Jyoti Nooran was all of five when her father heard her singing a Bulleh Shah kalam. While other kids of her age were lisping 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star', Jyoti was singing, at full throttle, one of Punjab's most lauded Sufi singers without realising the significance of the song.
Perhaps it was inevitable, because Jyoti was born in a family steeped in music. Her grandmother, Bibi Nooran, was a well-known Punjabi Sufi singer, and little Jyoti and her sister Sultana grew up listening to her songs.
Dire poverty prevented the two girls from going to school, but the powerful singing voices in their family provided them an education of a different kind. Unaware of their inherent talent, they sang powerful Sufi songs about divine spirituality while they played hopscotch. But when their father, Gulshan Meer, chanced upon their singing, he recognised their talent immediately, and set about training their voices formally. In no time, the two girls were singing on public platforms.
From melas and dargahs in Punjab to national TV channels, Jyoti and Sultana enthralled listeners wherever they sang, with their popularity soaring to amazing heights after their song 'Tung Tung', accompanied by heavy electronic music, became one of the most popular chartbusters on MTV channel. More records were broken at Coke Studio with their powerful rendering of 'Allah Hoo'.
It was with 'Allah Hoo' that the annual Prithvi Festival in Mumbai, held in memory of Prithviraj Kapoor, opened this year.
Singing solo, Jyoti mesmerised a packed auditorium of special invitees who were quite unlike those at dargahs and TV channels. Theatre lovers, film directors, stage artistes were visibly moved by Jyoti's signature style of energetic singing, that had tablas, harmonium, dhol and even guitars lending her lively support. It was like nothing they had heard or seen before. Dressed in a dazzling velvet ensemble but devoid of any jewellery, Jyoti captivated the audience with powerful lyrics in search of the Almighty.
"Our singing is like ibaadat, surrendering to Allah," Jyoti had pointed out once. And, indeed, as her deep-throated voice rose to a crescendo, and she broke into fervent clapping, she seemed to be overcome by a mystical force. Even those who may not have understood the nuances of her lyrics got carried along by the force and rhythm of her voice and frenzied body language.
Watching Jyoti at the festival, you realise why music maestro A R Rahman decided to use her talent for Imtiaz Ali's deeply disturbing film Highway. 'Patakha Guddi', belted out by Jyoti and supported by Sultana, was like the theme song for Alia Bhatt's character in the film.
As the latter breaks free from her family's hypocritical social chains, and hits the highway with her abductor, Jyoti's voice says it all.
Breaking free from her father's constraints is what Jyoti, too, did in real life. Even as she rose to dizzying heights of fame and popularity with films like Highway, Mirzya, Sultan and Jab Harry Met Sejal, she fell in love and got married much against her father's wishes. Strong as her voice, she stood her ground and even got a court order to validate her marriage to Kunal Passi.
Meeting her backstage after the show, you find that it's Kunal who does most of the talking on her behalf. "Uparwale ki rehmat hai," he replies when you ask Jyoti how she feels about her journey from Punjab to Prithvi, via films and international acclaim.
"The journey has been fantastic!" he adds, while Jyoti smiles in agreement. "There are times when we are on the road for months on end, performing for one show after another," continues her husband, who is now her manager as well.
"Where do you get so much energy from? What do you eat?" you ask the petit singer, half in jest.
"Oh, she is a vegetarian, you know! And has been so from childhood. She has made me a vegetarian, too," points out Kunal.
If Kunal turned vegetarian, Jyoti converted to Hinduism when she married Kunal. Happy compromises that give their marriage a sound footing, even as the two harmoniously, pun intended, take Jyoti's career to stupendous heights. Her musical calendar is all chalked out with forthcoming shows in Dhaka and Delhi.
Punjabis, Bengalis, Gujaratis - all flock to her shows, with language being no impediment. The syncretic soul of Sufi music mesmerises them all. Barely 23 years old, Jyoti is centre stage, passion and confidence personified.