Zohra Sehgal never lost her zest for life
By Dipayan Mazumdar
I fondly remember Zohra Sehgal since I first met her during 2003 at her residence. The climb to the third floor of Mandakini Apartments in Alaknanda, south Delhi, was tough even for me. I could only imagine how it was for the frail lady who was almost trapped on the top floor. It did not stop her and, even at 91, in spite of all odds, Zohra Sehgal had not lost any of her zest for life. And offers for roles were still pouring in.
Later, I met her a couple of times at the India International Centre when she took pride in introducing her three generations beginning with dancer Kiran Sehal, all extremely talented.
Zohra Sehgal, who lived a full life on her own terms, remained a living legend in her lifetime. This versatile actress, who began her career as a dancer, had held audiences spellbound through her active career spanning more than six decades. She had won the Padma Vibhushan in 2010 and the Legends of India Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.
It was way back in 1935 that she started her professional career as a leading dancer with the Uday Shankar Ballet Company that took her to all corners of the globe. Then, in 1945, she joined Prithviraj Kapoor's Prithvi Theatre. From a dancer, she turned into a stage actress.
The next 14 years she stayed in Mumbai and came close to many celebrities like Ebrahim Alkazi, Chetan Anand and Dev Anand, Chetan's wife Uma, Balraj Sahni and his wife, Damyanti. For 14 years she toured every corner of India in the most successful example of a travelling repertory. In the process, Zohra and her sister Uzra Butt became national stars. In between she married a fellow dancer, Kameshwar Sehgal, and lived through his suicide.
Zohra was born in 1912 in Rampur, and her full name was Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan. She was one of seven children of a land-owning family of Rohilla Pathans settled around Rampur. She grew up in a very conformist Sunni Muslim environment, saying five prayers a day and fasting during Ramadan. She was forced to wear a burqa. But Zohra was a rebel against tradition. She itched to get rid of the burqa, and throw off the restraints imposed on her.
During a vacation in Dehra Dun, she saw the legendary Uday Shankar dance. His image stayed in her mind all her life. With her uncle who was closer to her than her father, she travelled all the way across India, West Asia and Europe by car. On her return she was once again put in a burqa and sent to Queen Mary's Girls College, Lahore, meant for daughters of aristocratic families. No sooner did Zohra pass out of Queen Mary's, she shed her burqa - this time forever -- and joined Uday Shankar's dance troupe.
When Uday Shankar's dance institute in Almora shut down, Zohra and her husband migrated to Lahore and set up their own dance institute. The growing communal tension preceding the Partition made them feel unwelcome. They migrated to Mumbai where she joined Prithviraj Kapoor, which set her on a stage career.
After her husband's death, Zohra first moved to Delhi, and then went to London in 1962 on a drama scholarship. She had two children to educate. Jobless and broke, she eked out a living as a dresser in London's greenrooms and tailoring establishments for 10 years. But in the late 1970s, British TV and films discovered her in a big way. Thus began her film career.
Zohra got her first break in films when she was signed by Arthur Rank and Merchant Ivory Productions. She appeared in "The Raj Quartet", "Jewel in the Crown", "Tandoori Nights", "My Beautiful Launderette" and in films like "Bhaji on the Beach". In 2002, she played the leading role in Sadia Dahlvi's TV serial "Amma & Family".
Zohra, who excelled in character roles both in theatre and cinema for almost eight decades, finally bid good bye to millions of her fans across all age groups on July 10.
(Dipayan Mazumdar is chairman, Legends of India, that conferred on her the Legends of India Lifetime Achievement Award as a 'living legend' for her contribution to theatre in 2003. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org).