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A Tribute to (MT) NoorJahan
Ras H. Siddiqui
A Pakistani-American writer and journalist based in Sacramento, California USA

Jan, 20001 - Our best-known Pakistani nightingale is gone. Her journey from birth (real name Allah Rakhi as reported by the BBC) in the town of Kasur, British India in 1926 to her death in Karachi, Pakistan in the year 2000 has ended. And this admirer amongst many has a few words to say about her journey, one that touched the emotions and lives of millions. So I will just start by saying “Thank You” Noor Jehan for enriching our lives and for reaching the frontiers of musical excellence in the vocal arts where only a handful have been before.

Few deserve and are awarded such praise. And it has not come from just from this writer, who doesn’t know a “sur” (note) from a “sar”(head). I have heard no one less than India’s top Diva Lata Mangeskar pay glowing tributes to Noor Jehan. Lata’s sister Asha Bhosle was similarly inspired, enough by her to do a remake of Madam’s songs.

By calling her The Melody Queen or Mallika-e-Tarrannum we honored her. As she ruled our hearts for at least five decades in two countries and languages (in both Urdu and Punjabi), her contribution to our musical lives remained unmatched. The Late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was the only other Pakistani to reach similar success but he did not have much time with us. He was the meteor to the Melody Queen’s comet. But now that comet too will not return.

The last time we saw Noor Jehan perform here in Northern California was in the late 1970’s. This writer came back from that San Francisco show truly inspired. Sikh families came from Yuba City, Muslims from Sacramento and beyond and the local Hindu fans from the San Francisco Bay Area. I had no idea before the show that there were that many people from South Asia in this entire region. And when she sang they were all mesmerized.

Noor Jehan represented the essence of our musical and social culture. She was not easily intimidated and was very vocal with her feelings. She was “earthy” and at times crude with language. But ironically she gave a vocal polish to Urdu and Punjabi poetic verse that few have been able to match in South Asia. It was as if she felt for the written words. It was that feeling, the cry, the longing in her high notes that appealed to us Pakistanis. And when this lament crossed the border back to India where it all began in the capable hands of Master Ghulam Haider, it continued to find much appreciation.

Pakistani National Songs became her hallmark in times of war. Noor Jehan inspired many with that Patriotism during Pakistan’s conflicts with India. One can say that she was a “Frontline Singer” because her words once carried a nation through wartime and inspired fighting Jawans (Soldiers) at the border, Air Force pilots in the air and Navy personnel alike. Her contribution to the war effort on behalf of Pakistan will be long remembered. Noor Jehan was not just a singing Diva, but also a Pakistani icon. In a country with few such icons exist she will be a difficult personality to replace.

Why should it be important to us that the Melody Queen is no longer? People who appreciate the arts can understand. It is the Urdu word “Fun” (art) and not the English “fun” that is being recognized here. Why do many Americans adore Barbara Streisand? And why do Indians still appreciate the work of a Pakistani “Frontline Singer”? The answer lies in ones own journey through life and our cultural icons. It has to do with the appreciation of excellence even in iconoclastic Pakistan.

Noor Jehan was a strong, opinionated no nonsense Pakistani woman in a male dominated society, who had gods gift of an incredible voice. Obviously she was not perfect and some know that much better than this writer. But she became a part of our lives in South Asia, and in the expatriate community in the US well into the 1980’s. There are others in that category today also very talented and not mentioned here. But this article is not about them. This is a more personal farewell.

So to you young South Asian-American “Desi” kids who try to explain to me the magnitude of talent possessed by Faith Hill, Christina or Britney these days, all I can say is too bad that you will never know the vocal perfection that has left us in Karachi, Pakistan in December 2000.

It was I believe the 27th of the Islamic month of Ramadan (Ramzan in Pakistan) when I heard the sad news of her passing. After Iftar (breaking of the fast), I got into my car and slipped in her cassette (no CD Player yet). And if anyone saw this now middle aged Pakistani drive his car slowly around the town of Roseville, California, it was because I was listening to that song of love, anguish and hope written by Rebel Poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz which I continue to consider the best ever sung (if not written?) in the Urdu language. It was “Mujh sey Pehli Si Mohabbat Meray Mehboob Na Maang” (Love, please don’t ask me for love, like our first love) sung by the Melody Queen Noor Jehan a very long time ago. And it was the best way I knew how to bid her farewell. So Goodbye Allah Rakhi, Ab Aap ko Allah Rakhay (now let god keep you). I just wanted say “Thank you” one last time for being a part of our lives.