Melody Queen Noor Jehan — Part I

Cool breeze had started blowing in the gas lamps on roads of Kasur city but streets and habitats were dark. It was a night of September 21, 1926. Those were the days when people retired early for bed. In a small house in Kot Murad, Kasur, Mian Sahab (Madad Ali) took out a match box and lit a lamp. The call for Isha prayers were in the air. Main Sahab was wondering as to when Ellahi Jan would bring ‘Issaan’, the ‘Dalai’ (child delivery nurse) with her! Main Sahab had dispatched two sons and a daughter elsewhere as a new arrival was in the offing. The poverty stricken house had no milk or sugar. All Mian Sahab could do was to pray hard. Half an hour later, Issaan who had appeared earlier informed that a girl was born to Mian Sahab and Fateh Bibi. Two seers of wheat and one seer of gur (raw sugar) was all the nurse was content with as her payment. Maternal Aunt Ellahi Jaan, a reasonable good singer of that time, put a little sugar in the newborn’s mouth as ‘Gurti’ (first food for the newborn). It is believed that a person who gives ‘Gurti’ to the baby also transmits her/his qualities in the newborn. She commented to her brother that the way the child cried meant she would be a good singer one day. Perhaps the ‘gurti’ of her paternal aunt much later made Allah Wasaai, Noor Jehan of the millennium.
The following day Ustad Ghulam Muhammad, a well known classical singer of the city (who stuck to Noor Jehan until her death), caressed the baby on her head and prophesied that the baby would one day make her parents proud. Even when baby’s hair (jhund) was removed after 40 days, her crying was stated to be in tune. Allah Wasai’s father offered Ustad Ghulam Muhammad to raise her at the latter’s house but he was too poor to accept that offer. However he started teaching her music and at the age of seven she could render ‘sargam’ with ease. He instructed her in the traditions of the Patiala Gharana of Indian music with special emphasis on the classical forms of thumri, dhrupad, and kheyal forms of singing.
Initial days of struggle: Allah Wasai was now bold enough to sing in stage with her sister Eiden in small towns. Such theatres were called ‘Takka Theaters’ (1/2 Anna theaters). It was 1933-34 then. From her entry as a baby, her songs became popular among theatre lovers. Eiden brought Allah Wasai to Lahore at Sheikhupura Red Light Area where she used to sing. Ghulam Muhammad used to stick with Noor Jehan like a shadow until he came across Baba G. A Chishti who organised first music concert for Noor Jehan. It was held in Mahabir Theater where the audience was spell bound after listening to her rendering Baba Chishti’s Urdu na’at. He composed some ghazals, naats and folk songs for her to perform. Allah Wasai on the other hand was keener for entry into acting or playback singing.
In those days Lahore’s cinemas like Nishat, Palace, Regent, Capital and Jaswant used to run social movies of Sohrab Modi, New Theatre, Parkash Pictures, Kardar, Shanta Ram and Kidar Sharma. The second rate theaters used to show stunt movies like Jadu Nagari, Fauladi Mukka, Toodan Mail etc. During the interval, Allah Wasai and Eiden used to sing live songs.
Sojourn in Calcutta: Mukhtar Begum was a popular and top class dancer and heroine in Calcutta then. Noor Jehan had a desire to meet her. So the journey on Howrah Express took the sisters to Calcutta. Mukhtar Begum listened to the sisters. She encouraged Allah Wasai and her two older sisters to join film companies and recommended them to various producers. She also recommended them to her husband Agha Hashar Kashmiri, who owned a Maidan Theatre (a tented theatre to accommodate large audiences). It was here that Allah Wasai received the stage name of Baby Noor Jehan. Her elder sisters were offered jobs with one of the Seth Sukh Karnani companies, Indira Movietone and they went on to be known as the ‘Punjab Mail’. Allah Wasai would later adopt Mukhtar Begum’s way of performance and Sari attire about which she talked to me a little before her ailment in an exclusive interview. 
When Mukhtar Begum took Noor Jehan sisters to her Seth, KD Mehra was planning to make a Punjabi movie. Mukhtar Begum convinced Seth to finance first Punjabi movie of India. Some people say that three sisters got job at Seth’s office on monthly stipend. KD Mehra only pictured one song by Noor Jehan “Lang aa jaa pattan chanaa da yaar” for the movie ‘Pind Di Kuri’. Bound with the Seth, the threesome worked in KD Mehra’s next venture ‘Misr Ka Sitara’. Continued

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