This Thing Called Culture Theatre

Zohra, the non-conformist

Zohra Sehgal   | Photo Credit: S_Subramanium

“In moonlight, even a donkey looks beautiful,” she quips as I go to interview her some 25 years ago. “You are meeting me now, when I’m old and ugly, you should have seen me when I was young and ugly!” And with that Sahibzaadi Begum Zohra Mumtazullah Khan, a Rohilla Pathan of Rampur nobility, ushers me into the tastefully appointed top floor flat of her daughter Kiran Sehgal in Delhi.

Born on April 27, 1912, in Saharanpur, U.P., this scion of an aristocratic family, left it all to run off in a Morris Minor car with her maamu (maternal uncle Saeedjuffar Khan), promising that she would eventually marry his son studying at Oxford but dropped off at Dresden to learn dance. Imagine — a girl, that too brought up in purdah, doing this in the 1920s — driving through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, Europe — in a cramped car . What made you do it? “Madness, what else?” she giggled.

It brought her to Mary Wigman’s school in Dresden, in pre-War Europe and this training in Eurythmics helped her teach later what became a part of Indian modern dance. Wigman told her, “Please, whatever you do, don’t imitate us: You are a civilisation; we are not even a culture!”

Uday Shankar was touring Europe then. So she went to see the show and boldly went to meet him backstage and he said, “Keep in touch when back in India. Join me in the next tour.” Said Zohra: “I thought, it was one of those things stars say and forget. After three years in Germany, I get a telegram a few months after I arrive in India, saying, ‘ship sails next week for Japan, please come to Bombay’. I dreaded what my father would say. He went into his study, looking serious.” What did he say? “You have half an hour to catch that train from Kathgodam to Bombay.” Her father was very progressive. “I danced from 1935-45 with Uday Shankar troupe, here there, everywhere — Japan to Jallandhar; London to Lahore — and those were the best years of my life. You see I was young and foolish. One cannot be old and foolish,” said Zohra.

Uday Shankar’s principal dancers were many, including Simkie and Zohra’s sister Uzra (who later married Salman Rushdie’s uncle Hamid Butt), but Zohra remained with the troupe for ten years. Uday Shankar, who liked her discipline and depth, invited her to teach at Almora, where he started his Dance Studio in 1939. Among her students were Sachin Shankar, Narendra Sharma and Shanti Bardhan — all future stars of the ‘ballet’ scene. She fell for Kameshwar, a particularly handsome student and married him too, even if she was older to him. He was a classmate of another talented boy M.F. Hussain (who was later to become a famous painter of India) in Indore. Both married in 1943 in Allahabad, because it was the only place in India, other than enlightened Baroda, where a Hindu could marry a Muslim, without either having to convert.

Bold and confident

Nothing about Zohra was conformist. We talk of women’s rights, empowerment and equality today, she ought to have got a Bharat Ratna for all that, long ago. Three musicians have got it, why not a dancer/actress?

When the Uday Shankar Almora studio broke up in 1941, Zohra with husband went to Lahore to set up shop there and the first student to enrol there was a lanky boy of Sikh origins, Mohan Khokar. Mohan turned out to be her favourite and in 1974, he headed the Sangeet Natak Akademi and created the National Folk Dance Ensemble, of which Zohra was appointed Director. “And now you, his son, is interviewing me. Abaad raho, khush raho,” she said.

The Partition brought many from Punjab, of which Lahore was the cultural capital, to Bombay to seek fortunes in films and theatre. From 1945 to 1959, Zohra was the dance director at Prithvi Theatre. “I enjoyed it much,” she said. And added: “I never got the main roles because I wasn’t beautiful and sexy but I hung in there, till in 1962 I got a theatre scholarship to the U.K. I went and never returned for 25 years.”

Zohra’s husband was no more. With two small children, Kiran and Pavan, and little money, she did odd jobs. Talent and spirit, however, helped her become a top actress, especially when in the 1980s, a plethora of film projects on India — such as Jewel in the Crown and Tandoor Nights — took off. Add theatre. She was among the few, if not the only artiste (Hansa Wadkar was another, on whom Shyam Benegal had made Bhoomika, with Smita Patil as the protagonist), who could straddle three worlds — dance, films and theatre. Then came Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaaji on the Beach and she became even more famous.

Zohra returned in 1987 for good. “If you are successful abroad, at home all notice you; so I got film offers here, and I acted with most established stars, as naani or dadi or mother.” Zohra’s was a career built purely on merit and hard work. Her daughter Kiran Sehgal, senior Odissi dancer, continues the legacy with many well-trained students. “Please write a line about my son (working with WHO) too. No one writes about him,” she said. The mother in her blessed all those who came in contact with her. She lived till 102! God made time while making Zohra.

The three-day Zohra Sehgal Festival (May 3-5) opened at IIC, Delhi

The writer, a critic and historian, is the author of several books and edits attenDance, a yearbook

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 11:35:41 PM |

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