Home Culture Remembering Zohra Sehgal

Remembering Zohra Sehgal

A biography of the pioneer of South Asian dance, theater and film highlights a life lived on her own terms

by Muneeza Shamsie

Zohra Sehgal was born in 1912 and died in 2014 at 102 years old. Her life spanned momentous changes in the subcontinent, covering colonial rule, two world wars, Partition and the migration of many South Asians into the diaspora. Across the 20th and early 21st centuries, Zohra also witnessed, and participated in, momentous changes in South Asian dance, drama and film. Her career highlights include a stint in Uday Shankar’s pioneering dance troupe; the Prithviraj Theatre in Mumbai; and an acting career that took off after her migration to Britain in the 1960s, including beloved roles in Jewel in the Crown and Bend It Like Beckham. In Pakistan, Zohra and her sister Uzra Butt played the lead roles in Ajoka Theatre’s classic Eik Thi Nani, penned by Shahid Nadeem.

Prior to her death, Zohra wrote two autobiographies, with her daughter, Kiran Sehgal, also penning a third book on her life. However, Ritu Menon’s Zohra! A Biography in Four Acts brings new dimensions to her life, both personal and public, including historical developments in the performing arts in the subcontinent and the diaspora. The narrative is also unique, because it draws on the structure of a stage play to divide Zohra’s life into four parts—each presented as an act with two scenes each, while “Intermission One” and “Intermission Two” appear almost half way through after Zohra was widowed, to capture an era of difficult decisions and drastic change. Not that much of Zohra Sehgal’s life took a predictable course.

Born Sahibzadi Zohra Begum in Saharanpur, her father Mumtazullah Khan was a civil servant and Rohilla Pathan landowner hailing from Rampur with ties to its ruling family. Zohra was the second daughter among seven children. After her mother’s death when she was still a young girl, she and her four sisters were sent to boarding school at the “English-medium” Queen Mary’s School in Lahore. At five, Zohra was adopted by her maternal uncle, Dr. Saiduzzafar Khan, whom she nicknamed “Memphis.” He headed the King George Medical College, Lucknow and also kept a spacious home in Dehradun. Alas, his wife, a cousin, is never mentioned in this feminist narrative.

Zohra was betrothed from childhood to Dr. Khan’s son, Mahmuduzzafar, who was sent to boarding school in England at 12 and later became a celebrated Communist and co-founder of The Progressive Writers Association. Dr. Khan’s daughter, Dr. Hamida Saiduzzaffar, became the first woman opthamologist in northern India.

The liberal, Anglicized milieu of her schooling fed Zohra’s sense of adventure, inculcating ambitions of becoming a dancer or actor. At 18, she was taken by “Memphis” to Europe by car, across Balochistan, Iraq, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt. In Lebanon, they were joined by Mahmud, who—alongside the family’s Norwegian friend “Aunty Dicta”—found an appropriate college for Zohra in Dresden: the Mary Wigam School of Dance specializing in modern, experimental dance. The book vividly captures Zohra’s student years, the new worlds, countries and people she discovered and resolve to be single, independent—and to continue dancing on her return to India, after graduating with honors in 1933. Two years later, she was invited to join the Uday Shankar Company.

The book adds important aspects of dance history through details of Uday Shankar’s unusual career, including his years at art school during which his growing interest in creating a new dance vocabulary caught the attention of ballerina Anna Pavlova, who had recently visited India. He joined her legendary company, choreographing and performing new dances “Hindu Wedding,” and “Krishna and Radha” in Britain, America, Mexico and Canada. Later, he developed his own style inspired by images of the Nataraja—Shiva doing the tandava— and set up The Uday Shankar Dance Company, which toured western countries to rave reviews. In 1935, he invited Zohra to join it shortly before its tour of Japan.

Memon vividly recreates the privileged, high social profile and hectic life that Zohra and the Uday Shankar Company enjoyed, alongside intense rehearsals in Calcutta. Following the successful Japan trip, they toured Rangoon, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Meanwhile, Uday’s younger brother, Ravi, and Zohra’s younger sister, Uzra, also joined the company. The company’s four-month tour of the Middle East and Europe culminated in Dartington Hall in Devon, a center famous for promoting the culture and the arts. There, Zohra trained with a ‘free-thinking, free-floating community of artists’ in new forms of drama and dance, including the Stanislavsky school of acting. More tours in various countries followed, but financial pressures impelled Shankar to establish a training center in India, at Almora, where Zohra designed the syllabus and eventually met her future husband, Kameshwar Sehgal, marrying him in 1942.

The couple then moved to Lahore, where they set up the Zoresh Dance Institute. However, owing to political and communal unrest, they moved to Mumbai in 1945. These were the glory days of Bombay cinema and Uzra and her husband, Hameed Butt, were involved in city’s rich, dynamic, cultural life. The book describes the now-legendary writers, actors and filmmakers that Zohra came to know and her engagement with new theater movements. She “really came into her own” through her association with the traveling Prithvi Theatre, set up by Prithviraj Kapoor in 1944. All these events occurred amidst a time of intense change, including the end of World War II and Partition, after which many of Zohra’s siblings, including Uzra, left for Pakistan.

Menon’s text includes details of Mumbai theatres, including Prithviraj Kapoor’s career and the plays, directions and “modern sensibility” his company introduced. Zohra always said she owed much to his influence and remained with the company from 1945-1959. This time came with several personal shifts. She no longer had the privileges and luxuries she had enjoyed with Uday Shankar’s troupe; was a mother-of-two—daughter Kiran and son Pavan—and was the sole breadwinner of the family due to Kameshwar’s various difficulties. In 1959, she was widowed, with Menon’s book capturing her remarkable courage and the support she received from her sisters Hajrah, Uzra and their cousin Hamida.  By 1961, she was running the Natya Academy of Dance and Drama in Delhi, when she received a 10-week scholarship from the British Drama League in London that changed her life.

In London, Zohra received her first formal training as an actor. She also saw many theater performances by a new breed of actors and decided to migrate permanently. At the time, there were few openings for South Asian actors and she lived with relatives while working three jobs, including teaching at the Ram Gopal School of Dance, to save up money for a place of her own for Kiran and Pavan to join her.

In 1964, Zohra was offered her first television role in the BBC series The Indian Tales of Rudyard Kipling, directed by the Indian-born Waris Hussein. Later, he also cast her in the popular serial Dr. Who. She never really looked back. Menon interweaves the ambiance of post-war Britain with Zohra’s personal life, including trips to India and Pakistan, where she visited her siblings Amina, Sabra, Uzra, Zakkan and Ikram. Meanwhile, Kiran went on to become a well-known dancer while Pavan eventually joined the World Health Organization.

Menon notes that by 1975, then aged 63, Zohra had little inkling of the new horizons her career was about to achieve. This was a direct result of new British policies on creating more inclusive, multi-cultural programs on radio and television. Contextualizing the situation, Menon draws on Naseem Khan’s influential report The Arts Britain Ignores (1976) and its impact on the BBC, which launched the series Parosi in 1977, with Zohra played a leading role as Mrs. Chowdhury, a local elder, “social worker, teacher, busybody.” She also appeared in popular television programs such as Mind Your Language and played the title role on the Indian stage in Hedda, an adaptation of Hedda Gabler. But her “lucky break” came with the role of Lady Lili Chatterjee in the celebrated miniseries The Jewel in the Crown, based on Paul Scott’s novels. This was followed by more and more offers in theater, television and film, with her receiving particular acclaim for her leading role in the Ivory-Merchant film The Courtesans of Bombay.  By the time she was in her mid-70s, she was “having the time of her life” as the creative output of the South Asian diaspora came into its own. Throughout her book, Menon discusses Zohra’s many films and plays in detail, including the mini-series Tandoori Nights, and the film Partition—an adaptation of Manto’s Toba Tek Singh.

In 1987, Zohra decided to permanently shift back to India; England for all its advantages, could never be home, with her children and grandchildren also settled in Delhi. But it was not in her character to sit idle: she continued to work, remaining in great demand in both India and Britain. It was after her move, in 1993, when she performed in Shahid Nadeem’s much-acclaimed play Eik Thi Nani alongside her sister Uzra and niece Samiya Mumtaz. Produced in Pakistan, the play is a tale of two sisters, one who migrated to Pakistan after Partition and one who remained in India, and their interactions with the rebellious Sabeen, revealing the complexity of their respective lives, and the attitudes of society toward creativity and freedom. The play was a huge success, with productions staged in Pakistan, India and elsewhere.

Zohra! A Biography in Four Acts is a truly engaging book about a remarkable woman, and the time she lived in. Its many descriptions of Zohra’s rich, full and active life throughout her 80s and 90s include many accolades in India, roles in films such as Bhaji on the Beach and Bend It Like Beckham and her 100th birthday celebration in Delhi, attended by friends, colleagues and relatives from the world over.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment