her saying of Ejaz. Years later, when Ejaz was picked up at Heathrow airport, London, with a cache of narcotics concealed in film cans, tried and sentenced to four years in the clinker, it was Nur Jehan who came to his help. She paid lawyers’ fees which were considerable, and this despite her reputation for being tight-fisted. The man who had let her down and left her to raise three daughters, she helped generously in his adversity. That was a side of Nur Jehan which was not commonly known. She kept a careful eye on her money but she could also be a soft touch, especially when it came to those she had affection for.
I remember my first meeting with Madam as if it was yesterday though it is now more than thirty-five years since I first set eyes on her. I was doing a story on her divorce for the Pakistan Times for which I was then a reporter. Films, culture and other colourful stuff was my beat. The Urdu papers had been full of Nur Jehan-Ejaz stories, but our paper had so far chosen to take no notice of something that was the talk of the town, if not the country. The Pakistan Times was quite snooty in these matters. However, I was sure if I was able to see Nur Jehan and get a good story out of her, I would be able to get it into print, our editor Khwaja M. Asaf’s watchful eye and red pencil notwithstanding. Surprisingly, Nur Jehan had a listed phone number. Against her name, the Telephone Department had printed the utterly unnecessary words “Film Star”.
I phoned the number several times but found it either engaged or unresponsive. But I persisted and was at last rewarded when Madam answered it herself. ‘Hello,” she said and I knew it was her. That hello was like music to my ears. When I told her who I was and why I had called, she said, “You people never write the truth.” “Try me,” I replied quickly, “What you say, will be printed exactly as you say it.” When she asked what paper I was from and I told her, she sounded reassured. The Pakistan Times had a great deal of prestige, the National Press Trust notwithstanding. But I wasn’t home and dry yet because the next thing she said was, “But that is an English newspaper and I can’t give you an interview in English.” Then she laughed, a teasing, flirtatious laugh, very Nur Jehan. “But you know I am not an anparh. I can do a bit of gitter-mitter.” She also told me I had an honest voice and would I come that afternoon. She also asked me if I knew where she lived. “Yes, Madam, I indeed do. The entire world knows where you live. Bang in front of the United Christian Hospital, the big white house with the black steel gate.” The Liberty Market was still somewhere in the future.
I was taken to the living room which was small but very proper with Madam’s awards sitting in a glass cabinet. Tea came first on an elegant silver tray. A few minutes later, Madam appeared. She looked stunning in a white sari. She wore diamonds in her fingers and her golden bracelets jangled as she made a cup of tea for me. I asked her if she always wore white. “When I came to the film industry at the old Pancholi studio in Lahore, I was very young and uncertain of myself,” she said. “On my first or second day on the set, I was struck by a tall, elegant woman, who wore a shimmering white sari. She looked so graceful. She came often and whenever I saw her, she was always in white. She wore nothing else. She looked so good, so much at ease, so much at peace with herself and the world.” What her name was Madam did not tell me. I had a feeling she was some producer or director’s mistress. “From that day on, I have worn white. I am a hoarder of clothes and jewellry and I have so much of both that it is sometimes years before I get to wear the same sari. I do wear colours sometimes, but white it is that is my colour.”
She talked about Ejaz and said she had really loved him when they married. He was a nobody, just a boy from Gujrat whom she had taken under her wing. She asked me if I knew any of his brothers. When I said I did not, she said, “Well, you should because no two look alike.” And why was that, I asked? “Because they are all haramda’s,” she replied, sired by different fathers. She laughed, then added, “I can be very coarse when I want to, more coarse than men can ever be. I don’t often get angry, but when I do, you would be shocked at the profanities I can let fly.” I was to get some evidence of that on a couple of occasions in the next few weeks. She also told me some not-very-nice stories about the women from Ejaz’s family. She said I was free to quote her. “No, thank you, Madam,” I replied, and she laughed again.
She admitted that she had been in a few relationships since Shaukat Rizvi but they had left her unhappy and dissatisfied. Emotionally, she had been adrift. “I have to be intensely involved in a man, otherwise I cannot sing. My music abandons me.” She said she had helped launch Ejaz’s career. Ejaz, his head swollen by success, had begun to drift away from her. He had even hit her on a couple of occasions, but what had broken the marriage was his almost public affair with the actress Firdaus whom Nur Jehan called “common.” She predicted that the Ejaz-Firdaus thing would end in disaster. Madam was right. It did.
Ejaz, she said, had begun to play around with extras and starlets, most of them from “the area.” As time passed, his escapades became more and more indiscreet. “I have been around long enough to know that all men like to play around. A wise woman accepts this and lives with it. But there is one condition which must never be violated. The philandering husband must conduct his liaisons with discretion. He must not flaunt his lechery,” She told me where she had “drawn the line” although she had known about the affair Ejaz was having with Firdaus. “Every evening he would drive in front of our home with that woman sitting next to him. He would stop the car briefly, honk a couple of times and then move on. I told him that was where he got off. ‘Pack your bags and get out.’ I said, and that was that.” Then she added, “I am a fair woman and I was a good wife to him. I never played around while we were married and I tell you all I have to do is to flutter my eyelashes and men come running.”
What sort of men did she like? Would she name someone she found irresistible? “Yes,” she smiled, “That American actor in the movie Ben Hur.” “Charlton Heston,” I replied. “That’s the sort of man I like,” she had said. “Tell me more about men,” I asked her. She smiled coquettishly, threw her head back and laughed. She said in Punjabi, “Jadon mein koi sohna banda takni aan te mainoon khud bud shooroo ho jandi ai.” Untranslatable but, “when I see a handsome man, I experience a sense of restless curiosity in my heart.”
Nur Jehan was a woman with amazing will power and self-control. On one occasion, she said to me, “In this society, what is a woman’s worth? Nothing! She is just a piece of furniture that can be shifted around. She has no power. She lives at the mercy of her parents, brothers, husbands and lovers. I am what I am today because I have struggled. What I have, I have won it all with my own hard work.” She had spoken truly because Nur Jehan was Nur Jehan because of Nur Jehan. She proved that a woman could decide how she would live and what she could do without the help of men, provided she had the strength and the will.
The late Naseer Anwar once told me a lovely story about Nur Jehan. It was in the 1930s and the city was Lahore. The devotees of a local Pir had arranged a special evening of devotional music in his honour. Among those who were brought on to perform was a little girl who sang some naats. “Sing us something in Punjabi, little daughter,” the Pir said to her. She immediately launched into a Punjabi folk song one line of which went something like: may the kite of this land of five rivers touch the skies. As she sang the words in her young but perfectly modulated voice, the Pir went into a trance. Then he rose, put his hand on the girl’s head and prophesied, “Go forth, little girl, your kite will one day touch the skies.” How Pakistan has regressed as time has passed was brought home to me in the late 1970s when a mullah in Lahore issued a fatwa against Nur Jehan, declaring her “outside the pale of Islam for having said that music was a form of worship.”
Sometimes I think of one of my last meetings with Nur Jehan. It was in Lahore in 1992. I had returned to Pakistan after twenty years. From Vienna, where I lived for ten years, I talked to her several times on the phone. I spent time with her in London in the early 1980s. Once when she was in Paris and someone gave me her number, I phoned her. That was the time when there was that famous run-in she had with Musarrat Nazir. When I was working as the Press Counsellor at the embassy in London in 1976-77, Nur Jehan came there and held a concert at the Albert Hall. I introduced her, a moment I have always relished.
It is an early winter day at her Gulberg home. I have with me Narendra Kumar, owner of the well-known Delhi publishing house Vikas, who has flown to Lahore with me from Delhi. He has asked me if he can take his teenage son with him and I have told him, “Sure.” My younger brother Masood is with us and has, in fact, driven us to Madam’s residence. Narendra tells her he has been her fan since he was a boy. “I suppose that makes me old,” she says “No, it doesn’t. You were also a girl then,” he replies. We all laugh.
I often think of the scene. There sits Madam, splendid in a light pink sari, wearing heavy gold bangles and diamond rings. But it is the silver of her voice that I captivates me, as always. Narendra says he wants to publish her biography. He wants to print it in English, Hindi and Urdu and he will release the book with big ceremonies at New Delhi, Lucknow, Bombay and Lahore. “I will get the Prime Minister of India to come to the ceremony in Delhi.” Madam is pleased.
She looks at me and I think she remembers that nearly twenty-four years ago, she wanted me to write her life. No holds barred, nothing kept back. It has never happened. But here I am, back like a bad coin and Madam has not forgotten, nor have I for that matter. I have been in the same room before, drinking tea, as I am doing now, and looking at this amazing woman and listening to her voice. “Khalid will write it,” Narendra says. He is full of beans. His enthusiasm is almost infectious. Even Madam is carried away. “Who else indeed!” she adds, then looks at me and asks matter-of-factly, “And how will it get written?” “Well,” I say, “I will need to be with you several hours at a stretch with a tape recorder for twenty to thirty uninterrupted sessions in the next few months. You just talk. I will prepare a transcript and we will go over it together and in a few months, we will have a book.” She nods and looks at Narendra, suddenly a woman of business. But she says nothing, nor does he, which, in my opinion, is a mistake. I also know that I will never be able to pin her down to all those sessions. She is a very elusive lady. I know how it will be. She would ask me to come at ten and I won’t see her at ten, or eleven or even twelve. Her life is so complicated. There are cross currents all around her: family, recording studio, visitors, properties, royalties, lawyers, children, former husbands, current flames. And I have just rattled off her main distractions.
So I look at her and marvel at the life she has led and the life she is leading and the life she is going to lead. And I sigh because I really do want to do this book and she wants me to do this book and Narendra who can’t take his eyes off her, wants to do this book, and I know we will never do it. Suddenly Narendra says to Madam, “I am going to ask you to do something for my son because I want him to remember this moment for the rest of his life. I want him to remember a certain morning in Lahore, years from now, when he sat in the same room as the legendary Nur Jehan and he heard her sing. Will you sing?”
I hold my breath because I know this is one thing she doesn’t do, except very, very rarely. I remember once asking her as we sit on her front lawn in chairs. It is a mild summer evening. I ask her to sing me a few bars from a song I loved then, and I love now: Jadoon holi jayee lainaan mera naan, mein thaan mur jani yaan, which means when you whisper my name softly, I die. When I tell people Nur Jehan sang for me, they don’t believe it. One person who knows her says, “She must really like you.” Then he gives me that certain look. “No, no,” I say, “there is nothing of the sort. We just relate very well. It is the chemistry, something I can’t explain.”
She looks at Narendra, then at his son and, finally, at her life-long ustad, Ghulam Muhammad or Gamay Khan. He is very old. She venerates him. He travels with her wherever she goes. “Zara waja te mangwana,” she says to him. A young boy who has been waiting around, goes to the next room and comes back with the waja which is what the harmonium is called. It is also referred to as peti. Ustad Gamay Khan plays one note, then another,, then another. He looks at her. Madam produces a tentative taan and says, “Uppar wala saa lao.” She wants him to go one octave up. He does that and she sings another note, more to herself than to us. “What shall I sing?” she asks Narendra. “An old song, an old song,” he answers. “There are so many of them. Which one?” she asks. He can’t think of one. He is too excited and very nervous.
“Sing Badnaam mohabat kaun kare from Dost,” I say. I remember her telling me once that she has always liked that song. Her face lights up. “Yes, Sajjad sahib, I haven’t sung it for years.” She makes a few tentative starts and once she is sure she has got her pitch right, she sings the mukhra. She stops in the middle of the first antara and says, “You know Narendra sahib, you cannot get a decent harmonium in this country. Only in Calcutta can you get one. You know which is the best waja in the world? Das da waja. You can’t get it here. All these people, Ghulam Ali and others, they go to India and they bring back these wajas and tell me about them, but tut penay – this is not translatable – bring none for me.” “I will send you one,” Narendra says. I don’t think he ever sent her one.
Madam begins to sing. She forgets a line and I help her with it. Then she is finished. We have more tea. Madam gives us cake slices which she cuts daintily. Then it is over and we ask her leave. She walks us out of the door, waves, a lovely smile on her face. We all feel an inexpressible sort of joy coursing through our veins. That is what Nur Jehan does to people, otherwise hardened by time, age and circumstance. That is why she is Queen, I say to myself, in a country with so little joy. Yes, and while we are there, one of her daughters walks in and we are introduced to her. She is young and lovely, but she is no Nur Jehan, who asks me to call her in the evening. I do but she is not home. It is the same the next day.
I remember an earlier meeting when she tells me about growing up in Kasur. She says she was taught classical music by Ustad Ghulam Muhammad, whom we have just met, and her “film line” ustad was Master Ghulam Haider. She says he also taught her how to stand in front of a microphone and how to render words such as hai and mohabat, also how to breathe while singing. She says, “We were brought up with great love, Our parents doted on us and also told us that true joy resides in your own heart and you always carry it with you, no matter where in the world you go. Nobody can bring you joy if you do not have it within your heart.” She says many of the things that her parents told her have guided her through life. “My father used to say if you cannot help people, you should not harm them. I have always remembered that. He also used to recite Kabir: Aey Kabira teri jhonpari jal-kattion ke paas: Jo karain ge so bharian ge, too kyoon bhavo udas. Because of my parents, we grew up honest and hard working, never greedy or envious of others who had more. We were happy with what we had. We were not ashamed of our slender means. It was not important. When I was a child, there was one prayer I always used to say: O God do not make me dependent on anyone except on Your own glorious mercy. I have taught the same thing to my daughters.”
Nur Jehan had scored a succession of great Punjabi hits when she was cast for Khandan in 1942. Her other Urdu hit was Zeenat made in 1945. Everyone remembers to this day the famous qawwali, the first one recorded in female voices, in which Nur Jehan’s voice rose above the voices of all others, including Zohra Bai Ambalaywali’s and Amir Karnatki’s. It was like a flame leaping out. The words were by Nakhshab: Ahain na bhareen, shikway na kiye. Her other great hits in Bombay were scored for Bari Maan, Dost, Lal Haveli and Gaoon ki Gori, the last starring the Lahore-born actor Nazir who was to marry Swaranlata, the heroine of the all-time musical blockbuster Ratan. One of Nur Jehan’s last films in India in 1947 was Jugnu that launched the careers of two legendary figures, Dilip Kumar and Muhammad Rafi. The music by Feroz Nizami was a smash, including hits like Aaj ki raat and Yahan badla wafa ka bewafai ke siva kya hai. Another distinguishing feature of the movie in which Nur Jehan played a college girl, who dies of consumption and unrequited love, was a song by one of the greatest female classical singers of all time, Malika-e-Mauseeqi Roshan Ara Begum. The song she sang was: Des ki pur kaif rangeen si fizaon mein kahin. The movie climaxed the career of Shaukat Hussain Rizvi who was never fated to equal that success.
Nur Jehan was a woman of great intelligence and wit. During the 1965 war, when Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabussum wrote a special song for her, one among many, celebrating her “sona shehr” Kasur. He one day proposed that they should both travel to Kasur. What Nur Jehan said to Sufi sahib remains a classic. The flavour of her words can only be conveyed in the Punjabi she used, “Sufi ji, othhay hawai hamla ho gia te doojay din mein te tussi dowein malbe thale dabbey labbey, te mein te kisay noon moonh vikhaan jogi nahin rawan gi.” Or Sufi Ji, if there was to be bombing raid and next morning, I was to be found under the debris with you, I will never be able to show my face to anyone? Her wit and her gift for repartee were all her own. Once as she sat on a PIA plane that would rev up its engines, shake like a leaf in the wind, but not start its take off run, she asked a passing steward, “Son, this aircraft is about my age, do you think it will get us to Karachi?” Once when a producer in Lahore asked her if she would like to play the lead in a movie he was making on Anarkali’s life, she replied, “You will then have to call the movie Purani Anarkali.” Purani or old Anarkali is a Lahore locality named after the young girl with whom the heir apparent, Prince Salim, fell in love. She was sentenced to the most cruel death by his father, the Emperor Akbar.
Immediately after the breakup of Pakistan in 1971 , there was a sustained campaign against Nur Jehan for her “amorous” links with General Yahya Khan. While it is true that he was fond of her company, the salacious stories circulated about their relationship had little basis in fact. Yahya enjoyed good company, and there was no better company than Madam. She used to call him sarkar, she once told me. There was one song he was particularly fond of and one she sang for him, Saiyo ni mera mahi merey bhag jagawan aa gya. Once Yahya Khan said to General Hamid, his friend and evening companion, “Ham, if I were to make Nuri Chief of Staff, I tell you she would do a damn better job of it than the lot of you put together.” I asked Nur Jehan about Yahya Khan and she said, “He was a gentleman; kind, humorous and very human. I had tremendous respect for him. I sang at his son Ali’s wedding.” Pictures taken at that wedding where none other than the Yahya Khan family was present have been cited here and there, quite libellously, as evidence of Yahya Khan’s “depravity” and Nur Jehan’s liaison with him. It is quite disgusting.
Not long after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto took office, the Pakistan Peoples Party newspaper Musawat ran a number of stories about Nur Jehan’s close and “scandalous” association with Gen. Yahya Khan. She was outraged. In a press statement, she said if she really was the sort of woman she was being portrayed as, she would rather leave Pakistan, never to return. She also tried to approach Bhutto who did not have time to see her. She called me a couple of times and I said I would do my best. Noor Muhammad Mughal or Noora, Bhutto’s personal valet and a man you could only ignore at your peril, was a great admirer of the Madam. One day, he took a copy of Musawat that carried one of the Nur Jehan stories, complete with pictures, to Bhutto and said, “Sahib, why is Hanif Ramay after Nur Jehan? What has she done to him?” Bhutto told Ramay to lay off and leave Nur Jehan alone. Madam had her ways, and she had her admirers. Everywhere.
Which amongst her songs was her favourite? “They are like my children. How can I differentiate between them?” she had said but when I insisted, she thought long and hard and replied, Badnam mohabat kaun kare from the pre-1947 movie Dost. She said it was composed by that finicky perfectionist, Sajjad, who she added, never made a seedhi or straight tune. This is really true and if you do not believe it, you should try to hum any of Sajjad’s compositions, say Darshan pyasi, aayi dasi or Aaj merey naseeb nain, mujh ko rulla rulla diya.
My friend M. Rafiq said of her, “Rizvi, Ejaz, the others were just pygmies against an amazon. She was larger than life. Nur Jehan’s kind is born, Phoenix-like, once in an aeon, once in a kalpa. Her insatiable lust for life was something for which the helping hands of men were just poorly poised inadequates. Gauging her from our mundane vantage point of values gives us the wrong reading. I don’t think a measure has been devised by human devices which can take her bearings. I saw her just once across the table in the Principal’s office at Chiefs College, Lahore, where she had come to put in her son. But the impact hit me much, much later.”
Many people have asked why Nur Jehan was not buried in Lahore, a city she longed for all the time she lay ailing in Karachi. According to Hussain Haqqani, her daughter Hina, who, he says, has inherited her mother’s decisiveness and will power, decided that since she had died on Shab-e-Qadar, a night all Muslims believe to be the holiest in Islam’s calendar, she was destined to go to heaven and should, therefore, be buried before the night was out. And that could only be in Karachi. Lahore would have been too late. When Asghar and Zil-e-Huma proposed to take their mother’s body to Lahore for burial, Hina put her foot down. “Don’t you want her to go to heaven?” she asked. And that was that. What I find sad about this story, which happens to be true, Haqqani has assured me, is that Hina should have had any doubt about her mother going to heaven. Regardless of when her mother had died and where she was to be buried, Nur Jehan was headed for heaven anyway because of the joy she had brought to hundreds of millions of people all over the world for nearly sixty years. What other passport to heaven did Madam need! She had the voice of an angel and there could be no question that the angels flew her to heaven.
Madam Nur Jehan was a great woman and a great artist. And now the gods have made her immortal, like her music. She was the toast of India when Pakistan and India were one country. She chose to come to Pakistan because that was where her heart lay. The little town of Kasur where she was born always remained close to her, and Lahore was the city she loved. She was not, however, fated to be buried there. It is said that she had expressed the wish to be buried in Kasur but that was not to be either. Malika-e-Tarannum Nur Jehan stands dignified in death as in life, mourned by millions and remembered with love. She was truly blessed because the devotion that people feel for her is denied by God to all but the elect. Avaaz day kahan hai …