Earlier this month, the Nooran household in Jalandhar woke up to an unfamiliar, never-before exciting day. Their morning ritual of visiting the nearby dargah was replaced by huddling around the television set and waiting for the clock to strike seven. Instead of the notes of bhairavi, the house of the traditional musicians resonated with the beats of AR Rahman, blaring from the TV set. The night before, Noorans had got a phone call from Imtiaz Ali’s office telling them that their song promo of Highway would be on air. Although appearing on Indian television isn’t new to the Nooran sisters — Sultana and Jyoti — the excitement of doing playback for a major Bollywood film, helmed by Rahman, was a different high.
“This time it was easier to explain to our friends and neighbours in Jalandhar who we have sung for. Just the name, AR Rahman, says it all,” says Jyoti. Her voice over the phone, heavy with the excitement of a teenybopper, also bears the robustness of the powerful vocals one hears in Patakha Guddi, the song they have sung for Highway. The first of the latest offering from Rahman-Ali-Irshad Kamil trio, who gave us the memorable Rockstar, the song is already climbing the music charts. Making their playback debut with Rahman is a big deal. But the sisters aren’t new to such attention. They sang the meditative Allah Hoo for Hitesh Sonik for Coke Studio @ MTV Season 2, and even earlier, for MTV Sound Trippin for Sneha Khanwalkar in 2012.
The journey of Nooran sisters from absolute obscurity to national attention has been incredible. Their singing is signified by the very essence of folk music — uninhibited, rustic — and is strongly evocative of the Sufi traditions of Punjab. Their grandmother Bibi Nooran was a musician of repute and music formed an integral part of their childhood. The family fell on hard times when she passed away. “There were days when we would have to go without food,” says Gulshan Mir, father, guru and mentor to the Nooran sisters. He started giving singing lessons to survive. It took away from Mir’s own music, but it helped the family stay afloat. He devoted himself to teaching his students, until he discovered the prodigious talent in his daughters. Sultana was seven and Jyoti five at that time. “They were playing, and in jest, singing a Bulleh Shah kalam they had heard from their naani. I asked them to sit with me and sing it with the harmonium and the tabla, and they didn’t miss a beat,” says Mir, who also composes songs for the sisters.
Initially, the duo weren’t sure if the music they are training in held the promise of a bright career. That was before the mainstream became more inclusive of Sufi music. “Sufi music needs understanding of the bol, and more such nuances. So, we never knew that our kind of music would ever get so much attention from people,” says Sultana.
Their first show in Canada, in front of a full house expat Punjabi audience, changed this perception. Their talent was spotted on a Punjabi reality show. But breakthrough in mainstream music came when Khanwalkar landed in Jalandhar scouting for unheard voices for Sound Trippin, a show that experimented with folk sounds and electronic music. The result was the dazzlingly original and catchy Tung Tung, the show’s most popular song till date. “Ever since the number of phone calls, shows and offers have increased 10 times. We’ll be forever grateful to Sneha for her contribution to their careers,” says Mir.
The girls can’t get over the experience of working with Rahman. Describing Patakha Guddi as something they associate with “masti, mithaas and shaitaani”, the duo remembers the six-hour recording session in Mumbai with a lot of fondness. “You can look at Rahman’s face and know if he is happy with the song. After the recording, Rahman told my father, he wanted to know what he had been feeding us,” says Sultana. Sultana and Jyoti have sung three more songs for Rahman and are likely to record two more.
The sisters’ packed calendar has put the days of hardship behind them. The family of seven, including siblings, now live in a double-storied house and own a car. These comforts have not waned their deep dedication to their art. “Our bodies, when we sing, don’t feel like they are ours anymore. It is like ibaadat, surrendering to Allah,” says Sultana.