The angelic voice

August 28, 2022

She belonged to the old school, if one may dare say, when melodiousness was the only real benchmark for a vocalist.

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Nayyara Noor was a rare talent. She did not fully realise her potential. Even at the peak of her career, she was always reluctant to b recorded and often came up with excuses to avoid live performances. About 10 years ago, she had announced that she had quit singing. But she had not been a ready and willing performer ever earlier for any forum - the stage or the studio. As a result, her repertoire is rather limited.

She belonged to the old school, if one may dare say so, when melodiousness was the only real benchmark for a vocalist. Nayyara Noor displayed that from the very beginning. She needed sensitive composers who could translate that into the sonic concerns of the day. The lack of volume in her voice became an advantage in the process of recording. It had a limited range but within that she could play with the microtones, the shrutis, to add great deal of melodic depth to the rendition. These days, the intonation has changed so much that it becomes difficult to find the critical base against which a performance might be judged. In the rush for popular acclaim, critical reception often lags behind. At best, it can be said that the overbearing nature of the musical tone and temper sits heavy on the conventional intonation located in our culture.

Her talent first came to light when she performed at a concert at the National College of Arts, Lahore, in the early 1970s where she was a student. Soon, she became a popular figure at similar programmes held across the city. She was frequently requested to render the numbers of Begum Akhter, Khurshid Bano, Kanan Devi, early Lata Mangeshkar and other crooners with great intensity of melodic content.

She also performed for the radio and was picked by Shoaib Hashmi and Arshad Mehmood to sing Faiz’s poetry in the programmes produced by the team in the early 1970s. The original numbers lifted her stature many notches up as she was now seen singing just covers of the famous vocalists of the past. In singing Faiz, even in verses that demanded blatant display of resentment and anger, she showed great intensity of melodiousness. She brought out the tuhmat-i-’ishq-i-posheeda (the allegation of a secret passion) aspect rather than the copiousness of jan-i-shoreeda (wild and defiant). In that, she complemented the tone of the poet, never letting the romantic strain slip by even in the narration of the ugliest of experiences.

Her talent was first recognised when she performed at a concert at the National College of Arts, Lahore, in the early 1970s where she was a student. Soon she became a popular figure at similar programmes held across the city.

Little is known about her musical background, and the kind of tutoring that she might have had before she was picked up on the basis of her talent. It is said that she was born in Assam and that the family moved to Karachi in the first decade after independence.

Once established, Nayyara Noor was, always a reluctant performer. This was her great disservice to her fans. She had the potential and many in the field were willing to help her but her responsibility to her home and children became her patent excuse for shunning the rigours of a professional life. She was very well known but she could have broken new creative ground with her singing in the wake of the onrush of amateur vocalists and musician flooding the musical space.

The big repertoire of music and the desire to listen to live music made vocalists dominate the performances. The songs remembered with or without the film have become a tradition since natyashastra.

She was also very creative in singing the numbers meant not for a larger than life presentation, but subservient to the main idea and the theme of a play. Film music in the sub-continent was also supposed to add intensity to the plot but it was rare for it to do so. Instead, it over-spilled its part and assumed an autonomous position so that the songs stood by themselves to be enjoyed and assessed independently.

Some of the numbers she sang for the teleplays became quite popular. She also sang for the films as it was seen to be the ultimate bar to scale for a popular vocalist. She had mixed feelings about her film numbers and it was said that she was meant for something else the glimpses of which could be heard in her ghazal and geet numbers.


The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.



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