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Ninety and spunky

At ninety, she can put others half her age in the shade. Unconventional and passionate, actor Zohra Segal, who was in town last week, spoke to C.K. MEENA.

"I had to be the best dancer, best actress." — Photo: Sampath Kumar G.P.

CROWDS BUZZED, train horns blared, vendors cried out "chai" and "iskay", and there were periodic announcements of arrivals and departures on the public address system. The auditorium of Ambedkar Bhavan wasn't the best place to conduct an interview in, at 2.30 p.m. last Friday. Even nearby Cantonment Railway Station would have been less noisy. The sound effects of The Spirit of Anne Frank were being tested over and over, and so were the lights, one by one. The only area in constant brightness was the set — a train compartment with brand-new green seats.

Into the darkened hall walked 90-year-old Zohra Segal, holding a young man's arm, carefully descending the gentle gradient, pausing where the carpet began. As she settled into a seat in the front row, waiting to be called for rehearsal, I peered into her face and introduced myself as the journalist who had phoned to fix up a 2 p.m. appointment.

"You're the one who called!" she exclaimed. "They told me to get ready by 1.20, the bus was supposed to come, and I kept waiting — " she broke off, and asked abruptly: "By the way, are you a boy or a girl?"

"Just a woman with short hair," I meekly replied.

"What?" She cupped her palm over her right ear. I repeated the answer, and she gave a low rumble of a laugh. "Just thought I'd make sure. Supposing I talk to you all along thinking you're a girl and you turn out to be a boy — " With dramatic timing, a bright light came on overhead, and she cried" "Ah! Now I can see, of course, you were there at the press conference yesterday." She warmly held both my hands in hers for a moment.

I sat to Madam Zohra's left (people addressed her as Zohra-apa or Madam Zohra), but swiftly grew aware that she kept cupping her right ear. "Shall I sit on the other side, over there?" I asked pointedly, and she replied without hesitation: "Yes." Before I could begin she made me take note of the official spelling of her surname. "It's actually Sehgal, but is written as Segal. My in-laws spelt it that way."

Kameshwar Segal, the young dancer whom she fell in love with... This burqa-clad Sunni Muslim woman who flung aside norms to join Uday Shankar's dance troupe when she was only 23 — what a life she had led! What were the circumstances that drove her to single-mindedly seek personal freedom?

"As a child I was very mischievous. Ziddi (obstinate) kehta hai, na? I saw my older sister, who was married off early, going through an unhappy marriage, and I told my father, I don't want to get married. At Queen Mary's College where I studied, all the staff were English, and from them I got the notion of women having careers." She also thinks that her uncle's actions might have influenced hers. "My mamo, while he was studying in Bombay, sold his gold nikhah ring to buy a passage to Edinburgh. He sent a telegram saying he wasn't coming home, went to Edinburgh to study medicine and became famous. He was the first Indian principal of Lucknow Medical College."

Remembering the purdah boarding school in Lahore where she and her four sisters studied, she said: "Only Hindu and Muslim family girls in my school, no Christians. I was always attracted to the Hindu girls and would go sing bhajans with them." No sooner had she left school than she travelled with her uncle by car to Europe, and hopped off at Dresden to study dance. She maintained strict dietary habits there. "Imagine living in Germany for three years with no beer!" She had her first taste of pork when she got back to India. "I was travelling with my uncle by train, and those days, you know, lunch would be served on the platform. At Lucknow railway station I had ham sandwiches for lunch."

To this day, Zohra Segal does not believe in the rituals and proscriptions of any religion. "Religion is only a hook," she said firmly. "I have strength enough to stand on my own. Religion is used by priests to corrupt others, and for their own ends." I asked her if she was an atheist. "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."

Meanwhile, in the auditorium, the railway station noises were joined by other, more intrusive sounds. Five large bass drums reverberated from different corners. The lighting crew was still at work, relaying instructions down the line. Four actors slowly drifted onto the stage and took their places in the compartment. Soon they would call for the fifth one sitting next to me.

Somewhat warily I asked her about her homely face. "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." And then she handed out one of her favourite lines. "I tell them, you see me now when I'm old and ugly, you should have seen me when I was young and ugly."

It must have struck young Zohra keenly that Uzra, the sister who came after her, was a stunner. "She was so beautiful," she said, quoting Prithviraj Kapoor's extravagant praise of her appearance. I asked whether her sense of humour was a reaction, a way of coping with her plainness. "I never thought of it that way. I think humour runs in our family. But what happened was that I — not out of jealousy, but because I knew I was not beautiful — I took it as a challenge to make myself the best. I had to be the best dancer, the best actress."

And aren't we glad she took up that challenge? Many years ago, a little girl vowed to herself that she would secure "power and fame".

That's why Indian theatre today has a queen, and the world, a fine actress on stage and screen.

A life lived

SAHIBZADI ZOHRA Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan was born in 1912, one of seven children of a land-owning family of Rohilla Pathans settled around Rampur. She was brought up in Sunni Muslim traditions. In 1917 she was sent off to boarding school in Lahore, after which, in 1930, she donned a beige silk burqa and she set off for Europe by road with her uncle, with the tacit understanding of marrying his son, then an undergraduate at Oxford. Instead, she got off at Dresden and learnt dance. On her return she was once again put in a burqa and sent to Queen Mary's Girls College, Lahore. No sooner did she pass out, in 1935, than she shed her burqa forever and started her professional career as a leading dancer with Uday Shankar's ballet company. She travelled with the troupe to Japan, West Asia, Europe. and America.

She fell in love with a fellow dancer, Kameshwar Segal, eight years younger than her. Although Kameshwar was willing to convert to Islam, neither she nor her parents insisted on it. The two had a civil marriage in August 1942. For a while the couple worked in Uday Shankar's dance institute at Almora. When it shut down, they migrated to Lahore and set up their own Zoresh Dance Institute. Then, in 1945, she joined Prithviraj Kapoor's Prithvi Theatre as an actress on a salary of Rs. 400 a month, and for 14 years, toured every corner of India. Kameshwar Segal took his own life, leaving Zohra with two children.

Zohra went to Britain in 1962 on a drama scholarship and stayed on to educate her children. Jobless and broke, she eked out a living in London's greenrooms and tailoring establishments for 10 years. But from the late 1970s onwards, British TV and films rediscovered her in a big way. A star was reborn in serials such as The Raj Quartet, Jewel in the Crown and Tandoori Nights, and in films such as My Beautiful Laundrette, Bhaji on the Beach, and most recently, the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of V.S. Naipaul's The Mystic Masseur. She is now busier than ever, both on screen and on stage. Her autobiography is titled Stages: The Art & Adventures of Zohra Sehgal (Kali for Women).


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