Madam Noor Jehan gazes out at you compellingly. Sometimes, she has flowers in her hair. In one image, a tiara is perched on her head, her hair swept into her infamous elaborate bouffant.
She peers out, half-turned, in a photograph where her eyes seem to follow you wherever you go. In another, much rare image, she is reclined, her little daughter nestled next to her.
19 years since her death, she is still an icon who inspires awe, a one-of-a-kind larger than life woman who stormed the annals of Pakistani film and TV and became its indisputable queen.
Artist Nazia Ejaz – Madam’s youngest daughter – hopes that it is this reverence for her mother that will draw people to come and see her latest exhibit.
“My paintings sell well but an artist also always wants his or her work to be seen,” she tells me. “I am hoping that perhaps, with this exhibition dedicated to ‘Maa’, people will come and see the work because they will be drawn in by their connection to her.”
As she puts the finishing touches to the canvases – her exhibition, ‘Love Letters’, begins at Canvas Gallery in Karachi on 8th October – the length of Nazia’s home is lined with her artwork, perched against walls and splayed out on tables.
A lot of the paintings are abstract – a genre that is often associated with Nazia’s work - dominated by patterns and meticulously created grids. There are other works, paintings of Noor Jehan and photographic prints merged with paint.
“’Love Letters’ isn’t an ode to her,” says Nazia. “It is about my own personal journey. I was the youngest. She spoilt me rotten and we even shared a bedroom together. I had only just returned from London, having completed my studies, when she fell ill and we spent the last four years of her life in and out of hospital rooms."
"And now, as I get older, I am able to comprehend more from my memories of her. I can now see her more clearly as a woman. My perspective of her is growing.”
“These are just glimpses of my time with her, derived from the words that she used to say, the letters that she used to write, her songs or just moments that I remember.”
“And it doesn’t have to be literal. I may have felt a certain way while painting something while it may make someone else feel another way altogether. That’s the beauty of a work of art.”
She points to an image of her mother, with a vertical grid of leaves behind her. “That pattern, for instance, is derived from a wrought-iron door that was in the last bedroom that we shared together. The memory of it was so vivid in my mind that I put it on to canvas.”
There are other canvases where she has painted illegible, concentric Urdu script.
“I call this painting ‘Scripture of Love’. My mother used to write to me very frequently, especially when I was in London. She would send me a letter every week. Her Urdu writing was so magnificent that my foreign friends would ask me to read it out to them. I would try and because Urdu is such a romantic, flowery language, they would exclaim that these were love letters!”
Madam wears a tiara in one of the paintings – a memory of her ‘Tajposhi’ ceremony during the time of President Yahya Khan. “I remember that night. I was very young and she was going to the event and I was watching her getting ready. I remember her putting on that ‘Taj’ on her head.”
But not every work of art in the exhibit is a direct reminder of her mother. Sometimes, the message lies deep within. A gold and deep blue abstract work has been titled ‘Saathi Kahan Ho’, dedicated to the song by the same name that Noor Jehan sang for the movie Laakhon Mein Ek.
“I was actually listening to this song while I painted. It’s a duet and my mother enters into the song a bit later. It is beautifully composed. The movie was about Kashmir and it was picturised on my father and Shamim Ara. And as Shamim Ara runs down the valleys, it almost seems as if Maa’s voice is rolling over the hills with her.”
I comment that while the painting does draw my eye, it doesn’t remind me of any song at all. “It doesn’t have to,” Nazia points out. “This is just how I feel about it.”
On another canvas, a grid is laid out in great detail. It is inspired by ‘Sajan Laagi Tori Lagan’, the 1963 song sung by Noor Jehan and Farida Khanum.
There are patterns made by flowers that Nazia associates with her mother – ‘roses, motiya, chambeli and hibiscus because I personally like those’.
There are also patterns of butterflies that are frequently visible. “They remind me of her. Butterflies metamorphose from caterpillars and similarly, my mother would reinvent herself at every crossroad of her life. She made it as an actress and singer and then, her husband left her."
"She struggled but then she met my father. Her second marriage lead to her husband telling her that she could no longer act on screen. So, she became a playback singer. Earlier she had sung just for herself but now she started singing more and more.”
“And throughout the ups and downs of life, she always looked good. A lot of these pictures are of her at 50 or 60 and even at that age, she was always sought after, always more powerful and more popular than her husbands or her children. More than Noor Jehan the singer, these artworks are my vision of Noor Jehan the woman, who was truly a symbol of female empowerment.”
Did Nazia specially time the exhibit to take place around the time of her mother’s birthday, which was last month, on 23rd September. “Yes, but timings worked out in a way that it is taking place a little later,” she says.
A second edition of the exhibit will take place in Lahore by early next year.