Updated: July 18, 2014 1:00:31 am
Born into a traditional Sunni Muslim Rohilla Pathan family in Uttar Pradesh on April 27, 1912, the third child among seven siblings, Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtazullah Khan was a headstrong young girl, who was inclined more towards boyish pursuits rather than girly pastimes, and preferred to forge her own path.
After her mother, Natiqua Begum’s demise, she along with her sisters were sent to the Queen Mary College in Lahore for further studies. Breaking the shackles of purdah and convention, Zohra, after graduation, joined her maternal uncle Sahebzada Saeeduzzafar Khan in Edinburgh. This marked the beginning of a new chapter in her life when she joined Mary Wigman’s ballet school in Dresden and was exposed to an unique cultural experience. And as fate would have it, she happened to watch the Shiv-Parvati ballet by Uday Shankar, that changed the course of her life forever, both professionally and personally. And Zohra joined Shankar’s dance troupe and travelled around the globe from 1935 to 1940. Later, she worked as a dance teacher at the institute where she met Kameshwar Sehgal, a young scientist, painter and dancer from Indore. Although eight years her junior, the two braved family and societal pressures and tied the knot in 1942. They worked with Shankar’s troupe till it shut down, after which they moved back to Lahore. The couple was blessed with two children—daughter Kiran who is an accomplished Odissi dancer and son Pavan Sehgal.
Zohra’s association with theatre began when she joined Prithvi Theatre in 1945 and acted in several plays. She was also part of the Indian People Theatre’s Association (IPTA) and made her film debut with an IPTA production, Dharti Ke Lal in 1946, directed by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas. Sehgal brought fame to the country when her next film, Neecha Nagar, directed by Chetan Anand received critical acclaim and won the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. However, her first love was theatre and she did several path-breaking plays, Din Ke Andhere, directed by noted poet and director Ebrahim Alkazi, being one of them. Sehgal also worked as a choreographer in many Hindi films, prominent among them being Guru Dutt’s Baazi and the famous dream sequence in Raj Kapoor’s Awaara.
In 1962, Sehgal went to London on a drama scholarship and acted in her first BBC production, an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s story, The Rescue of Pluffles in 1964. She also anchored a 26-episode BBC TV series Padosi. While there, she got her first international assignment, The Courtesans of Bombay, a Merchant Ivory Production, in 1982, directed by James Ivory. She followed it with the television serial, Jewel In The Crown, The Raj Quartet, Tandoori Nights, My Beautiful Laundrette among others.
After she returned to India in 1990, Sehgal acted in several Hindi films like Dil Se, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Veer Zara, Saawariya, Cheeni Kum among others. She impressed her co-stars, including Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Ranbir Kapoor, Salman Khan by her vivaciousness and zest for life. A Padma Vibhushan awardee, the illustrious life of the greatest performer was inked for posterity in her biography Zohra Segal: Fatty penned by her daughter Kiran. The book charts the journey of the great performer and who, till the end, epitomised the popular nazm of Hafeez Jullundhri’s Abhi To Main Jawan Hoon that she would often sing to an enraptured audience.
R. Balki, director
Zohraji’s passing away is a loss to humanity and not just to cinema. She was the happiest person and this was reflected in her performances that were so full of joy. Everyday that I shot with Zohraji is a day I will always remember with a smile. Cheeni Kum couldn’t have been made with any other human being. She was 94 and a buddy!!! She is 102 and will never stop being a super happy friend to me whatever happens… including death.
Shabana Azmi, actor
We must not mourn but celebrate Zohra Aapa’s life which she lived on her own terms. She was an institution and a towering personality of theatre. My mum Shaukat Kaifi was her junior at Prithvi Theatre and was greatly inspired by her. Aapa has known me as an infant strapped to my mum’s back and would play with me when mum was performing. I got a chance to work with her in the play The Diary of Anne Frank in 2003. She would reach rehearsals on the dot. A thorough professional, she knew all her lines and would keep everyone in splits with her jokes. On screen she was a delight and not a patch on what she was on stage. I salute her.
Mahesh Bhatt, Director
I’ve never seen someone age as gracefully. In a world that is so frightened of old age, her snowy white hair and face lined with wrinkles, made her truly beautiful. I had the privilege of working with this iconic lady in Tamanna, where she plays an evil figurehead of a family. From the moment the camera was on her, Zohraji held every frame so brilliantly that she would suck out the energy from the room and direct it towards herself.
Nandita Das, Actor
I knew Zohra Apa since I was very young. I don’t think I have seen a more spirited person in my life. I have also had the great privilege of working with her in a play called Diary of Anne Frank. I think it was the best play I have ever done. I had a lifetime experience of watching this grand old lady in her ‘90s, rehearse and perform, Sheer delight! I was in awe of her hard work, commitment, talent and understanding of the art form. She lived a full life and inspired many. Her legend will continue and she will go down in history as a woman of great substance. Thank you Zohra Apa for touching my life. May your vibrant soul rest in peace.”
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