Zohra Sehgal

On the wings of a dream

Print edition : August 08, 2014

Zohra Segal reciting poetry at the Sangeet Natak Akademi festival in New Delhi in 2005. Photo: V. Sudershan

In the film "The Mystic Masseur".

Zohra Sehgal (left, foreground) with her sister Uzra (to her left) and others of Uday Shankar's (top right, in long coat) troupe, an undated photo. Photo: The Hindu Archives

With Amala Shankar at Uday Shankar's dance centre in Almora. Photo: The Hindu Archives

As a young girl in the conservative milieu of Lahore in the 1920s, Zohra Sehgal dreamt of becoming an actor. That dream not only came true but lasted almost 80 years, leaving us with performances that will be cherished for a long time.

MUMTAZULLAH KHAN and Natiqua Begum were parents to seven children, two sons and five daughters. Though settled in Chakrata, near Dehradun, they belonged to the community of the Rohilla Pathans of Saharanpur. The third of their children was a girl, born on April 27, 1912. She was named Sahibzadi Zohra Begum.

The child was barely one when she contracted glaucoma and despite many efforts, including a journey to a famous hospital at Birmingham, she lost sight in one eye. She grew up to be a tomboy who loved climbing trees and doing all the things that well-brought-up girls did not do. She lost her mother while she was still young but her education followed the wishes of her mother and she and her sister were sent to Queen Mary College, Lahore.

As was the norm those days, strict purdah was observed at the college. When men were invited as speakers or guest lecturers, a rare occurrence, they spoke to the young ladies from behind a screen.

Those were the years between the two wars. India was in turmoil, and all over the world people were rising against subjugation and discriminations based on faith, birth, colour and gender. People were dreaming the impossible and turning it into reality and that girl in Queen Mary College, who was now growing into a woman, was, despite all the restrictions, dreaming as well. She dreamt of becoming an actor. After graduation, her maternal uncle Sahebzada Saeeduzzafar Khan drove her from Lahore, through Iran, Palestine (the myth of Israel had not yet turned into ugly history), Damascus, Syria, and Egypt before boarding a ship for England at Alexandria. The young lady that the world would come to know as Zohra Sehgal began to apprentice under a British actor. However, she decided very soon that before she started acting she had to learn dancing and so off she went to Dresden to study dance at Mary Wigman’s Ballet School.

In Uday Shankar’s team

It was at Dresden that she happened to watch a performance by the ballet troupe led by Uday Shankar. She was mesmerised and went backstage and told Uday Shankar that she wanted to join his troupe. Uday Shankar asked her to finish her training, and promised that there would be a job waiting for her on her return to India. But the chance to work in Uday Shankar’s troupe actually came much before her return to India.

She was still in Europe when Uday Shankar sent her a telegraphic message: “Leaving for Japan tour. Can you join immediately.” She became a part of his troupe in early August 1935, travelling to and performing in Japan, the United States, Europe and Egypt as the leading lady of the troupe. Zohra returned eventually to India five years later in 1940 and began to teach at the Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre at Almora. At Almora she met Kameshwar, a scientist, a dancer and a painter. Kameshwar was a follower of the Radhasoami sect and was, therefore, a strict vegetarian. He was eight years her junior, but they were in love and they got married.

The young couple lived in Almora and worked at Uday Shankar’s institute for a while, honing their skills and becoming accomplished dancers and choreographers before moving to Lahore in 1943 to set up their own institute named Zohresh. Zohra’s younger sister Uzra was already at the Prithvi Theatre in Bombay as a leading lady and she had been asking them to shift to Bombay. The increasing communalisation of society was making it difficult for the young couple to continue to live and perform in Lahore, so in 1945 they shifted to Bombay. The year 1945 marks the beginning of a new and a far more exciting and rewarding phase in the life of this daughter of the Rohelkhandi Pathans.

Unorthodox to the core

Let us pause here and backtrack a little to her days in Europe in the early 1930s when Zohra was barely 20. Every time someone writes about Zohra Sehgal, her early years and her family, one thing that is almost always mentioned is that she was born in an “orthodox” Muslim family.

How many Indian families, even those who were educated and well-to-do from among the Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Parsi families of that time would send a daughter to Europe, to live alone and to train as a performer, dancer, singer or actor? But this daughter of Rohilla Pathans from west Uttar Pradesh, from Saharanpur, was sent by her family. The fact that her younger sister Uzra had joined Prithvi Theatre in 1940 and was its leading lady, much before Zohra joined it in 1945 is rarely mentioned, except in the biographies or biographical notes authored by members of her family. And how many have bothered to mention that Zohra’s elder sister Hajra had married the famous communist Z.A. Ahmad?

How many Indian families of the 1930s can one count that had three daughters like this and, yet, this is the family that is constantly presented as a family of conservative Rohilla Pathans. Obviously, the regularity with which Zohra is presented as an exception leads one to suspect that there is an unstated subtext to these laudatory references to Zohra Sehgal. The suggestion that she was an exception in her “orthodox Pathan family” is suspect. She clearly was not. She was a product of her times, as were members of her family, her parents, uncles and aunts. Those were times that were ushering in epochal changes and they were changing the very people who were part of these far-reaching changes.

Zohra was incredibly talented and outgoing but she was much more than a performer, dancer and actor and the stuff she was made of began to shine through when she became active in Bombay. Her reputation had preceded her and soon after joining Prithvi she too became a leading lady. Uzra left for Pakistan with her writer-husband Hameed Butt and both made successful careers in Pakistan, while Zohra continued with Prithvi Theatre for the next 14 years, performing all across the country and becoming a household name.

International following

She joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in the year she came to Bombay. The first two films that she acted in were for the IPTA, the first being Dharti ke Lal and the second, Neecha Sansar. Dharti ke Lal was a searing indictment of the colonial plunder that had led to widespread starvation that cost three million lives in Bengal. The film was based on the short story “Annadata” by Krishan Chander and plays written by Bijon Bhattacharya. Khwaja Ahmad Abbas and Bijon turned this material into a screenplay. Directed by Abbas, it became an iconic film, the only film from India to have won the grand prize at Cannes. Her next film was Neecha Sansar, an adaptation of Gorky’s Lower Depths by K.A. Abbas and directed by Chetan Anand.

Kameshwar died in 1959. Zohra moved to London in 1962 on a theatre scholarship. She stayed on in England, teaching dance and working in television serials and sporadically in theatre for the next 20 years before she got her next big break in 1982. She was now 70. Most people would have given up by this time, but not Zohra. She had started her career in 1935, relocated to India and restarted in 1940, had another start in Lahore in 1943, yet another at Bombay two years later and then had gone to England after a short stay in Delhi as the director of Natya Academy. So, her major role in the Merchant Ivory production The Courtesans of Bombay in 1982 was her sixth launch. Roles in The Jewel in the Crown, Tandoori Nights and My Beautiful Laundrette followed. She was now firmly established as a senior actor with star rating and a dedicated and growing international following.

The best was yet to be. She returned to India in the 1990s when she was in her eighties. Her energy was infectious. She was performing all over—for Uday Shankar memorials and enacting Ek Thi Nani with her younger sister Uzra Butt in English and in Urdu at different locations across the world,. Her memory was intact and she used the long years of practice at remembering long soliloquies into memorising poetry by some of the most popular poets of the subcontinent and so another kind of performance was added to her already-substantive repertoire.

The great-grandchildren of those who had seen Zohra Sehgal perform for Uday Shankar’s troupe or for Prithvi Theatre or those who had seen her act in Dharti ke Lal and Neecha Sansar saw her in a range of roles in Dil Se, Veer-Zaara, Saawariya and Cheeni Kum.

Despite all the decorations and awards that she had received—the Padma Shri, the Padma Bhushan, the Padma Vibhushan, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship, the Kalidas Samman and many others —and despite decades of bringing joy and pleasure into the lives of millions, she did not ask any one for anything, except the government for a house on the ground floor. And this too when she was into her 90s after a cancer in her leg had made walking and climbing a terrible torture. And this one thing was never given to her.

Zohra Sehgal remained committed to the vision of a progressive and secular India and always retained her links with organisations promoting these values. She recited the progressive poetry of Faiz Makhdoom, Majaz and Sahir like no one else could. Her performances for Sahmat, particularly the 140th anniversary commemorations of the 1857 revolt, in front of the Red Fort on May 11, 1997 (later made into a documentary on 1857 by Gauhar Raza with Zohra Sehgal anchoring the film), and the 75th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre were really memorable. Despite the fact that her mobility had been restricted for a while, she did not hesitate to jump in with her old vigour and enthusiasm, with her eyes sparkling and full of the joy of life whenever an idea appealed to her. One was witness to this enthusiasm on several occasions, including the time when she was asked to become one of the narrators for a biographical documentary on Bhagat Singh. Zohra Sehgal remained an integral part of the Artists Against Communalism campaign and performed regularly from the platform of Sahmat, especially in the Safdar Hashmi Memorial programmes organised by the Sahmat on January 1 every year.

Sohail Hashmi is a cultural activist and documentary film-maker.

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