Some awareness of the life of Zohra Sehgal

 Introduction

Zohra Segal was a dancer, choreographer, an actor and connoisseur of art all rolled into one. A remarkable woman of courage and grace, indomitable and with a multifaceted personality, it was not just by chance that she lived up to the ripe old age of 102-her spirit was indefatigable and she enjoyed life with all its vibrancy and colour. How did she approach her work? ''With a great sense of joy. It's my life. It's what I like doing best in the world,'' she would say.



Only last year, we lost Zohra and the world of art feels the void that none other than the greatest of all grandmothers in Bollywood could fill-a wise, witty, loving and progressive thinking grandma. Zohra was an iconoclast and she had the courage to laugh even at herself.
The pupil of Pandit Udayshankar in dance and of Prithviraj Kapoor in the field of acting, she was a self-made woman who had reached the top through her dedication to the Arts. We will take a look at the life and work of this great woman as a tribute to the great dancer-actor-choreographer whose career spanned more than six decades.

Sahebzaadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan
Zohra Mumtaz-ullah Khan was born in the district of Saharanpur of Uttar Pradesh in North India on 27 April 1912, in British India. Her parents Natiqua Begum and Mumtazullah Khan, were from a Rohilla Pathan family of Rampur and had seven children, of whom Zora was the third child. At the age of one, she contracted glaucoma and lost one eye, and was taken to Birmingham for her treatment. She was a tomboy, climbing trees and playing outdoor games. She lost her mother when still very young and went with her sister to study in Queen Mary School, Lahore, but under the traditional purdah system.


The Beginning of a Career
Zohra had finished her graduation, when one of her maternal uncles, Saeeduzaffar Khan, decided to put her as an apprentice under a British actor. They travelled from Dehradun to England by car, an open Dodge, via Lahore, Multan, Quetta, Persia, Damascus and then Alexandria to finally reach Europe, where she was taken by an aunt to the Mary Wigman Ballet School in Dresden, Germany, to learn dance. The experience was a novel one, culturally very different for someone who had always been under strict purdah. According to Zohra, ―the young dancers there wore skimpy little dresses, while I was used to stepping out only in a burqua. Zohra, became the first woman from India to get admission into the institution.
She studied and learnt modern dance there for three long years. An unexpected turn in her life came when she saw the performance of the dance Shiv-Parvati by the renowned dance Guru Uday Shankar who had come to Europe on a tour.
She was highly impressed and went to meet Uday Shankar, who promised to give her some work once he got back to India.
But even before returning, Uday Shankar invited her to join his troupe in Japan. She rushed to accept this unique offer, which changed the course of her life completely. This was 1935. Zohra danced with Pt. Uday Shankar‘s (fondly called Dada by her) troupe in Japan, Egypt, Europe and the U.S. as a leading dancer, working with the French dancer Simkie. While in America she had an opportunity to visit Hollywood. When Uday Shankar came back to India in 1940, Zohra joined the Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre in Almora, where she even drafted the syllabus for students of dance. She said the time spent with Uday Shanker‘s Ballet Company was ―one of the most worthwhile and enjoyable periods in my life. Zohra met her would-be life partner Kameshwar Segal, who was also a dancer, painter and designer, at the Centre and both gradually came close, becoming accomplished dancers and choreographers. Kameshwar was not only 8 years her junior, he was a Hindu.
The marriage was initially opposed by Zohra‘s parents, but once she had decided, no one raised the issue of his religion and though he was prepared to convert to Islam to marry her, they did not force him, and finally, after they agreed, a civil marriage took place in 1942. In Shankar‘s Cultural Centre, there were Gurus from all the dance traditions of India and ten students. But the Centre finally closed down, forcing the duo to leave for Lahore, where they set up their institute-The Zohresh Dance Institute. Due to communal tensions in pre-independence India, they were forced to leave Lahore and go to Bombay. There she joined Prithvi Theatre in 1945, where her sister Uzra Butt was already working, and acted and journeyed to different cities with the group, performing several plays, many of them openly advocating communal harmony. She continued with this for 14 years, on a monthly salary of Rs 400. She had learnt a lot from Prithvi Raj Kapoor and fondly called him Papaji‘. There are accounts in her book about the deep emotional relationship she had with him, and many interesting facets of their discussions through letters have been frankly acknowledged by her.


The Struggle in Bombay and a personal tragedy
Life in Bombay with husband Kameshwar and daughter Kiran was difficult as Zohra was building her career in theatre from scratch. She had joined IPTA, The Indian Peoples‘ Theatre Association and acted in several plays. She also acted in IPTA‘s first film Dharti Ke Lal ( Sons of the Soil)in 1946; the film was about the Bengal Famine: this was a film directed by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. The other film which was an IPTA-supported one, called Neecha Nagar(The Lowly City) was directed by Chetan Anand. The film was internationally acclaimed and won the Palme d‘Or Award at the Cannes Film Festival. Pt. Ravi Shankar did the soundtracks for both these films. She acted in Ebrahim Alkazi‘s Din Ke Andhere. But though she did act in a few films Zohra‘s forte was theatre. Meanwhile, Kameshwar had taken to Film direction. It is not known why Kameshwar became an alcoholic. But he died leaving a note do not disturb, I am hibernating‘. Some of his colleagues felt he was never satisfied with his work and felt he was a non-achiever. Others felt he could not adjust with the rebel in Zohra. However, whenever she talked about him, she would get emotional, saying she had just left him to himself, not to be disturbed, for twenty-four hours; little knowing that he had left the world. She left for Delhi and worked as director of the Natak Academy. All this was done by Zohra, after her husband‘s death, as a single woman and a single parent of a daughter, Kiran, who later became a famous Odissi dancer in her own right, and also received the Padma Shree. She shared a house with her mother in Delhi. Zohra always respected her daughter‘s independence and the fact that though Kiran had struggled hard to come up in life, she had always cared for her idiosyncratic mother. Zohra also had a son, named Pavan.
Both children were free to choose any religion they liked. The chose both Hinduism and Islam and then discarded both.
Zohra was an atheist and her husband was not a religious man. Says Zohra, about Kiran, in her autobiography, ―I have never interfered in her life and her choices. That is something I learnt from my father. When I wanted to get married to my late
husband, Kameshwar, who was a Hindu, my father had reservations. He later agreed but on the condition that the marriage took place in another town. As we were leaving and getting into the car, my father came and asked me: ―Zohra, shall I come with you. I told him that he had granted me the permission to get married and that was more than enough. My father gave me the freedom to decide the most important thing in my life. I did the same thing with my children. I let them be because I trust them. And Kiran was always grateful for her mother‘s support. She said that after her first marriage broke, her mother was upset, but she kept silent. At one point in her life she said, ―now, despite a busy schedule with teaching and giving performances, I make it a point to share meals with my mother, if I am not travelling. And if she goes out of town for shoots, I usually accompany her. I did this recently when she went to Mumbai. It was just the two of us chilling out and having a good laugh. We laugh a lot.


In London and back
In 1962 Zohra went on the British Drama League Scholarship to London, where she lived for 10 years. There she met the Bharat Natyam dancer, Ram Gopal, who took her as a teacher in his School in Chelsea. Here she taught the Uday Shankar style of dance. Zohra played a part in The Rescue of Puffles, which was a theatre adaptation of Kipling‘s Story, for British Television. She did four episodes in Doctor Who ( 1964-65)and anchored 26 episodes of the BBC production Padosi (1976-77). In London, Zohra was signed by Merchant Ivory Productions. She acted in The Courtesans of Bombay(1983) directed by James Ivory in 1982. This brought her more into the limelight and she got a role as Lady Chatterjee in the television adaptation of The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984), which was highly acclaimed and brought her further recognition. This was the second phase of her professional career as an actress, as she went ahead to appear in The Raj Quartet, The Jewel in the crown, Tandoori Nights (1985-87), Long Duel, Bhaji on the Beach and My Beautiful Laundrette, etc. Britain based Indian filmmaker, Gurinder Chadha, says that Zohra was so young at heart and so unorthodox in real life that she brought a lot of energy into the films in which she acted. She said she felt an abiding regret that she could not work more with her,
though they had done three films together-The Mistress of Spices, Bend it like Bekham and Bhaji on the Beach, all films about nonresident Indians (NRIs). The feisty, non-conformist shocking‘ Zohra was at her best in Bhaji on the Beach, which is all about a rebel, unorthodox Indian woman, who dares to do all those women of a certain age generally would never do. In fact, the filmmaker said Bhaji on the Beach would not have been possible without Zohra.
But, it was not only stage-acting that Zohra could do. With a very expressive face and eyes, she not only recited, but performed‘ poetry in immaculate Urdu, Punjabi and Hindustani. Each word was full of expression and each verse full of passion. In Gowri Ramnarayan‘s words, ―Segal amazed the audience with her reverberant, emotion-modulated expressiveness. She knew the art of pausing, the force of dramatic gesture. With the poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Mohammed Iqbal or Ali Sardar Jafri, she drew listeners into patriotic fervour, romance, grief, lament, tenderness for the child, and reflective musings — in a range of bhavas and sancharibhavas, difficult even for dancers. The lady with the wrinkled face and frail limbs could do it all, and effortlessly. Zohra was 91 then. She was even invited to Pakistan to do such a performance for poetry lovers in the name of Ek Shaam Zohra ke naam (an evening with Zohra) and her most acclaimed performance was for Hafeez Jullundari‘s poem Abhi to main jawaan hoon. The lyrics of one of Zohra‘s favourite poems, indicative of her own philosophy of life Abhi to main jawan hoon are:


Abhi To Main Jawan Hoon
Hawaa bhi khushagawaar hai, gulon pe bhi nikhaar hai
tarannumein hazaar hain, bahaar purbahaar hai
kahaan chalaa hai saaqiyaa, idhar to laut idhar to aa
arey, yeh dekhtaa hai kyaa? uthaa subuu, subuu uthaa
subuu uthaa, piyaalaa bhar, piyaalaa bhar ke de

idharchaman ki simt kar nazar, samaan to dekh bekhabar
woh kaali kaali badliyaan , ufaq pe ho gayi ayaan
woh ik hajum-e-maikashaan, hai su-e-maikadaah ravaan
yeh kyaa gumaan hai badgumaan, samajh na mujh ko naatavaan
khayaal-e-zuhad abhi kahaan? abhi to main jawaan hoon
ibaadaton kaa zikr hai, nijaat ki bhi fikr hai
junoon hai sawaab ka, khayaal hai azaab kaa
magar suno to sheikh ji, ajeeb shai hain aap bhi
bhalaa shabaab-o-aashiqui!, alag huay bhi hain kabhi?
hasiin jalwaah raiz hon, adaaein fitanaah khaiz hon
havaaein itr baiz hon, to shauq kyun na taiz hon?
nigaah haai fitanaah gar, koi idhar koi udhar
ubhaarate hoon aish par, to kyaa karey koi bashar?
chalo ji qissaa mukhtasar, tumhaaraa nuqtaa-e-nazar
durust hai to ho magar, abhi to main jawaan hoon
yeh gasht kohsaar ki, yeh sair ju-e-waar ki
yeh bulbulon ke chahchahey, yeh gulrukhon ke qah-qahey
kissi sey mail ho gayaa, to ranj-o-fikr kho gayaa
kabhi jo waqt so gayaa, yeh hans gayaa woh ro gayaa
yeh ishq ki kahaaniyaan, yeh ras bhari jawaaniyaan
udhar sey meharbaaniyaan, idhar sey lantaraaniyaan
yeh aasmaan yeh zamin, nazzaraahaa-e-dilanashin
unhey hayaat aafareen, bhalaa main chhorh doon yahin
hai maut is qadar qarin, mujhey na aayegaa yaqin
nahin nahin, abhi nahin, nahin-nahin abhi nahin
na gam kashood-o-bast ka, baland ka na past ka
na bood ka na hast ka, na vaadaa-e-alast ka
ummid aur yaas gum, havaas gum qayaas gum
nazar sey aas-paas gum, hamaa, bajuz gilaas gum
na mai mein kuchh kami rahey, qadaah sey hamdami rahey
nashist yeh jami rahey, yahi hama hami rahey
woh raag chherh mutribaa, tarab-fizaa, alam-rubaa
asar sadaa-e-saaz ka, jigar mein aag de lagaa
har ik lab pe ho sadaa, na haath rok saaqiyaa
pilaaye jaa pilaaye jaa, abhi to main jawaan hoon.
-- Hafeez Jallandhari


She also acted in the much-appreciated play ‗Ek thi Nani‘ (Once there was a grandmother) in 1993. It was a strange coincidence that in this play, enacted in Lahore, she acted along with her sister Uzra Butt, who lived in Pakistan, and it was as though they relived the pain of partition. While Uzra played the role of a conservative grandmother not allowing her granddaughter to go for the performing arts, it is the progressive grandmother, Zohra who encourages her. The writer of the play, Shahid Nadeem used to live in Sopore, Kashmir, and had to migrate as a child. It was on the occasion of completion of 20 years of Ajoka Theatres in Lahore that the play was performed. It was directed by Madeeha Gauharwas. Again, in November, 2004 the play was performed in Prithvi Theatres, Bombay, on the occasion of Pritviraj Kapoor‘s Birthday.

The rebel and the non-conformist

When we say Zohra was a non-conformist and very unorthodox, it meant Zohra could shock people with her actions and responses. Her personality could never be fitted in any fixed form; she was a graceful woman but could do everything that a male does, for instance, she was climbing trees and playing outdoor games when she was a girl and toting a gun and riding a bike at a ripe old age in one of her films. She married Kameshmar, who was not only a Hindu, but was 8 years younger to her, depite a lot of opposition. She would perform plays for jail inmates and then even stay back to witness an execution. She could laugh at her own countenance, which, according to her, was ugly by the normal standards of beauty. She once laughingly said to a friend, ―you are seeing me now, when I am old and ugly; you should have seen me when I was young and ugly! I'm the ugliest thing!" she hooted. "When I look at myself in the mirror... But I'm very photogenic. People look at my old photographs and say, you were quite beautiful, but I tell me them no, I was photogenic." Zohra was an atheist despite her very conservative family background. She would shock the film director, as she improvised dialogues and, sometimes, even broke into dance during shots. Though Zohra was a strict disciplinarian when it came to her daily routine, doing yoga and eating and sleeping according to a fixed schedule, when she was asked what she had enjoyed most in her life, she chuckled, ―sex! Sex! And more sex! and when once Gurinder Chadha apologized for having lit a cigarette in her presence, she had said, ―it‘s ok, you remind me of my past lovers. Once, when she was invited to a woman‘s conference of the AIPWA in Delhi, she had asked with a mischievous glint in her eyes, ―will there be some good mutton biryani for me at lunchtime? I am being denied all the goodies by my daughter and have to survive on soups and toast. And, later, she also asked whether men had been invited to this woman‘s conference-―are bulao na, aakhir mere aashik to mard hi hain na” i.e., do invite them, after all my lovers happen to be men. At the Conference, she enjoyed sharing her experiences with men and women, and finally, had her share of the best mutton biryani of Delhi, secretly of course!(she was 95 years old then).
Zohra was an atheist first and then an agnostic. She had said, ―religion is only a hook. I have strength enough to stand on my own. Religion is used by priests to corrupt others, and for their own ends. When asked if she was an atheist, she replied,
"There was a period when I thought I was an atheist. Now I'm agnostic. Some kind of higher power is there. But why do you call it He? Why not She or It? In the computer of our brain is where you'll find God. I think the search for God will be in the microchip. I say this in the play also, in one of the lines. All my own lines have been used." She calls herself a ―Ziddi meaning obstinate. Says Gurinder Chadha, ―never expect her to do the expected.


Zohra and Hindi Cinema
Zohra was game for anything-English films for NRIs to commercial Bollywood films. She acted in several Hindi Bollywood films like Dil Se, with Amitabh Bachchan in Cheeni Kum, Veer Zaara, with Salman Khan and Ajay Devgan in Ham dil de chuke Sanam, Chalo Ishq Ladayen with Govinda and Sanwariya, with Ranbir Kapoor, which was her last film in 2007. She did choreography in Guru Dutt's Baazi and Raj Kapoor's film Awaara A complete list of the films and serials in which she acted are given at the end of the module.

Many Awards and Government Apathy
Zohra was recipient of the Sangeet Natak Academy Award in 1963, the Padma Shree in 1998, the Kalidas Samman in 2001 the Sangeet Natak Academy Fellowship for lifetime achievement in 2004, The Padma Bhushan in 2002 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2010. She also received the IIFA Special Award for Cinema at Hundred in 2012. At the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) Laadli Media Awards, in New Delhi, she was conferred the title Laadli of the Century for Gender Sensitivity-2007 the function being presided over by the then Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit. Zohra‘s daughter, Kiran was quite indignant when she remembered how her mother had been treated, despite all the honours. She had applied for the allotment of a ground floor flat for Zohra, who was very old and finding it extremely difficult to climb up and down the stairs every time she wanted to go out. She had almost become a prisoner in her house and tears would roll down her cheeks when she had to climb up. But the application was rejected on the ground that artistes below the age of 60 were entitled to allotment of a flat by the government, and she was much older. Kiran voiced her concern for the old, saying it was only after 60 that an artiste would really need a flat! The Delhi Government under Sheila Dikshit had also turned a deaf ear to Zohra‘s case.


Tributes to the Doyenne of Indian Theatre
Glorious tributes were paid to Zohra after she passed away at the Max Hospital on 10 July, 2014, at the age of 102, after having suffered a cardiac arrest.
"Extremely sad to know about d passing away of Zohra Sehgal, a woman who lived a full life on her own terms. Great loss to art and culture. RIP" tweeted historian Irfan Habib.
―Zohra Sehgal passes away at 102 yrs. .what a journey and what an immensely loveable co-star ! Prayers for her blessed soul!!," tweeted actor Amitabh Bachchan.
"RIP Zohra Sehgal....what a life....it's that moment when you truly celebrate the end of such a legendary and glorious era...." wrote director and producer Karan Johar on the micro-blogging site.
Television Producer, Siddharth Basu said, ― Forever young at heart & in spirit even at 102, the irrepressibly endearing Zohra Sehgal finally belongs to the ages. May she rest in peace.

 

A list of the films and serials in which she acted
Year

Title

1943

Rahgeer

1946

Dharti Ke Lal

1946

Neecha Nagar

1950

Afsar

1956

Heer

1964

The Indian Tales of Rudyard Kipling

1964–1965

Doctor Who (TV series)

1967

The Long Duel

1967

Theatre 625 (TV series)

1968

The Vengeance of She

1968

The Expert (TV series)

1969

The Guru

1973

The Regiment (TV series)

1973

Tales That Witness Madness

1974

It Ain't Half Hot Mum (TV series)

1978

Mind Your Language (TV series)

1983

The Courtesans of Bombay

1984

The Jewel in the Crown (TV series)

1985

Tandoori Nights (TV series)

1985

Harem

1986

Caravaggio

1987

Partition

1987

Never Say Die

1989

Manika, une vie plus tard

1989

The Bill

1991

Masala

1992

Firm Friends

1993

Bhaji on the Beach

1994

Little Napoleons

1995

Amma and Family (TV series)

1997

Tamanna

1998

Not a Nice Man to Know

1998

Dil Se..

1999

Khwaish

1999

Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam

1999

Dillagi

2000

Tera Jadoo Chal Gayaa

2001

Landmark

2001

Zindagi Kitni Khoobsoorat Hai

2001

The Mystic Masseur

2002

Bend It Like Beckham

2002

Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham

2002

Anita and Me

2002

Chalo Ishq Ladaaye

2003

Saaya

2003

Kal Ho Naa Ho

2004

Kaun Hai Jo Sapno Mein Aaya?

2004

Veer-Zaara

2005

Chicken Tikka Masala

2005

Mistress of Spices

2007

Cheeni Kum

2007.

Saanwariya

 

Glossary
A. Multan: A city on Punjab, Pakistan
B. Quetta: Capital of Balochistan, Pakistan
C. Persia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persian_Empire
D. Damascus:Capital and second largest city of Syria
E. Alexandria: Mediterranian Port City in Egypt

References:
1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zohra_Sehgal
2. www.sweetslyrics.com › Artists starting with M
3. "Ninety and spunky", The Hindu, 19 December 2002
4. http://www.livemint.com/Consumer/LOrVIJnpy2qh2MBgSMKyzH/Actor-Zohra-Sehgal-dies-at-102.html

 

GLOSSARY
Glaucoma- is a group of eye diseases which result in damage to the optic nerve and vision loss. A major risk factor is increased pressure in the eye.
legendary -described in or based on legends
Hibernation is a state of inactivity and metabolic depression in endotherms. Hibernation refers to a season of heterothermy that is characterized by low body temperature, slow breathing and heart rate, and low metabolic rate
Photogenic- forming an attractive subject for photography or having features that look well in a photograph: a photogenic face. 2. Biology. producing or emitting light, as certain bacteria; luminiferous; phosphorescent.
Idiosyncratic- relating to idiosyncrasy; peculiar or individual.
Conservative- averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values.
Unorthodox -contrary to what is usual, traditional, or accepted; not orthodox.
Irrepressibly - incapable of being repressed or restrained; uncontrollable: irrepressible laughter.
Endearing- inspiring affection.
Vengeance- may refer to: Vengeance (concept) or revenge, a harmful action against a person or group in response to a grievance.

 

Videos
1. Interview with Zohra Segal Part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cWeujTo1Ih8
2. Interview with Zohra Segal Part 2: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bnKV-rUWSzs
3. Interview with Zohra Segal Part 3: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_CKScD-MFZ4
4. Zohra Segal talks about her Bollywood Career:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUlhnGIAm0o
5. Zohra Segal, Anhad India: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1LTlEBeHXI


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Mayank Rai

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