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Nayyara Noor’s name translated into ‘a radiant star of light’. On 20th August, the star of her life on earth was extinguished after a battle with cancer. As with Shaukat Ali last year, Nayyara Noor’s death is something of a personal tragedy for me, because of the inextricable link between her voice and my formative years. Her voice was my initiation into the world of ghazal and nazm, my introduction to the poetry of Faiz, Nasir Kazmi and many others, my key to exploring music from my grandparents and great-grandparents generation, and an early introduction to the work of the golden generation of Pakistani TV composers. Through my personal recollections of some of her cassette albums, as well as around half a dozen of my favorite songs by hers, I’ll attempt to paint a picture of why Nayyara Noor remains such an indelible part of my life.
Nayyara Noor, one of five children, was born in Guwahati, Assam in 1950 to a family originally from Amritsar. While she migrated with most of her family to Karachi when she was seven years old; her father stayed on for another 35 years. The second decade of her life was spent in Karachi and later Lahore, where she was discovered while singing in a musical evening in the National College of Arts. Prof Asrar Ahmed of Islamia College Lahore was the first to encourage her to sing, composing several pieces for her in her initial years as a singer. In the early 1970s, Shoaib Hashmi, along with his wife Saleema, Farooq Qaiser, Shahid Toosy and Arshad Mehmood created a number of highly influential sketch shows for PTV, including Such Gup and Tal Matol. Every week, the sketches would be interspersed with one or two songs by young Nayyara, sitting as if lost in a reverie, singing to herself, oblivious to the camera’s attention. Her singing style was completely different from the reigning queens of Pakistani music, including Iqbal Bano, Farida Khanum and Noorjehan. Completely devoid pf the ‘nakhray’ and the ‘nritya’ of her contemporaries, she sang in a simple, almost matter-of-fact way, letting the sweetness and beauty of her voice shine through.
In 1976, in celebration of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s 65th birthday, Shoaib Hashmi, along with his Tal Matol team collaborated with EMI Pakistan to release a seminal album, “Nayyara Sings Faiz”. From its first track, ‘Intesaab’ (Preamble) to the concluding piece ‘Khair Ho Teri Leylaon Ki’, each track presented a fresh, distinct interpretation of Faiz. The album liner notes highlight the youth and freshness of the contributors, as well as Faiz’s personal involvement with the project. Nayyara herself considered this project, and her association with Faiz as one of the fondest and most affecting memories of her life. This album, initially released as an LP and later on cassette and CD, was the gateway to Faiz, and to the beauty of Urdu poetry, for me and many listeners of the preceding generation. The sweetness and malleability of her voice was perfectly suited to Faiz’s nazms and geets, as a result, tracks from the album are now considered some of the finest interpretations of Faiz ever recorded. In probably her finest achievement as a singer, as with Noorjehan and ‘Mujh Se Pehli Si Mohabbat’, Mehdi Hassan with ‘Gulon Main Rang Bharay’, and Iqbal Bano with ‘Dasht-e-Tanhai’, Nayyara Noor was able to make a Faiz nazm synonymous with her name, ‘Aaj Bazar Main’. The “Nayyara Sings Faiz” cassette tape was in such heavy rotation in my home growing up that it had to be replaced at least three or four times because of wear and tear.
Another one of Nayyara Noor’s cassettes proved an important gateway for me. Ever since I could remember, I had been obsessed with music from the golden era of Hindi films, yet was totally unaware of the wealth of music released before partition. Nayyara and her husband had released a cassette of covers of 1930’s and ‘40s film songs titled ‘Yaadon Ke Saaye’ in 1988, and I happened upon it in my parents’ cassette collection in almost 10 years later, when I was eleven. Violinist Javed Iqbal’s wonderful arrangements and Nayyara’s wonderful singing ensured that these 50-year-old melodies sounded fresh to my ears, and propelled me towards discovering the wonderful music of the pre-partition era, which enamors me to this day. The story goes that when the great Anil Biswas heard Nayyara’s renditionof one of his 194s hits, he exclaimed “I wish she had been around when I composed the song in the forties. I would have happily used her as a playback singer.” He autographed the cassette flap of the album for her, an autograph which she considered her most prized possession and which she framed and displayed in her house.
One of the mainstays of the Pakistani music industry today has been the TV drama series OST. In the heyday of the Pakistan Television, from the ‘70s to the ‘90s, PTV collaborated with EMI Pakistan to release a series of albums titled TV Hits, featuring OSTs as well as hit songs from PTV’s musical programs. Featuring compositions by some of Pakistan’s leading composers, including Khalil Ahmed, Mian Sheheryar and Arshad Mehmud, Nayyara Noor’s prolific PTV output yielded not one but two highly acclaimed ‘TV Hits’ albums, featuring some of her greatest hits. Even these albums didn’t do full justice to her work on PTV. Her haunting, melancholy-tinged ‘Kabhi Hum Khoobsurat Thay’ from Shehzad Khalil and Rahat Kazmi’s 1980 play ‘Teesra Kinara’ (an adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead) is one of her most enduring hits. The crowning glory of 1980’s Pakistani Drama, ‘Dhoop Kinarey’ also featured Nayyara Noor singing the title track, an astonishing Arshad Mehmud composition with lyrics by Hasan Akbar Kamal.
I’ve listened to these albums on repeat since Nayyara Noor’s passing, as well as dozens of other songs by her. I’ve once again been struck by the effortless ease of her singing, the ability to navigate ghazals, geets and nazms without sounding too old-fashioned or too outre’, and the two qualities of her voice immortalized in Jonathan Swift’s wonderful phrase ‘sweetness and light’. The radiat starlight epitomized in her name and her voice may have been snuffed out by fate last week, But there are primeval stars on the edges of creation that dimmed and died eons ago, yet their light still shines across the billions of light-years, and stargazers on earth shall continue to look up into the skies and find comfort in seeing their familiar glowing forms in the night sky. Nayyara’s voice, pouring sweetness and light in our ears for the past fifty years, shall lose none of its radiance as long as there are listeners eager to find comfort, solace and light in music.