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Perfect PITCH
By Raveena Aulakh
Chandigarh, March 8

DELHI evenings, in Spring, can be incredible: up there, an unblemished skyline leisurely assuming different hues, and down there, episodic bursts of feral flora - it had all the elements for an ideal evening. Nature's bounty, however, is completely lost on Swarn Noora. Take her back to February 13, 2005, at Delhi's India Habitat Centre where a performance preceded the release of her first mainstream 12-track CD, Noora, and she only recalls the stunned silence long after her baritone had ceased to be the only sound heard in the sprawling gardens.
A thunderous applause followed - but the deafening silence, she knows, was the real applause.
Weeks later, the setting's shifted to Basti Danish Manda, Jalandhar: Noora, wearing trademark off-white salwar-kameez, gold hoops and a shawl demurely covering her head, sits cross-legged on a charpoy in her rundown home's frontyard. It's time for riyaaz. As the morning comes alive to poignant rendition of Sufiana Qalam accompanied by sons Master Dilbahar on the dholki and Gulshan Mir on harmonium, there's a ripple effect: on terraces, there's an enchanted audience. Quiet, listening in rapt attention.
" It's always like this," explains Dilbahar, tightening the colourful strings of his dholki, smiling at the voluntary audience. Except for the couple of years that Noora, 55, stopped singing. Totally. Noora's earthy timbre still carries the grief of those tumultuous years. Sohan Lal, her husband and guru, passed away. "I couldn't bring myself to sing without him".
Till then, Noora, daughter of Bibi Noora, the acclaimed singer of Sufiana Qalam, hadn't sung with anybody but Sohan Lal. Her musical odyssey may have come by default from her mother but it was Sohan Lal, a qawwali artiste with AIR, Jalandhar, who groomed and launched her. As a young girl, she'd always wanted to sing - her mother never encouraged her. Married at 21 into a family of qawwals with a formidable lineup, music was an intrinsic part of her life. Yet, it wasn't.
Then, Bibi Noora died and Noora fell ill. No medicine worked. Sohan Lal, shattered, asked her the matter. "I told him I wanted to sing." Her training started soon.
It was rough but one that Noora welcomed. She had an earthy voice but had never sung with accompanying music. "If I didn't get the sur right, he would slap me." Stinging slaps and weeks later, Noora could get lyrics in tandem with music. To date, she maintains: "If it hadn't been for Sohan Lal, I would've never been able to sing." In '97, she recorded Sone De Kangana, her first album - barely audible in the cacophony of Punjabi music's Me-Toos. Noora and Sohan Lal, the toast of AIR and DD, were invited for functions across Punjab through the '90s.
After Sohan Lal passed away in 2000, AIR assignments dwindled. Soon, Noora stopped singing altogether. "Gaan wich jaan nahi rahi," she says quietly.
Faced with looming poverty, she was persuaded by her sons to sing again. But it was Shefali Bhushan, maintains Noora, "who's given me another lease of life". Shefali Bhushan of Beat of India, a company dedicated to showcasing and revival of folk artistes, rediscovered her while she was singing at a mazaar. A month later, she'd convinced her to record. Noora doesn't bat an eyelid when she says of the raucous Punjabi pop: "It may be the current flavour in Punjab but Sufi, our virsa, will always have a dedicated audience."
In her own home, Noora is ensuring the tradition carries forward: granddaughters Sultana, 10, and Jyoti, 7, who've inherited the singer's overpowering baritone and passion for Sufi, spend hours getting the pitch right. She doesn't want to sound presumptuous but says: "Look out for them."
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