It was sometime in the early 1970s, when PTV enjoyed monopoly and presented some fine programmes, that we saw a girl-next-door type, looking somewhat emaciated, regaling music lovers with lovely ditties in programmes like Akkar Bakkar, Such Gup and Tal Matol. As she crooned numbers like Miraji’s geet “Barkha ke lakhon teer dil per kaise sahoon mein”, with full-throated ease, one was struck by the limpid flow and mellifluousness in her renditions.
The singer, no prizes for guessing, was none other than Nayyara Noor. It was the period when her favourite singers Noor Jehan and Farida Khanum reigned supreme. This youngster didn’t offer visual treats like nakhras or nirad and yet won admiration.
But it was not until the launch of the Nayyara sings Faiz album, jointly produced by the poet’s talented son-in-law Shoaib Hashmi and EMI, the recording company, as a birthday gift for the great poet in 1976, that she earned recognition as a singer. The lovely compositions by Shahid Toosy and Arshad Mahmood, featuring in the album, were sung with intensity of emotions by Noor. Also included in the LP was a duet “Barkha barse chat per”, a rare Hindi poem by Faiz, which she rendered with her husband Sheharyar Zaidi.
Noor was born in Guwahati (Assam) in 1950 in a family which had migrated from Amritsar. She is still haunted by the lush greenery outside her home and on the nearby hills that seemed like sentinels guarding the landscape. As night fell, glow worms wafted in the air by the dozens. The menacing snakes that lurked around were the only spoilt sports.
It was in 1957 (or 1958, she is not sure) that Noor migrated to Pakistan with her mother and her siblings and settled down in Lahore. Her father had to stay back until 1993 because of their immovable properties. He was a confirmed Muslim Leaguer and had played host to the Quaid-e-Azam on his trip to Assam before Partition.
“Education was the be-all and end-all of our existence but music was the main source of entertainment,” she says and goes on to add that Kanan Bala and Begum Akhtar, were their all time favourites. Lata Mangeshkar was, of course, a passion with everyone.
It was once at a musical evening at her alma mater, National College of Arts, that while singing the immortal Lata bhajan “Jo tum todo piya” from Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje that she attracted the attention of Prof Asrar of Islamia College whose knowledge of music was phenomenal. He spotted talents in Noor and became the main source of encouragement in her formative years. “He was a very fine singer himself and was steeped in classical music,” says Noor, who hastens to add that he also composed songs. “I was lucky to have had the opportunity of singing some of his numbers in my early days.”
It was music that was responsible for her tying the nuptial knot with Sheharyar Zaidi. They had been keen competitors in inter-collegiate music contests where Noor invariably bagged the first prize, while he, representing Hailey College of Commerce, had to settle for the second. A more film-like situation arose when the two met for the first time in a gramophone record shop. They were both hunting for Begum Akhar’s discs. The rest, as they say, is history.
Noor can be classified as a gifted singer, she doesn’t lose the track of the surs (musical notes) even though she has not had her groundings in classical music. When asked if she regrets the fact, she replies “Music has been a passion with me but never been my top priority. I was a student and a daughter first and a singer later. After my marriage my primary roles have been those of a wife and a mother.” Making money has been of a secondary consideration for her. She seldom went on musical tours and was very choosey about live performances. In her salad days she could have minted money but that would have meant not paying due attention to her children. I remember in the evenings she used to religiously monitor her children’s homework, whenever I paid her a visit. This was after the family had shifted to Karachi.
While on classical music, she feels that the Ustads and Pandits who indulge in guttural gymnastics are doing our rich heritage a great disservice. “They should bring out the subtleties and nuances of the ragas by singing them softly instead of using long drawn non-aesthetic taans.”
Noor’s finest work has been for television and the composers who got the best out of her included Arshad Mehmood and Javed Allahditta. She is in her element on the small screen, whether recording for serials like Tansen or title songs such as “Chalo us koh per” or “Mujhe wida kar” or singing ghazals like “Aei jazba-e-dil gar mein chahoon” or geets like “Phir sawan rut ki pawan chali”.
We tend to forget a priceless album of hers, which was titled Yadon Ke Saye. It featured songs from the New Theatres’ movies, which were originally recorded in the voice of Kanan Bala in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They were available once only on the antiquated 78RPM records. Her husband spent a lot of time unearthing the original numbers. Since the records were scratchy some words could not be deciphered so they had to approach people with sound knowledge of Hindi, since they were all geets and not ghazals. A violinist cum arranger, Javed Iqbal did a very fine job. He made it a point to use only actual musical instruments instead of taking a short cut by employing a synthesiser.
While on Yadon Ke Saye, I may add that when Sultan Arshad, who is very much into film music, played the song “Unka ishara jaan se pyar” from the movie Pehli Nazar to the veteran composer Anil Biswas, he was swept off his feet. “I wish she had been around when I composed the song in the forties. I would have happily used her as a playback singer.” Anilda, as he was fondly called, autographed the inlay card of the cassette, featuring the number, for her and complimented her on the ‘lovely rendition’.
Noor sang for the radio initially but gave TV much more time and attention. Her film songs, though fewer in number, are no less memorable. She regrets that maestro Khurshid Anwar was in his twilight years when he got Noor to lend her voice to his compositions in Shirin Farhad, which clearly were not among his best. She was to sing for his last movie Tansen, but before he could have gone ahead, he passed away.
Composers Khaleel Ahmad and Nisar Bazmi used her talents effectively but the one who drew the best out of her was Robin Ghosh. Incidentally, the last movie that she sang for, Dooriyan (1984) had a scintillating score. Noor won the Best Singer’s Award for a song which she fails to recall.
This writer feels that her best film number was “Roothay ho tum, tumko kaise manaoon piya”, composed by Ghosh for Aaina. Based on a popular Bengali tune, the sweet-sounding number was rare in the sense that while most Noor numbers were poignant, this was a highly effervescent ditty.
“Had Robin sahib not migrated to Bangladesh I would have continued to sing for films,” she says.
While her husband has of late achieved much success as a supporting actor on TV as well as a model, Noor has distanced herself from recording songs. “There is a time for everyone to call it a day and do so gracefully, rather than be labelled a spent force,” says Noor.
She avoids interviews as she feels that she has been misquoted in the past. And as for TV interviews she laments that the interviewers don’t do their homework before entering the studios.
She remembers a number of people fondly. Some of them are unfortunately no more. The name on top of the list is Faiz Ahmed Faiz. When I was interviewing her last year for the centenary issue of Dawn dedicated to the greatest Urdu poet of the second half of the last century, I asked her “What is that one trait in Faiz as a person that you liked the most?”
“His silence. I think that sums up the great man’s personality. It was not what an Urdu poet, Nasir Kazmi perhaps, once said that he was lonely even in company. Faiz sahib was one person who was never alone even in his loneliness. He loved company and he also loved to listen to people. He was never there to approve or disapprove people. He liked to hear different points of view and gave his own opinion only when he was asked to do so. In fact I would go on to say all that he had to convey he did it so articulately through his pen, both as a poet and as a journalist. I can safely conclude that his silence measured the depth of his personality.
“In the mid-seventies his house in Block H of Model Town, Lahore, was open to one and all. It was there that as a member of a young team of singers and composers I got to spend some invaluable time and meet eminent men of letters such as Soofi Tabbassum, Muneer Niazi, Ahsan Danish, Ejaz Batalvi, Intizar Husain and Munnoo Bhai, all of whom came to meet him.
“We were in those days doing Shoaib Hashmi’s (Faiz’s son-in-law’s) TV programme, Such Gup for PTV. When I say we, I mean his daughter Salima Hashmi, Farooq Qaiser, composers Shahid Toosy and Arshad Mahmud, my husband to be – Sheharyar Zaidi, and, of course, yours truly.
I remember quite distinctly that Faiz sahib sat on the sofa smoking cigarette after cigarette, while Shahid and Arshad set his poems to music and the two singers, me and Sheharyar, sang them with gay abandon. While negotiating some difficult and even not so difficult notes I would steal a glance at him only to find him smiling affectionately and encouragingly. It seemed he was enjoying those moments no less. His was, I think, the world’s most disarming smile.”
If you know Noor well you will realise that she is a delightful company. Her sense of humour is sparkling and, what is more, she mimics people, well known and not so well known alike, leaving her audience in splits.
Her two sons, Ali, who does voice-overs, and Jaafer, the composer, are well settled in their professions. Her role as a mother has been overshadowed by her position as a grandmother. Of the two granddaughters, Inaya is five, while Azmina is six-months-old.
“Inaya is quite chirpy. The word ‘dadi’, when she utters, is music to my ears,” says the woman whose name has been synonymous with melody.
Asif Noorani is a seasoned journalist, who writes on music, literature, cinema and travel. His latest book ‘Mehdi Hasan: The Man and His Music’ is a bestseller. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.