Noor Jehan comes back to life at daughter Nazia Ejaz's art exhibition that reflects on their unique relation
Nineteen years since Pakistani singer-actor Noor Jehan's death, in an exhibition titled 'Love Letters' being held at Karachi's Canvas Gallery, her youngest daughter Nazia Ejaz aims to 'express a sense of her', by capturing 'glimpses' of the artist's perception of her mother.
The exhibition titled 'Love Letters' is being held at Karachi's Canvas Gallery by Noor Jehan's youngest daughter, artist Nazia Ejaz.
The exhibition aims to 'express a sense of her', by capturing 'glimpses' of Ejaz's perception of her mother.
Noor Jehan holds the record of being one of the two artists to have sung the largest number of songs for the Pakistani film industry.
In 1947, when Allah Rakhi Wasai declared that she will move to where she truly belonged, the actress, who by then had become a household name in India, left the Hindi film industry stunned. Soon enough, she packed up and moved to Lahore, as Partition meant her hometown of Kasur, Punjab now lay in the new-born Pakistan. It wasn't until 1951 that 'Mallika-e-Tarannum' Wasai, better known by her stage name Noor Jehan, could make her debut in the neighbouring Lollywood. And till date, the artiste holds the formidable record of being one of the two to have sung the largest number of songs for the Pakistani film industry (along with Ahmed Rushdi).
Nineteen years since her death, in an exhibition titled 'Love Letters' being held at Karachi's Canvas Gallery, Jehan's youngest daughter Nazia Ejaz aims to "express a sense of her", by capturing "glimpses" of the artist's perception of her mother.
A number of paintings on display, adhering to Ejaz's style, are abstract, and employ pattern and portraiture, with photographs of Noor Jehan standing out against exquisitely painted backdrops.
But Nazia Ejaz feels reluctant to label it an 'homage' to her mother. "I don't know if it's a tribute to her, or to get past my own issues, or the start of me working through my own emotions, me processing life, love, men, children, work," she says about her solo exhibition.
Besides oil on canvas and abstraction, the artist has also used grids — an element she has worked with extensively in the past four years.
"Challenging perceptions was the primary focus of the work," says Sameera Raja, curator of the exhibition, adding that the "footfall has been much more due undoubtedly to the magnetism and appeal of Madam Noor Jehan."
In this body of work, Ejaz claims to have used abstraction in order to address more intangible ideas surrounding her mother. "The portraits are stylised to stay authentic to my visual practice, and I use renaissance painting techniques and gold leaf in my work. The idea is to use these in a contemporary fashion, while referencing art historical use of these techniques in miniature painting and European icons."
"Being the daughter of Noor Jehan in itself comes with a huge responsibility, and that is why I suppose it took her this long," Raja says, referring to the event being held 19 years after Jehan's passing away on 23 December, 2000. "There is honesty of engaging with an emotion," she says.
Writer, illustrator and art critic, Rumana Hussain, who authored a graphic story on Noor Jehan, feels that the artist has "really put her heart and soul" into the work. "Whether it is painting over Noor Jehan's photos, or the repetitive patterns and textures combined with calligraphic work — the 'love letters' to her from her mother — or is it vice versa? — point towards her engagement with her subject," Hussain says.
"Very few artists manage to take gold leaf out of its original context and use it beautifully in their work; she’s definitely one of them," says miniature artist, Rabia Farooqi. "The way she’s paired gold leaf with repetitive patterns stands out. It adds so much depth to the narrative as well, since the show revolves around her mother. Her execution is brilliant," she adds.
Pointing to a blue and gold painting, titled 'Scriptures of Love', Ejaz mentions: "It is a cipher of what she said to me, what I said to her."
Amra Ali, a Karachi-based art critic, adds that the artist "employs Urdu text as a design element, and weaves floral patterns with a childlike immediacy. The works are large and ‘fun’, and a definite break from the gloom around us."
Her other artworks are titled after songs sung by Noor Jehan, like "Chan mahiya", "Saathi kahan ho", "Sajan laagi tori lagan", among others, with Ali observing how Ejaz's work appears to largely "connect the popular with the very personal".
There's an abundance of imagery, overlapping with clashing colours of icy hues and gold (in the outlines of the flowers in the background, and on the ornate frames), to the black and white monotone, giving it a distinctly photomontage hangover. She has "eulogised Madam Noor Jehan, from a daughter’s perspective", Ali remarks, while simultaneously negotiating meaning for herself and her relationship with the public aura of Jehan, according to Ali.
In the 90s, when Ejaz was in London studying art, she would get letters from her mother every week, "beautifully written in Urdu". Her friends would be fascinated with the writing, asking her to translate the words for them. 'They called them my love letters and they were — full of emotion and prayers and longing,' Nazia explains in a note at the back of a set of printed cards for guests.
She claims to be her mother's "favourite" child, being the youngest of the six. The reasons too are laid out — Ejaz was an "afterthought". Noor Jehan had a two-year-old granddaughter when her youngest daughter was born, and perhaps that played a role in the unique bond between the two. "Ours was a purely 'pyar ka rishta' (relationship of love), even symbiotic. We were in sync and understood each other well," Nazia says.
Poet Iftikhar Arif, a close friend of Noor Jehan, who had called her "very wild in some ways, but a great mother," has been waiting for Ejaz's work to reach Islamabad, where he resides currently.
While each of her siblings has inherited "big chunks of her personality", Nazia would like to believe that Jehan's love for poetry, mysticism (showing the thread wound around her wrist she got on her recent visit to Lal Shahbaz Qalandar's shrine in Sehwan Sharif, in Pakistan's Jamshoro), creativity, and sense of humour were handed down to her.
On heading down the hallway, one encounters an arresting portrait of the iconic artist, with her eyes looking straight into the beholder's. When this writer points out that Jehan looks sad, Ejaz immediately explains: "It was not easy being a single mother." But to her, her mother looked more "confrontational" with "a certain fragility", than sad. The background of roses, motia and chambeli (a type of jasmine) were signature to not just her mother, but to Lahore as well, the city that gave her work and fame. "She loved Lahore!" Nazia exclaims.
"She loved them [her children] more than any other human being. All men in her life were secondary, but daughters were her priority; she was totally committed to them," Arif recounts.
There are paintings with butterflies in the backdrop too. "They [butterflies] are a universal symbol of transformation; their lives are a series of distinctly varied, almost unrecognisable phases. Also, for me, they are a reference to the transitory nature of life," Ejaz mentions. "In my work, I see Noor Jehan as a woman rather than a mother," the artist adds.
A child prodigy, an actor and a singer, Nazia recalls her mother as being a "thorough professional", who would emphasise on honesty being of paramount importance to people's "work, as well as relationships".
The exhibition is on till 17 October, and Nazia Ejaz hopes to showcase the second part of this series in Lahore in the months to come. "This show does seem to me to be the beginning of a much larger collection," she says. "I feel like the work has barely started...I’m in the thick of things as far as the process is concerned."
Her exploration of the exhibition's subject — her "Maa", Noor Jehan, — is here to stay for a while. "I don't think I'm done with it. I don't feel the relief that you feel at the end of something. But I am really glad I'm doing this because there is no way out but through this," Ejaz concludes.
Nazia Ejaz's work can be followed on Instagram @naziaejazstudio.