In the Ice Candy Man, written in the backdrop of 1947’s Partition, Bapsi Sidhwa wrote: “And the gramophones and speakers mounted on tongas and lorries scratchily, endlessly pouring out the melody of Noor Jehan’s popular film song that is now so strangely apt,” Mere bachpan ke sathi mujhe bhool na jana, dekho, dekho hanse na zamana, hanse na zamana. When director Deepa Mehta made the novel into the movie Earth, she chose the same voice from the same 1946 hit Anmol ghari, but a different song: Jawan hai mohabbat, haseen hai zamana.
The songs were composed by Naushad. After Noor Jehan’s death in December 23, 2000, Naushad exclaimed, “She had done me an honour, it was not the other way round. She made my songs immortal.” Both Naushad and Noor Jehan had tears in their eyes when Noor Jehan had stood up to sing Awaz de kahan hai, dunya meri jawan hai on stage in Bombay for the show Mortal men, immortal melodies during her visit to India in 1982, 36 years after Anmol ghari.
In the early 90s Salam Bombay (1988) and Monsoon Wedding’s (2001) Indian film director Mira Nair made Mississippi Masala. The song she chose for the backdrop of her Hollywood film was Noor Jehan’s rendition of Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Mujh se pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na mang. The poem, which Faiz had gifted to Noor Jehan, found a place in the history of Urdu literature and music.
After Noor Jehan’s death the Indian nightingale Lata Mangeshkar said on stage in Mumbai, “Maine unke suron ki ungli pakar kar gana seekha hai,” (By holding the fingers of her notes have I learned to sing). Lata owed her entry into Mumbai filmdom to the two Noor Jehan numbers she had sung for her first audition. As an upcoming singer, Lata had idolized Noor Jehan, who had already been proclaimed Malika-i-Tarannum for her song Bulbulo mat ro yahan in the 1945 movie Zeenat.
In 1947, the 21 year old singer-actress left India for Pakistan. Leaving behind the hat-trick successes of Zeenat, Anmol ghari and Jugnu (1947) – the Noor Jehan/Dilip Kumar starrer which was still running to packed houses inspite of violent riots. For millions the lines of Noor Jehan and Mohammad Rafi’s duet, Yunhi dunya badalti hai, isi ka nam dunya hai had become a real-life experience.
But when the blind village girl sang on a moonlit night in Intezar (1956), Chand hansey dunya basey roae mera pyar, there was no doubt left that Noor Jehan’s would never be a loser’s choice. She had left behind associations with directors like Mehboob and composers like Naushad, but here she had the golden opportunity to work with music genius Khurshid Anwar, a psychologist by training and a musician by choice. Noor Jehan danced and sang on his compositions, in movies like Intezar and Koel (1959). The latter was her last movie as an actress. She continued to sing Khurshid Anwar’s songs as a playback singer for the next 10 years, the ultimate climax being Heer Ranjha (1970). Other masters who composed for her golden voice were Ghulam Haider – Khandan (1942) in India, Gulnar (1953) in Pakistan, Feroz Nizami – Jugnu in India, Chan wey (1951) and Dupatta (1952) in Pakistan, Rasheed Atrey – Anarkali (1958) and Moseeqar (1962), Nisar Bazmi – Lakhon mein aik (1967), Nag Manni (1972) and Umrao jan ada (1972). Rasheed Attrey’s son Wajahat Atrey scored the music for most of her fast Punjabi tracks that she sang through the 80s and 90s.
Noor Jehan was a versatile performer. The Kasur born Allah Wasai (born on September 21, 1926, in to a poor musician family) started her musical career in Calcutta at the age of nine, as a singing child star in Pind di kuri (1935), which was the subcontinent’s first Punjabi film. Her very first song, an instant hit, was a Punjabi folk tune – Lang aja patan chana da o yar. She later sang difficult Urdu compositions like Aaj ki raat saaz-i-dil-i-purdard na chaer (Jugnu), rustic Punjabi numbers like Mundiya Sialkotia (Chan wey), then patriotic songs during the 1965 war which made her a symbol of national unity. She sang in other regional languages as well, such as songs for Pakistan’s first color movie in Sindhi – Ghungat lahe kunwar.
During the early 80s and again in the early 90s, she sang for PTV’s Tarannum, a sequence of exquisite ghazals penned by Ghalib, Dagh, Faiz and Ahmad Faraz. Indian singer Asha Bhosle sang eight of these as a tribute to South Asia’s Melody Queen in her album Kashish.
When she died film writer, lyricist and poet Javed Akhtar said in an interview in Mumbai “In the worst conditions of our relations with Pakistan in 53 years, in a very hostile atmosphere, our cultural heritage has been a common bridge. Noor Jehan was one such durable bridge. While politics could not shatter that bridge, my fear is that her death may have shaken it.”