The story goes that poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz had just been released from prison after serving a term for his influential views on communism in Pakistan. Noor Jehan, or Madamji, as she was addressed, stood outside, waiting for the poet to appear.
The party of friends and family that had gathered to celebrate moved to his house to rejoice. Faiz, who had spent his time in jail listening to her songs on the radio, requested her to sing.
One of the songs she sang was based on his nazm, Mujh Se Pehli Si Mohabbat Mere Mehboob Na Maang. She composed a tune for it on the spot without the use of any musical instrument. The musical quality of her rendition mesmerised everyone. Faiz would later credit her as the co-author of his poem because he believed no one could sing it with such perfection. Not even him!
Later, when the song was composed and filmed for Qaidi (1962) it further cemented her ownership of it. It was an instant hit. She could sing both high and low but her voice never once faltered. The popularity of the song resonated in India when lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri borrowed one line from the nazm, "Teri aankhon ke siva duniya mein rakha kya hai," and turned it into a hit song for the film Chiraag (1969).
In a rare audio recording, Faiz himself recites his free-flowing poem, but he sounds like a poet reading to a very private audience. Noor Jehan the chanteuse takes it to the public and makes it unique each time she does so.
She recalls an incident when Pakistani officials would not let her sing the song at a charity event. ‘I was surprised. It was my favourite poem and I had composed the tune myself. I refused to go along with them. Why were they against the song? I sang the song and it became very popular. The first time they heard it, the whole audience stood up.’ Here are a few times she has sung the song for television recordings and live:
In 1982, when she visited India briefly, she was received with geat honour by Dilip Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar. Dilip Kumar introduced her on stage in chaste Urdu saying, ‘You are a cultural asset of Pakistan, but the magic of your voice is universal. Those who understand Eastern music really appreciate it. Your style of singing covers such a vast range. It has a mixture of your carefree style, childhood, uniqueness, love and beauty, and happiness and sorrow.”
She was requested to sing and she obliged her Indian audience by singing Faiz. It was her first concert in India in 35 years after she migrated to Karachi during the Partition.
Faiz was asked many a time to recite his poem after Noor Jehan had popularised it. He would often decline. He once famously said of his nazm, "Woh geet ab mera kahan, Noor Jehan ka ho gaya hai." "It's not my song any more, it belongs to Noor Jehan now." He had merely written it, he said. She had interpreted it with her soul.