ZOHRA SEGAL and Uzra Butt put royal stereotypes to rest. They give sibling camaraderie a fillip. And send the concept of time askew. Born into a royal family of Rampur, the elder Zohra is India's liveliest grandma from Bollywood to crossovers, on the stage and film circuit, while Uzra is a stage and TV actress settled in Pakistan but visits India regularly.
"All five of us sisters were in Queen Mary's College, Lahore," recalls Zohra. While she and Uzra both made a name for themselves on stage, Zohra led the way. "You can say that I took the first step. I was the first in the family to take to dance and theatre."
Leaving the confines of home to study Modern Dance at Mary Wigman's school in Dresden in the 1930s, she returned and joined Uday Shankar's troupe, also teaching at his centre in Almora. Here she worked with Kameshwar Segal, whom she later married. Kameshwar, she says, was a man of many talents, perhaps too many to capitalise on, strikingly handsome and a wonderful cook. The Indian People's Theatre Association, IPTA, was another long association.
In Prithviraj Kapoor's theatre company, she toured over 100 cities, daughter Kiran - the eminent Odissi dancer and last year's Sangeet Natak Akademi award winner - and ayah in tow. It was Prithviraj Kapoor who helped Zohra sever the remnants of feudal thought, treating all members equally and snubbing all attempts to keep servants at a secondary level to suit the employers' pockets when back home.
The sports champ
Uzra was a trailblazer too, winning the long jump (then called broad jump) title in the All India Physical Championships as a student of Lady Irwin College, Delhi, which she joined in 1935-36. She was also a tennis champion. "I seriously thought of taking sports as a career. The tennis champ Ghaus Mohammad offered to make me his partner. Par tab Zohra ka khhat aa gaya."
The letter that changed the course of Uzra's life was about her joining Prithvi Theatre, and eventually she became Prithviraj Kapoor's leading lady.
Some of Zohra Segal's old dance photographs are beautiful, especially the one on the cover of "Stages the Art and Adventure of Zohra Segal" a biography available on worldlanguages.com. But Zohra cheerfully maintains she was the homely one of the duo. Of Uzra she says, "She was so beautiful and so graceful and so successful. I was not jealous of her. It was like a challenge for me. This was from childhood. I went out of my way to achieve the standard and get what people said I had. Later on, when people asked, were you jealous, I said it was the greatest impetus. People said `Hain?'" She imitates their incredulous expression, adding, "I felt like slapping them."
Uzra feels the environment in Pakistan does not pose restrictions on actresses. "I feel if an actress is sincere, she will surely be successful. But girls are not serious," she rues. "Now there is so much theatre. A lot of theatre is done in colleges too. And folk dance. There are also workshops. Like our (Ajoka) director goes to small places and tells people, now you have seen our play. This is the idea, and you create your own play."
No workshops please
It is more an experience than a performance. "I wouldn't call them wonderful plays," she says.
This sets Zohra on Roysten Abel's "The Spirit of Anne Frank" in which she participated with four other women. "We had nothing to work with. I said in an interview, `I will never act with Roysten Abel again.' It came on TV!" she smiles mischievously.
Uzra points out that when participants are all non-professionals,"Everything is natural. People think women will be backward. But they come forward. Social benefits apart, Zohra declares, "I hate workshops. I much prefer that there should be a script." Uzra concurs. "I never go."
But both have their way in Nadeem Shahid's "Ek Thi Nani", based on their own experience of separation due to the Partition of the country. And when Prithvi theatre, now run by Sanjana and Shashi Kapoor, celebrates its annual festival in November this year, Zohra and Uzra will be setting the stage aglow again with their sister act.
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