Note: Her patriotic songs galvanised Pakistan’s fighting spirit. Later, an army officer said: “Noor Jehan’s songs led us into battle” and an Indian commentator wrote: “One difference between India and Pakistan in the war was Noor Jehan.” The songs, written mainly by eminent poet and scholar Sufi Tabassum and composed by Noor Jehan, remain very popular to this day.
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: Could you talk about how your immense, everlasting contribution – your taraanas sung during the 1965 war. Who was it that first called you to sing when war broke out? How did it all happen?
Noor Jehan: Among our neighbours was an officer in the Income Tax department. His wife was like a sister to me. She said to me that I should leave some of my domestic staff at home and go to Rawalpindi with them. I told her that I would rather wait – and that in any case, since my country was in danger (aanch aai hui hai), I would rather stay where I was and die. In those days, there was a music director – may Allah have mercy upon him – Hassan Latif sahib. He supported me greatly. He encouraged me to stay, and offered what assistance he might render. He said one thing that greatly touched my heart – he compared me to [the legendary Egyptian singer] Umm Kulthum. It is not that I chose to stay because of this, but the comparison deeply affected me deeply. You see, if one must die, then it is better and more virtuous to die for your country.
It was I who called Radio Pakistan, Lahore. They were quite surprised. The phone must have changed hands ten times before someone finally talked to me (they probably were in a hurry to escape Lahore to save their lives!). When I told them that I was Noor Jehan speaking, they wouldn’t believe me. “It can’t be,” they said. “She’s always been very snobbish (barri bad-damaagh hai) with us!” they said. “For three years we have been asking her sing for Radio and she wouldn’t. How can this be Noor Jehan on the phone now?”
They passed the phone to yet another Director. “Who are you?” he asked me. I said “I am Noor Jehan!” He said “Begum sahiba, why are you playing games, please put the phone down…” I said, “As God is my witness, I’m Noor Jehan…” He replied, “You are only fooling yourself – is this funny to you? There are bombs and shells flying around here!”
I told him “I will come there and would swear with the Quran in my hand that I truly am Noor Jehan!”
Then they began to talk among themselves about my repeated promises and vows and eventually believed that it was truly me! And now they asked me to come over – in the middle of a curfew! So I hurriedly got a curfew pass made for myself. I was determined to get to the Radio Station one way or another. I wanted to give my message to all my children [soldiers on the front]. I could not stand alone somewhere and shout it out – Radio was my only way to reach people.
So God helped me to get to the station. When I arrived there, they were still surprised to see me and again asked if it was truly me. I assured them it was me. They thanked me for coming and asked what was now to be done. I told them I would like to sing for the nation. They said that the musicians had gone, there were hardly any left. I told them that I would make do with the four who were available. I stopped the musician Mubarak – he too was about to run away from Lahore, the poor soul (bechara). I begged him to stay, “Look, brother, please stay. Nothing will happen to you!” I assured him he would be fine, and he stayed and played the music for “Mera sohna shehr Kasur ni”.
“When it comes to “Aey Puttar hattaan te naeen vikde”, the composition (dhun) came to mind in two minutes”
NR: And this was the 6th of September?
NJ: This was in after the 6th. They weren’t letting me in, you see! My sessions, I think, started on the 7th or the 8th. It took them so long to believe that I was truly Noor Jehan! After that, it continued daily. I kept singing daily until the ceasefire.”
NR: What can you tell us about your taraana Aey Puttar hattaan tey naeen vikde?
NJ: The composition (dhun) was my own, as were “Mereya dhol Sipaahiya”, “Rang laaye ga shaheedon ka lahuu” and “Yeh havaaon ke musaafir”. But Mannu bhai helped quite a bit – he is sitting here with us, Madad Ali Mannu sahib [musician]. But when it comes to “Aey Puttar hattaan te naeen vikde”, the composition came to mind in two minutes. In fact the compositions of all my wartime songs are mine. “Mera sohna shehr Kasur ni” [Noor Jehan’s hometown], let me tell you that the tune is particularly my own. I only had five musicians for it – one of whom was Mubarak Ali, who has passed away. It was he who played the taar. As for the surmandal and the santoor, it was I who introduced these instruments on Radio. Before that, as far as I know, nobody had played them on Radio. I asked that these instruments also be played. So there was Madad Ali Mannu sahib, Mubarak, Sabir tabla-nawaz, and on the sarangi we had Nazim sahib. Azam sahib did the recordings and Sufi Tabassum sahib wrote the lyrics. Then there was an assistant director, Butt sahib. How many people does that make…? [counts] We were eight people who were running Radio Pakistan!
I would get the musicians into a car and take them to recordings. And I would not leave until I knew everything was done to my satisfaction. They might say the tapes are ruined, a bomb hit them or something – we used to have shells raining down from above. In fact, one day, my car had just entered the premises when a shell landed at the Radio station just where we had passed – and a doorman died. How far do you think it would be from the door to the stairs we climbed? We worked with our life on our palms (hatheli pe jaan rakh ke).
I had three daughters at that time. Huma was ten. One daughter was one year old, and another was two! All three of them were at home. How effective could a ten-year-old be at taking care of a one-year-old? All three had a fever at one point. I would cook food, give it to them and leave home. Almost everybody working at our house had gone. In the afternoons, dogs would roam the empty streets. People said to me, “Come to Rawalpindi with us!” Our neighbours and people living nearby pressed us to go with them. My [second] husband – Ejaz Durrani sahib – had gone to shoot a film up in Kaghan and Naran. He had no choice. He got the news there after three days that the war had started. They had no radio where they were in the mountains. It was after three days that they came down somewhere and heard news on Radio that it was the third day of bombardment. It was then that they set off from there and arrived after three or four days. During this time, I kept going to work.
“My car had just entered the premises when a shell landed at the Radio station just where we had passed – and a doorman died”
I hope nobody takes offence from my saying this, but the Music Director was not here by then, and many musicians had also gone off to their homes. At one point I was told to run to the trenches for cover. Some of my brother musicians with me said: “It is not sensible to stay seated here, Bibi ji, you must go to the trenches!”
I said to them, “What if you get killed on your way to the trenches? How cowardly would you then be considered – that you died while running away? So why not die in front of the mike? It would be better to die singing. After all, our offspring are in the trenches fighting this war. They, too, are my sons…”
Let me tell you that on the day when I sang “Mereya dhol Sipahiya”, it went out live initially, not on tape. The tapes hadn’t turned out right. So they asked me to sing directly. And I said I would sing it live for my sons. But for some reason I couldn’t control my tears; first I wept uncontrollably, then I sang. You can only sing with feeling (jazba). This cannot be done artificially…