August 22, 2019 was the last day I played ‘Roothay Ho Tum, Tum Ko Kaise Manaon Piya’ by Nayyara Noor. It was the last time those words made my mother move her eyes despite battling an ischemic stroke at the hospital. It was the last time we gazed at each other while listening to our favourite parts of the song. It was the last time a melody echoed in Room 411 of Atia Hospital. Two days later, my mother passed away. I could say the song eased my mother into her final, peaceful sleep. Now that Nayyara ji is no more, I feel as though I have lost the deepest connection I had with my mother since it was Nayyara Ji’s songs that I used to remember her by.
I was 11 years old when I heard my mother humming the tunes of ‘Roothay Ho Tum’ for the first time. Being an inquisitive kid, I asked her what the words meant, to which she smiled and began explaining to me the entire philosophy of the song, how it was themed around the efforts of a lover to pacify her beloved through her submissive attitude and promises of perpetual love. Her explanation penetrated my mind but failed to satiate my curiosity and I bombarded mom with tons of questions: “Why does she continue to bother her lover if he is not interested? Does she have no self-respect? Why can’t she see that her lover doesn’t care for her?” Followed by “Did abba ever humiliate you to a point where you had to sing for him?” — which made my mom chuckle and, like every desi mom, she made it her duty to share it with my sisters or close friends. “Look at her, so naive!” her gleaming eyes would say.
As I grew older, I started to better understand the lyrics of Nayyara Ji’s songs. ‘Tera Saaya Jahan Bhi Sajna’ was the first song I listened to and understood all by myself. While the melody of the song tugged at my heartstrings, the lyrics seemed extremely relatable and profound since I too was experiencing heartbreak at the time. Later, I asked mom whether she had heard it as I wanted to overwhelm her with my newly-developed taste for good music but to my disappointment, she already had.
One day, we were discussing one of the songs by Nayyara Ji when my mother revealed that she was not a formally trained singer, yet was one of the best vocalists we have. This piqued my interest and I decided to know more about her. I watched her interviews, read articles and pulled out clips of old press coverage to find all that I could about her life, career and everything that made her who she is today.
Where it began
Nayyara Noor was born on November 3, 1950 in a merchant class family of Guwahati, Assam. Her father was an active supporter of the All-India Muslim League and had even hosted Muhammad Ali Jinnah on his visit to Assam right before Partition. Noor came from Assam to Pakistan seven or eight years after independence and settled in Karachi. Though she was a child at the time, she had developed a good sense of music thanks to the kind of music played at home. She would listen to Sehgal, Pankaj Malik, Kamla Jharia and Begum Akhtar and try to imitate their voices, she told Moneeza Hashmi in a programme called Tum Jo Chaho Tu Suno. However, she never thought to pursue a career in music.
“Gaanay ka nahi, gaana sunne ka bohat shoq tha. Bachpan mein maine note kia tha kay jahan acha sur kaan mein parta tha, main wahan khadi hojati thi [I was interested in listening to good music, not singing. During my childhood, whenever I heard a good melody, I’d stand there listening to it].”
The journey to becoming Pakistan’s Nightingale
Nayyara Noor was a student of the National College of Arts (NCA) in Lahore where concerts of many music maestros would frequently take place. Once, during an annual gala dinner, her teachers and class fellows asked her to sing on the college’s stage, she told Hashmi, and she crooned a bhajan by Lata Mangeshkar — ‘Jo Tum Todo Piya’ from Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje. This got her the attention of Islamia College’s Professor Asrar Ahmad who had a knack for good music. He recognised her talent and encouraged her to pursue it.
“Asrar sahab ne mujhe apne paas bulaya or kaha, mera naam Asrar hai or main apko ye batane aya hon kay ap bohat acha gaati hain, ap is fun ko zaya mat kijiyega [Asrar sahab called me to him and said, ’my name is Asrar and I want to inform you that you sing really well and you must not waste your talent],” she recalled.
He later introduced her to Radio Pakistan where she recorded her first track. However, she made her public debut with films like Gharana (1973) and Tansen. Later, she sang many tracks for many popular Pakistani television serials, films and plays like Phool Mere Gulshan Ka (1974), Farz Aur Mamta (1975), Aina (1977), Bobby and Julie (1978) and Dhoop Kinaray (1987) but it was ‘Roothay Ho Tum’ from Aina that she is mostly remembered for.
Aside from the usual numbers, she also sang Pakistan’s two most popular national songs: ‘Wattan Ki Mitti’ and ‘Is Parcham Ke Saaye Tale’. In fact, the most popular naat which often airs on PTV, ‘Aaya Hai Bulawa Mujhe Darbar-E-Nabi Se’ has also been recited by her.
During her career that spanned two decades, she sang alongside legends like Ahmed Rushdi and Mehdi Hasan and won many accolades like the Pride of Performance in 2006 and Nigar Award as the Best Female Playback Singer for Gharana, to name a few. She was also given the honorific title of Bublbul-i-Pakistan (Pakistan’s nightingale).
Between work and family
Noor rose to prominence, was loved by many and celebrated both within Pakistan and across the border. But it didn’t come easy. Being a South Asian woman, she had to work harder to simultaneously meet the expectations of her fans and family.
She spoke about how difficult it was for her to maintain a work-life balance, being a wife and a mother. Amidst household responsibilities and taking care of her children, she wouldn’t get much time to do riyaaz (a systematic way of practicing music to hone the musicality of one’s voice).
“I know what I have been through to meet expectations associated with me. Barri diqatton ka samna karna parta hai. Bara mushkil hai. [You have to face a lot of hardships. It’s very difficult]
While talking to Hashmi, she also shared “how tiring it is” and how sometimes, she found it too difficult to effectively manage her personal life and career.
“[I feel like I] can’t do it but then there is a force who knows [why you were chosen to do this task] and apko pairon per khara kar deti hai [makes you stand on your own feet].”
The poetry of Nayyara’s songs
Nayyara Noor may not have been a formally trained singer but she had an ear for good music, which made her a versatile singer. That ear for good music translated into her song selection. Most of the songs she sang were penned by legendary poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ghalib and Behzad Lakhnavi, whether it’s ‘Ay Jazba-e-Dil’, ‘Raat Yun Dil Mein’ or ‘Jaur Se Baaz Aain Par Baaz Aain Kya’.
“I wouldn’t go for poetry which doesn’t have a strong essence,” she told Hashmi.
While she gave voice to the words of many singers, it was Faiz’s words that resonated the most with her. “I feel extremely comfortable and connected when I sing Faiz sahab… He is perhaps closest to my heart.”
Nayyara ji’s songs introduced me to good poetry and instilled a love for good music into someone as badzauq (somebody with unrefined tastes) as me. I still remember when I first heard ‘Ay Jazba-e-Dil’, there was one line in the song that stuck with me. It was “Us waqt mujhe bhatka dena jab samne manzil ajaye [But do let me go astray, when the destination is but a step away]”.
This one-liner taught me that “manzil” (destination) is a facade, because in reality, we never have one destination. The destination is a goal and a means to a never-ending end. And since we don’t know what the end is, we always keep moving.
That said, this song holds a special place in my heart. It not only gave me profound words to ponder upon, but also imparted a key life lesson — poetry is open to interpretation and we can derive as many meanings from a poem as we want.
She is gone now and I feel I have lost another mother today. I will always cherish her music and all the memories that I made because of those wonderful melodies. Goodbye, Nayyara Ji. Kashti ka Khuda khud hafiz hai!