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: What are some of your earliest memories?
Noor Jehan: I was two years old when I became conscious of things. By the grace of Allah my mind was sharp. I remember the lanes in which I used to play. It was the Kot Murad Khan mohalla (Kasur). [……] From the time when I came into this world and became aware of myself, if I ever woke up during the night, I saw my parents saying Tahajjud prayers. Staying in that home, the observance of Namaz was something that I received from my mother. I must have been four or five years old when she got me to stand up with her and pray. I am the very unworthy (bhairi) offspring of very noble parents…[laughs]
Naveed Riaz: And your father was?
Noor Jehan: Madad Ali Khan.
NR: Did you play with dolls?
NJ: No, I had no interest in playing with dolls. I think I mostly sat with my mother, joining her in whatever she did. She was observant of purdah. She would be cooking and since I was little, she would seat me on her lap. During the nights in Ramazan Sharif, when everyone would wake up for sehri, my mother would make parathay for all the children and for my father. I loved that: I would eat aaloo gosht and a paratha with some shakar of gurr on it.
These memories are of Calcutta. We lived in Calcutta in those days – I must have been eight or nine years old by then, and this is not a memory from Kasur.
“Those ladies had practiced riyaaz for many years. I was immediately able to do what they did”
NR: At what age did you move from Kasur?
NJ: I must have been six years old when the family moved.
NR: Did your mother like to sing?
NJ: No, ji, la hawla wa la quwwata! Not at all. As I said, she was purdah-daar – very strictly so!
NR: Sometimes such a thing comes from within?
NJ: No, ji, neither from within, nor without! There was nothing, ji! You could say it was a jaahil family – at least today we would describe it as ‘jaahil’. The poor souls (Becharay), they were a very simple and straightforward family, especially that of my mother. My maternal grandfather came from Kashmir. He did not like Kashmir, but Kasur appealed to him. Actually, he was told to leave Kashmir by the murshid who he followed. So he left Kashmir with his wife, two daughters and son. Then he was told to go to Gujranwala. Then he got the order to move to Kasur.
I have heard that my mother was married when she was nine years old, as people did in the old families. Big families preferred to marry young girls, so that they would be raised among them and learn to love that family. I have heard from my mother that all the four daughters-in-law of her home were given grain to grind every day, and the rotis made for the household would be prepared using this flour. So my mother was raised among those women of the old days. She maintained purdah to her last breath. She did not leave the niqab or burqa.
NR: So in such a typically homely atmosphere, what influenced you?
NJ: Bus ji, there are also such people in a family. My paternal cousin was very fond of listening to ghazals by Akhtari Bai and Mukhtar Begum. It was Allah’s doing that I be this way. I’ve told you: I think perhaps I might have been born singing! You asked, right, as to since when I’ve been singing? I don’t know when I started singing. It was Allah’s grace. I used to copy Mukhtar Begum. Whoever I mimicked, I was able to do it correctly. I’ll ask for a photo of my father for you – he had a white beard and he used to pray regularly. He was told that if Allah Pak has willed it, and this strange thing (Noor Jehan) has come into the world, then you might as well let her sing. Whichever artist I copied, I did it correctly. Those ladies had practiced riyaaz for many years. I was immediately able to do what they did. And then, in this way, I was made a student of Khan sahib Ghulam Muhammad Khan.
NR: Who was it that first told your father that you ought to sing?
NJ: I don’t remember all those things – I was six years old! Had I known you would be asking me these questions today after all these years, I might have written it all down… [laughs] What I’ve heard is that my father was compelled to get me into music. You might be surprised to hear that on my mother’s side of the family, my cousin even today is the imam of a mosque. Those people in my family did not appreciate singing. But you know, it happens. I have not been able to stop singing – even until today. So many storms came, trying to compel me to quit singing. But you can see, thanks be to Allah. If I have not abandoned singing, then singing, too, has not abandoned me. Think about it. It might have been that I wanted to sing but found myself unable to. It is all thanks to Allah. You know how they say,
NR: How old were you when you acquired shagirdi (the status of a student)?
NJ: I was six years old.
By the way, there is another thing that I don’t understand: when you ask questions in Punjabi, I answer in Urdu…[laughs] Punjabi is our mother tongue, what can I say. We are the people of Majha region, specifically Kasur. But that which I wish to explain to you, I cannot do it in Punjabi. From time to time you try to turn me towards Punjabi, and I come back towards Urdu! [laughs]
NR: After leaving Calcutta, where did you go?
NJ: After that, we came here, to Lahore. You showed a photo from Gul-e-Bakawali (1939 film) earlier. It was in those days, pre-Partition, that I sang my first song for films “Shaala Javaaniyan Maanay”(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ElQrJIRPXo) . And people came to know of my singing. I had a great command (aboor) over classical music, and I used to practice Riyaaz a lot, back then. There was “Shala Jawaniyan Mane”, “Pinjaray de vich qeyd jawani” and “Saada Rab hee gawah mahia” – all this music was by Ghulam Haider sahib. So my ustaad for classical music is Ghulam Muhammad sahib. And my ustaad in the film line, who taught me how to stand before the mike, how to say “haaey” and “mohabbat”, what distance to maintain from the mike– it was Master Ghulam Haider who taught me all that. And then after that, things gradually progressed. We made Khandan (1942 film). We moved to Bombay. These are long stories, you see – perhaps when I write a book sometime … What shall I tell you? What shall I not tell you? [laughs]
Kahaan tak suno ge, kahaan tak sunaoon?
Hazaaron hee shikvay hein, kya kya bataaon?
NR: In what year did you go to Bombay, and when did you come here?
NJ: We came here in 1947, and we left everything there. I would have gone to Bombay in 1942…
NR: Are there any memories from Bombay?
NJ: Bus ji, we lived a very simple life there. My sister Suraiya would know. People know. I live a very simple life. Perhaps there isn’t so much ‘haa-hoo’ in my life also because my children were small, and I love them dearly – much like my mother loved her children. This is how we were brought up, and they gave us so much love. They told us that what you can enjoy within the confines of the home, you can never enjoy that much outside. So the exhortations of our parents guided our way…
“When a husband sees you standing up on your own feet, he naturally feels a sense of inferiority. A woman appeals to him only when she is begging before him”
NR: For instance? What would some of those things be, that your parents taught you?
NJ: They did not directly give advice to me, since I was younger – what would a seven- or eight-year-old girl learn from my father? However, in any gathering, he would say things knowing that they would reach our ears. He would say that if one cannot do good for someone, one should do them no wrong either. So in this manner, I remembered many of the things he said. For instance, he would quote these verses:
Kabira teri jhompri gal katiyon ke paas
Karein ge so bharein ge, tu kyoon bhayo udaas
(Kabir, though your shack is next to the butchers’,
They shall reap as they sow – why should you be downcast?)
NR: And such lessons became an asset (sarmaaya) of a lifetime?
NJ: Yes. Another thing about me is that I am not fond of going out of the home too much – to hotels or parties. May God save us from being dependent upon someone. And I have given the same lessons to my children. You would be surprised that my daughters have not seen a film studio to this day. Now, after her marriage, Huma has begun to go to the studio of her father Syed Shaukat Hussain Rizvi sahib. Before marriage, none of them ever came to a studio.
I went to Bombay, my eldest daughter Huma was with me – I thought the kids might do some shopping. I receieved many offers, people pestered me for pictures (films) for them and offered large sums of money. At that point, Yusuf – Dilip Kumar – intervened. They are our friends, may Allah give them a long life and happiness: Dilip Kumar and his wife Saira ji. We all call him ‘Yusufi’ out of affection. He always spoke to me in Punjabi. He asked me what the matter was, and why I was worried. I replied “What could the matter be? This child is getting so many offers for films. If she feels like doing it, what will I do? I don’t want to make her work in films!” Dilip Kumar then told them all to stop making offers if Madam did not want her daughter to take them up.
NR: Why didn’t you want your children to do such work?
NJ: What does one get, ji? The contentment (sakoon) that you will find in life at home (gharelu zindagi), do you think you can find that after becoming an actress?
NR: Here I must disagree with you! Surely you, of all people in this country, would know the satisfaction of engaging in creative work (tahleeqi kaam)?
NJ: Yes, but consider that I worked all my life in creative pursuits. What did I get out of it? What contentment did I get from it? They could spend their entire life doing it, and they would not be able to put in as much effort, or gain as much success as I did. And what did I get?
When a husband sees you standing up on your own feet, he naturally feels a sense of inferiority. A woman appeals to him only when she is begging before him. He likes her when she can ask only him for money to buy sweaters, for saris, and so on. When he finds out she came back having earned 100,000 rupees, he will say “Run along, go pay for the bricks of your own home.” This is what happens to a woman here! Over here, one wishes before God that a woman never earns – only then can her home stay intact (abad). This is what I have felt in my life.
NR: But we have still not answered my question, which is: what is wrong with it if your children wanted to pursue the arts which they received from you as an inheritance (virsa)? For you, it is something that God gave (deyn), but for them it would be their inheritance!
NJ: That deyn is better than a virsa. An inheritance can be taken from you!
My younger daughter is such a genius – she has learnt by herself how to communicate in French, how to type, how to ride a horse. She learns what she wants, Mashallah. But I say to her, “Beta, think of making your home one day. Do not think you will get an award for playing polo one day!” I prefer the life of the home. God has given women the life of the home. There are some verses from Dr. Iqbal which I can’t remember for sure. But their meaning is that a woman’s adornment (singhar) is her home and her husband.
NR: Allow me to ask you a question from a somewhat different direction…
NJ: You may ask from any direction! [laughs]
NR: I have seen that when the words of a song enter one’s mind, the melody completely takes over the sensibilities. In that context, when you first became a mother, and your child began to cry, how did your reconcile yourself to that life?
NJ: I was so young – I was fifteen years old when I first became a mother. I did not know what life was about. Nor was I particularly educated. Even if it’s true that my mother taught us the Quran…
One thing is that I hated being struck, ever since I was a child. We would have to wake up at 6 in the morning to practice riyaaz. You cannot do it after you have eaten parathas – your voice is at its peak before breakfast. So we would practice for three hours after waking up, and breakfast would be brought to us there – we could not leave. My mother slapped me only once in life, when I refused to study for my lessons. She said “tusi parhna ay” (You have to study). Even then, she used the polite “tusi” in Punjabi.
I, too, have always addressed my children by “aap” (formal ‘you’) instead of “tum” (informal). In the same way, once when I asked Lata ji (Lata Mangeshkar) to sit down with me, addressing her with “aap”, she said to me “Didi, why do you use aap for me? You should use tum when talking to me!” I told her this is what I always did. She said, “No, it is my wish: I would consider myself fortunate to hear tum from you just once!” It remains her wish to this day. Just some days ago, recently, we met and I addressed her with “aap”, and she said “For Bhagwan’s sake, please say tum when you talk to me, just once!”
[…]This I learnt from my mother. We do not engage in tuun-taraanh (informal terms of address) […]
NR: Which of your songs do you like most – perhaps any five of them?
NJ: I have said this before. If there is a woman who has ten children, or twelve, or four – she will love all her offspring all the same. I can’t say which song I like most. I do not sing a song unless I like it. If it doesn’t enter my soul, I do not record it. And when the melody appeals to me, I stand before the mic, and I ask Allah for help, and I sing it. One should sing faithfully (eemaan-daari se).