Every day of my life I think of her. When I go for a walk, when I feel pain, I think of how much more her pain was, I think of her in chains, I think of her being beaten. When I am cold I think of her, I think of her lying in her cell with hardly any clothes. She is with me every day.
—Inayat Vilayat Khan, 2003
To follow my posts on Les Parisiennes and the wartime SOE, a major character in Sarah Helm’s account of the latter is Noor Inayat Khan (1914–44). Both Vera Atkins and Sarah Helm were especially moved by her tragic wartime fate; here I’d also like to explore her earlier life in Paris as heir to a tradition of Indian Sufi music, and as harpist and author.
I’ve been reading
- Shrabani Basu, Spy princess: the life of Noor Inayat Khan (2006) (cf. her brief article here),
which builds on the work of Sarah Helm and Noor’s friend Jean Overton Fuller, author of the first biography in 1952 (see below).
Noor’s distinguished father Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882–1927; see here, and wiki), descended from a noble Indian family, was a Sufi mystic and musician who came to the USA in 1910 and went on to found the International Sufi movement. Inayat Khan’s own grandfather Maula Bakhsh (1833–96) had sung at an eleven-day contest in Mysore in 1860. Like Bach and Coltrane, Inayat Khan practised music in the service of God.  Here’s a playlist, opening with a sequence of precious recordings from 1909 (for help getting to grips with their musical features, see listings here; for my series on raga, see here):
In 1912 he performed with “The Royal Musicians of Hindustan” in Paris, where oriental culture was much in vogue (cf. Berlioz, and chinoiserie); they accompanied Mata Hari, and he met figures like Lucien Guitry, Sarah Bernhardt, Auguste Rodin, Isadora Duncan, and Claude Debussy. Meanwhile Paris audiences were also hearing the premiere of Ravel‘s Daphnis and Chloe; and the following year, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. They didn’t know how lucky they were…
Amina Begum; right, with her daughter Noor.
Inayat Khan had met the American Ora Ray Baker (1892–1949) while he was on a lecture tour in California, and they married in London in 1913; she now took the name Amina Begum. Soon after, The Royal Musicians of Hindustan were invited for a residency in Moscow; Noor was born near the Kremlin  on 1st January 1914.
But as the Russian revolution loomed, the family soon emigrated to London. Life was hard, but Inayat Khan would play the vina and sing for Noor daily, though he was busy founding Sufi orders around England. Noor’s brother Vilayat (see below) was born in 1916, followed by Hidayat and Khair-un-Nissa. The house in Gordon square where the family moved in 1917 was always full of visiting Sufis.
However, with Anglo-Indian tensions high, the British government was suspicious of Inayat Khan, and in 1920, when Noor was 6, the family made their home in Paris, where she spent much of her childhood in the modest yet idyllic family home of Fazal Manzil (“House of Blessing”). The children grew up in an Indian atmosphere; Noor learned to sing raga with her father whenever he was home from setting up Sufi orders abroad. At home the children mostly spoke English, only gradually becoming fluent in French too. At school they were clearly different from the local pupils: Noor, mature and serious, retained her name, while her younger sister preferred to be known as Claire.
But in 1926 Inayat Khan, already seriously ill, embarked on a pilgrimage to India, and the following year, when Noor was only 13, he died there. As her distraught mother retreated from the world, Noor took over responsibility for running the household.
Noor playing vina, and harp—from this useful introduction.
From 1931 she attended the École Normale de Musique in Paris for six years, under the supervision of Nadia Boulanger, studying harp with Henriette Renié, as well as piano and composition. Can anyone find her Prelude for harp and Elegy for harp and piano? I’d love to hear them. I wonder if she ever played the Ravel Introduction and Allegro, or the Debussy Trio—or indeed Caplet’s Masque of the Red Death, dedicated to Micheline Kahn, another harp teacher at the École.
Noor’s younger siblings were also WAM musicians: Vilayat played cello and piano, studying with Stravinsky, Hidayat the violin and piano, while Claire, also a pianist, studied with Nadia Boulanger like her sister.
From 1932 Noor also studied child psychology at the Sorbonne. She adopted a more European style of dress. In 1934 she visited Spain with Vilayat, meeting Pablo Casals; the following year they went to Italy, attending operas and concerts in Padua, Venice, and Milan—blissfully unaware of the people’s plight under Mussolini.
By now Noor was becoming known as an author of poetry and fiction for children, her magical style somewhat recalling that of L’enfant et les sortilèges. In 1939 she received an invitation to write Twenty Jakata tales, about the previous incarnations of the Buddha.
Upon the invasion of France in 1940 the family moved to London, with considerable difficulty. Despite their unworldly background, the family realized the necessity of combatting fascism; Vilayat joined the RAF and then the Royal Navy, working as a mine-sweeper, while Noor joined the WAAF, training as a nurse and then radio operator. She willingly reinvented herself: as her friend Jean Overton Fuller observed about her Sufi family background, “there was a lot to look up to, but a lot to get away from”.
For the past six years Noor had been in a relationship with a fellow-student at the École Normale de Musique, suffering from her family’s disapproval of his poor Turkish Jewish background. Only now that the war broke out did she separate with him. By 1943 she was engaged to a man in the War Office, who remains mysterious.
Meanwhile Noor and Vilayat were becoming sympathetic to the Indian Independence movement.
The SOE: occupied France
As Sarah Helm comments, Noor was brought up in an “intensely spiritual way”, seeming “otherworldly” to Vera Atkins and others at the SOE. While she went through the intensive training, her instructors had misgivings about her “lack of ruse”, but they were impressed by her composure, diligence, and strength. She was now known as Nora Baker, and within the SOE as Madeleine.
Vera Atkins took her to the plane in June 1943. She was the first female radio operator to be flown into occupied France; but all four agents who flew that night were doomed. The resistance group to which Nora was attached was soon exposed, and in Paris she soon found herself alone and in great danger. Both Helm and Basu go to great lengths to unravel the networks of spies and double agents.
Responsible for her plight, the SOE tried to recall her, but she refused. She was already captured by October 1943 after being betrayed. While held at Avenue Foch, and later, she made several attempts to escape. At first she was thought to have been killed at the Natzweiler camp, but eventually witnesses came forward to prove that she had been held in Pforzheim prison for ten months, her feet and hands shackled, before being transferred to Dachau on 12th September 1944 and executed the next morning—even as the tide of the war was turning. Only 26 of over 200 captured agents of the two French sections of the SOE survived.
Though the family had known of Noor’s death for some time, the news of her real fate only reached them in 1948. Her mother was especially devastated, dying soon after. Vilayat had brought her back to Paris; Noor’s harp was restored to the family home of Fazal Manzil.
Noor was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1946 and the George Cross in 1949.
In 1952 her friend Jean Overton Fuller published a biography, Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan: Madeleine (the updated 2019 edition includes a retrospective by Vilayat Inayat Khan). Indeed, it was partly through her research that Vera Atkins began to lose control of the SOE narrative, as Sarah Helm explains. At first their relationship was affable; Vera approved of the book. But as Fuller began probing more deeply for her next book and revised her biography of Noor, she found that Vera had been editing her account.
In 1972 Hidayat premiered La monotonia in memory of his sister:
In 2012 a statue was unveiled to Noor in Gordon square—making her a neighbour of Gandhi in Tavistock square gardens. In 2014 she graced a Royal Mail stamp, and by 2020 a blue plaque was installed before her Bloomsbury home. She features in Cathy Newman’s 2018 book Bloody brilliant women.
Following early movies about Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo, Noor’s story (on the lines of “Exotic princess sacrifices her life for freedom”) now makes an irresistible subject for a film maker (see here); I await it with some trepidation.
As reports continued to emerge after the war, he went to great lengths to uncover the truth about his sister’s end. Sarah Helm discussed this gradual process in detail in her second meeting with Vilayat at Fazal Manzil (A life in secrets, pp.417–24). Ever grieving for Noor, he recalls his earlier encounters with Vera Atkins: “I think she looked at me and saw the long beard and the clothes. I think she thought, ‘He used to be such a dashing naval officer and now look at him—a phoney guru.’ ” He found Vera cold-blooded.
How I wonder what would have become of Noor if she had survived the war. She might have continued developing her fiction, poetry, music, and Sufism; her brother Hidayat was convinced that she would have joined the cause for Indian Independence; perhaps, like Vera Brittain, she would have become involved in the international peace movement; and she hoped to have “lots of children”.
* * *
However thoroughly the SOE agents were trained before their missions into occupied France, they soon found themselves caught up in a nightmare. While Noor’s fate seems all the more distressing since she was spiritual, talented, and turned out to be most courageous, that’s not quite the point. While media attention is naturally drawn to the fate of such a “spiritual princess”, we should value all life, commemorating all the countless other innocent, ordinary victims, unable to display heroism, who also met terrible fates. As Timothy Snyder reminds us, terrible as the camps were, only a minority of victims died there: men, women, and children, brutally executed en masse in the Bloodlands by the Einsatzgruppen or the NKVD, remain largely uncommemorated.
 Indeed, Coltrane’s fellow jazzman Yusef Lateef introduced him to Inayat Khan’s book The mysticism and sound of music (first published in 1921). I knew nothing of Inayat Khan or his family when in 1978 a mystically-inclined fellow-violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave me a copy of the book—during the transition from Boulez to Rozhdestvensky; now I found the connection most satisfying. Indeed, had Noor survived, in 1978 she would still have been younger than I am now.
 Not quite in the Kremlin, or even in a monastery near the Kremlin, as you may read online!