Her life was a song
By Murtaza Razvi
Nur Jehan's third death anniversary was observed on December 23, 2003.
There once lived a woman whose life was one long, melodious song. Her voice and coy personality cheered and warmed the hearts of millions, cutting through language, age, race, cultural and political boundaries. She was joie de vivre personified. She lived and lived, defying age, confounding convention and her critics, enthralling and annoying, by turns, many a president, prime minister, governor, even a king. She was the people's diva, the reigning queen of their hearts and minds. Although not among us anymore, her unique memory lingers, with each media outfit competing against the other to honour her in a memorable way.
The way Karachi celebrated Nur Jehan recently can find few parallells in the cultural history of this country. The occasion was the recording of 'A Tribute to Nur Jehan,' Indus Vision's New Year's eve special. The venue was the Karachi Parsi Institute in the heart of Saddar. The sentiment and feeling shown by Karachiites, who turned up in unprecedented numbers and stayed back way past midnight, kept an otherwise very cold night under the stars rather warm. This is, after all, the city Nur Jehan graced with being her final resting place.
Nur Jehan was not just a singer. She was the heart-throb of millions of men who could not keep their eyes off her glitzy face, even in her fading years. To many others, she was the greatest female icon this country has known, one who lived life in a male-dominated society on her own terms. She never allowed her looks or her voice to be short changed, and yet managed to earn much professional respect for her good business sense. Above all, she was an honest person who knew no hypocrisy, social, religious or political, in an age when it pays to be a hypocrite.
The mood that night at the KPI was not that of appraisal. It was just Karachi's excuse to celebrate and honour the legend in a manner that was worthy of her. Bollywood film-maker Mahesh Bhatt was there along with a number of other guests from across the border, and clips of Lata Mangeshkar eulogizing Nur Jehan were played back on the giant screen to the thousands in audience who had never seen anything as enthralling as this before.
It seemed that the organizers deliberately chose the songs for the night which are not part of a typical Nur Jehan album. An ingenious collection aimed at avoiding the cliched numbers, there were two medleys, one in Urdu and Punjabi each, which were enacted by a group of talented young dancers on the stage. Another cliche that was missing from the programme was the nauseating presence of the same anchor persons, which PTV and many other channels just seem to be stuck with. With those annoying self-styled cultural gurus left out, the programme had all the freshness about it.
This was ostensibly because the organizers knew that Nur Jehan was never the one to take kindly to patronizing comments about her. She shocked the world with her style, with her own trademark sense of glamour, humour, myriad of moods and singing styles, composure, and even lack of it, when she so chose. She never sought 'acceptance' for what she did or who she was; if it came to her, she took it in her stride, if it didn't, she made it out to be someone else's loss. She would have been the last person to lend herself to the cheap thrills our self-styled cultural gurus derive out of showering praises on icons of her stature. Luckily, the programme suffered from none of such false and hollow show of respect and cacophony.
Nadeem made a wonderful anchor, because he knew how much to offer in praise so it didn't ring hollow. That just went to show that one doesn't have to be a Smart Alec or have to rely on ill-timed wit or pseudo-intellectual jargon to be a good compere. This is what is routinely done by a handful of our well known anchors and those that they invite on the stage to talk about a celebrity. Together, the two often end up spoiling the show by making it more about themselves rather than the celebrity being honoured. Whether the organizers deliberately kept such pompous people away from the show, one does not know; but it was certainly a very welcome break.
Clips from Nur Jehan's Tarannum series of programmes were pertinently selected and played back as a commentary detailed her professional career. Some footage from Salima Hashmi's documentary on Nur Jehan was also played back, which added value to the programme, and helped fill the gaps in a singing and acting career spanning well over half a century, with the queen reigning supreme all along.
Zille Huma, Fareeha Parvez and a couple of other vocalists had flown in from Lahore to lend their voices to some of Nur Jehan's well known numbers that formed part of the show. The songs selected comprised a good mix of well known Indian, Pakistani, Urdu and Punjabi hits, representing nearly all phases of Nur Jehan's singing career. The Lahore vocalists were flanked by Bushra Ansari and Sadaf Munir from Karachi, and they all did a tremendous job of singing the numbers assigned to them.
Sadaf Munir, however, stole the show with her unmatched renderings of some of Nur Jehan's difficult-to-sing songs. By contrast, Bushra Ansari and Zille Huma, thankfully, restricted themselves to singing the relatively easier, though more popular, numbers. Fareeha Parvez yet again surprised the audience with just the right mix of bass and facility one needs with the ragas to re-sing Nur Jehan, who was a genre all by herself. Lata's flattering comments about having learnt a critical thing or two from Nur Jehan would vouch for that.
The finale of the evening came with Nadeem singing a hit duet with Zille Huma from the star-studded film, Mukhra, which was released in the late '80s in both Urdu and Punjabi and was a blockbuster, especially in Lahore. The Punjabi songs were sung by Nur Jehan for the Punjabi version, while Mehnaz gave the playback for the Urdu version of the film. Nadeem narrated how difficult he had found to sing the Punjabi duet Mundeya dupatta chhad mera with Nur Jehan and had to request that 'Madam record her part first' and then he would fill in the gaps later on. No such difficulty singing the same song with Zille Huma, in which Nadeem's clearly outshone the former's vocal talent.
All in all, the show offered a wonderful evening out under a very starry winter sky. It seemed that the galaxy in the heavens had rushed upon the city to catch a glimpse of the brightest shining star that was being celebrated on earth that night.
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