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‘Zohra! A Biography in Four Acts’ review: The actor remains an enigma

It is difficult, as Ritu Menon mentions in the preface of this charming book, to separate the dancer from the dance. So, despite Zohra Sehgal’s considerable body of work, and the exciting times in which it was carried out, by the end of Menon’s warm-hearted eponymous biography, Zohra remains an enigma.

Many signposts

Zohra! A Biography in Four Acts, (not for her the conventional three or five acts!), with two intermissions and the curtain call, traces Zohra’s life from her birth into privilege with her family’s connections to aristocracy in Rampur in 1912 to her death in 2014 with no dearth of significant signposts in between.

Starting with Uday Shankar’s telegram in 1935 to a 23-year-old Sehgal to join him on a tour of Japan, the book details her impetuous decision to travel with her favourite Uncle Memphis by road from Dehradun to Luxor, Egypt. It was 1930 and even as visions of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile fill one’s mind, there is Zohra using the burqa as camouflage to travel in an open Dodge Tourer to Quetta, Baluchistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Cairo, driving from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. through blinding sandstorms and bandits and kidnappers.

Zohra decided to become a dancer inspired by Isadora Duncan’s autobiography and studied in Dresden under Mary Wigman. On her return to India after a fairytale experience, even as Nazi clouds were gathering, Zohra set off on her next adventure — touring with Uday Shankar’s dance troupe. At The Uday Shankar Cultural Centre, which counted filmmaker Guru Dutt as a student, Sehgal was Shankar’s dance assistant as well as in charge of developing a five-year syllabus. It was here that Zohra met her husband, the beautiful and troubled Kameshwar Sehgal. Eight years her junior, the 30-year-old Zohra married Kameshwar in 1942 at the height of the Quit India Movement and World War II. Jawaharlal Nehru, who was supposed to attend the wedding with a pair of rugs for the couple, could not do so as he was arrested.

Bombay talkies

The couple moved to Lahore to set up a dance school but relocated to Bombay because of pre-Partition communal tensions. Life at 41 Pali Hill, where the couple had Uma and Chetan Anand and his brothers actor Dev Anand and Goldie, as neighbours, was an exciting meeting ground of intellectuals, writers, artists.

Zohra discovered theatre with the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and Prithvi Theatre where she imbibed the Prithvi Raj Kapoor school of bombastic acting. After Kameshwar’s heart-breaking suicide in 1959, Zohra moved to Delhi and three years later to London on a drama scholarship.

The book follows Zohra’s adventures in the theatre world in the U.K. and working with BBC, the path-breaking television work including in The Jewel in the Crown and Doctor Who. On her return to India a quarter century later Zohra finds herself very much in demand as the lively, salty granny in big budget Hindi cinema from Dil Se (1998) to Saawariya (2007). There were also ad films and dramatised readings and a successful fight against cancer.

The book is as much the story of Zohra’s life as it is the story of the arts in India in the past century. There are fascinating nuggets aplenty including Pearl S. Buck presenting a signed copy of The Good Earth to Zohra and her sister, Uzra, during their America tour.

Zohra! A Biography in Four Acts; Ritu Menon, Speaking Tiger Books, ₹599.

mini.chhibber@thehindu.co.in


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