Noor Jehan: The Light of the Closet

How the singer born in pre-Independence Punjab became a contemporary icon for sex workers, dissenters, and queer people.

Imaan Sheikh

March 19, 2021

Noor Jehan: The Light of the Closet
Illustration: Radio Rani

It was the autumn of 1926. In the small district of Kasur — south of Lahore in present-day Pakistan — musicians Madad Ali and Fateh Bibi had a baby girl with rosy cheeks and a dimpled chin. They named her Allah Rakhi Wasai: the lucky one, protected by god. By the time Allah Rakhi was five, she was already singing like a nightingale.

At this point, Kasur already had a rich history of producing spiritual and artistic greats, as the birthplace of people like Sufi poet and philosopher Baba Bulleh Shah, musician Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali, and Bebe Nanaki, the elder sister of the father of Sikhism Guru Nanak. Allah Rakhi was one of many children training under classical singing teacher Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who said, “It seems the day this girl was born, Allah didn’t give birth to another artist,” implying that god gave all the talent he had that day to the girl. But few others could imagine the bright-eyed girl was going to be the next beacon to put Kasur on the map once again. During her training as a singer, Allah Rakhi would come to earn her stage name, Noor Jehan — the light of the world.

And that’s exactly what she was. Half a century before beauty YouTubers made highlighted cheekbones, dewy skin, false lashes, and overlined lips mainstream, there was Madam Noor Jehan — better known as just “Madam” by her admirers. Her luminous face beamed under hot studio lights as she coquettishly batted her lashes in slow-mo. Even at a plump 50, each signature quiver of her glossy pout would leave the hearts of men and women tickled. If you closed your eyes, her husky, breathy voice would pull you in; if you covered your ears, her ada would shackle you. There was no question history hadn’t known a singer like her before. But Madam also bathed in extraordinary opulence. Her ultra femininity, complete with silk saris and sparkling eyeshadow, made her an icon in a more secret group of the subcontinent — one that usually wasn’t afforded grace, humanity, or compassion: the Brown LGBT community.

Before the advent of the internet, allies as such were few and far beyond. Those who dared to be visible risked their lives; gay Pakistani poet Ifti Nasim had to flee to the U.S. following death threats. Writers Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai were maligned for writing queer and queer-adjacent stories. The LGBT community grabbed on to whomever they could for inspiration. Glamorous men and women who stand out from the crowd in the way they dress or carry themselves have always found a place in the hearts of queer kids — especially those living in more oppressive environments — who aspire to take up the unapologetic space these women do. And that’s why Noor Jehan, coy like Marilyn Monroe and voluptuous and decked out like Anna Nicole Smith, became an underground gay symbol.

While the likes of Manto and Chughtai may not have been rich, they had the privilege of access to education, college degrees, and Western sophistication. But little is known about Noor Jehan’s formal schooling, except that she studied music. While others waxed poetic in crisp Urdu and English, Noor Jehan could speak raw Punjabi from her chest, as well as Urdu and Sindhi, appealing to not only the elite who loved bougie ghazal parties, but also those in rural regions who couldn’t read or write.

In the early 1930s, Noor Jehan moved to Calcutta with her family. With Calcutta’s booming art and performance scene, they hoped to find Noor Jehan and her sisters jobs in the film industry. Given their generational artistic background, the family did not have much trouble forming connections. Actor Mukhtar Begum saw that Noor Jehan was something special, and through her recommendations, the young Jehan landed her first acting and playback singing role in 1935 in the film Pind Di Kuri. She went on to act opposite big names like Dilip Kumar, Santosh Kumar, and Pran on screen, but her true calling was always singing. However, her playback-only debut in films didn’t happen until 1960 (Salma).