Fans milled around in loose groups, security guards stood on alert and, above the hum of conversation, there was a smell of roses. When the grand old lady made her last public appearance, it was a showstopper.
“She would have loved this audience and the drama. How she would have laughed that she, an irreverent pathan, was being cremated with Ram naam,” publisher Ritu Menon of Women Unlimited said as veteran actor Zohra Sehgal’s pyre was lit at Lodhi Road crematorium on Friday morning. “She would have laughed at us, at herself and made us laugh with her,” theatre director Anuradha Kapur said.
Zohra, veteran actor of innumerable films, theatre and television shows in India and England, died of a cardiac arrest in Delhi on Thursday. She was 102. “In her last days, she had become very frail and needed help to move around. But, she had an immense inner strength and was full of life. One cannot imagine how much power she had within her. I am unbelievably proud she was my mother,” Pavan Sehgal, who performed the last rites, said.
The actor’s daughter Kiran Sehgal, an Odissi dancer who had written the book — Zohra Sehgal: Fatty — to mark her centenary birthday in 2012, and her grandchildren were present at the funeral. “It will take a few days,” Kiran said about her loss.
Former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit arrived around 11 am and placed a wreath before leaving. “It is hard to describe Zohra Sehgal. She was a great artiste and a very cheerful human being. She had a brilliant memory. Our country will always remember her. She never took anything negatively,” Dikshit said.
Film personalities Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi, Prasar Bharti CEO Jawhar Sircar, photographer Ram Rahman and theatre personalities Kirti Jain and M K Raina were there to pay their last respects.
People talked about their favourite Zohra Sehgal memory – of watching British television shows such as Bhaji on the Beach and Jewel in the Crown or Hindi films such as Dil Se, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Veer Zara, Saawariya, and Cheeni Kum.
Natural beauty expert Suparna Trikha remembered one of her oldest family friends. “Once, I remember we were out somewhere and she said she had to leave. We asked why and she said, ‘My parrot’s waiting for me’. Well, she never had a parrot, she only had a dog and it was called Short Circuit. That’s her sense of humour. You can’t mourn Zohra Sehgal, she has spread so much happiness.”
Though there were misty eyes at the crematorium, it was not unusual to see people break into a smile or a laugh as they recalled their time with Zohra aapa. “I worked with her for the first time in a play in 2002. She was around 90 at that time. She was a thorough professional and always had a smile on her face,” said Azmi.
Activist Shabnam Hashmi and a group gave her the Lal Salaam, shouting out “Zohra Sehgal lal salam” and “Zohra Sehgal zindabad”.
“I feel as if we have lost somebody very close. For 25 years, she had participated in events of Sahmat (a trust set up in the memory of slain theatre activist Safdar Hashmi) and also acted in the documentaries we made for the group Anhad. She lived by ideals of pluralism and diversity,” she said.