Zohra Sehgal, the grand dame of Indian theatre and films, was older than Indian cinema at the age of 102 with a glorious performing career behind her that inspired generations. Full of quick wit, instant humour and a chameleon-like ability, she could transform herself with dexterity into any character that the moment demanded.
Sehgal died a private hospital here following a cardiac arrest.
Familiar to the younger generation for her role of Amitabh Bachchan’s nagging mother in ‘Cheeni Kum’ or the charming grandmother of Shah Rukh Khan in ‘Dil Se’ and ‘Tandoori Nights’, she also acted in Salman Khan starrer ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’ and was last seen in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Sawariyaa’ (2007).
Born on April 27, 1912, in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-Ullah Khan was third of her seven siblings and grew up in Chakrata near Dehradun. Zohra began her career as a dancer with Uday Shankar in 1935 and performed across Japan, Egypt, Europe and the US. She married scientist, painter and dancer Kameshwar Sehgal in August 1942. The couple had two children, Kiran and Pavan.
Considered the doyenne of Indian theatre, Sehgal acted with Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and Prithviraj Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatre for fourteen years. She choreographed for a few Hindi films as well, including classics like Guru Dutt’s ‘Baazi’ (1951) and the dream sequence song in Raj Kapoor’s film ‘Awaara’.
After her husband’s death in 1952, Sehgal first moved to Delhi and then to London on a drama scholarship in 1962, where she appeared in many TV productions including ‘The Jewel in the Crown’, ‘Tandoori Nights’ and ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’.
Sehgal was awarded the Padma Shri in 1998, Kalidas Samman in 2001, and in 2004, the Sangeet Natak Akademi. India’s National Academy for Music, Dance and Drama presented her with its highest award, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship for lifetime achievement. She received the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian honor, in 2010.
Hailing from a traditional Muslim family, she defied stereotypes by turning an actor. She and her sister were sent to Queen Mary College in Lahore. When she decided to become an actor her uncle arranged for her to study in Edinburgh. Zohra finally got admission in the Mary Wigman’s ballet
school in Dresden Germany, becoming the first Indian to do so. But her life took a different turn when Zohra happened to watch Uday Shankar’s ‘Shiv-Parvati’.
Not one to miss a chance when it came to her passion for dancing, Zohra met the renowned performer backstage who promised her a job when she returned to India.
When Zohra turned 100, her daughter Kiran wrote a biography on her which was a lovable jibe at her mother for her obsession with looking thin. During the launch, Zohra had recalled how she continued to carry on in the face of insurmountable troubles.
“All my life I have been active in my profession since October 8, 1935. Even when my children were born, or my husband committed suicide, I managed to carry on. After the 75th year of my career, I decided to stop,” she had said.
And when asked whether she had any wishes left, the actress-performer memorably continued…