When people die, small worlds die in them. Even the most seemingly uninteresting lives have incommunicable memories, moments of rapture and drama, sadness and creativity. Zohra Sehgal, who died at the age of 102 in New Delhi, led one of the most interesting lives in Indian theatre and cinema, through a turbulent century. With her passing, much has been lost.
After her early life in a traditional Saharanpur family, and going to college while in purdah, she took the radical decision to study modern dance in Germany, and performed around the world with Uday Shankar’s ballet troupe. She had a part to play through all the heady years of artistic and intellectual experiment in Europe and in India, working with Prithvi Theatre in its earliest days, acting in plays with the progressive Indian People’s Theatre Association. She worked briefly in Bombay cinema during those formative years, acting and choreographing. She had a promiscuous creativity, one that could turn from one medium to another with ease, bringing her talent and zest to dance, theatre, television and cinema, to poetry recitals and puppet shows, to activism and to being the life of the party. Sehgal returned to India in her 80s, after decades in London working in Merchant Ivory films and popular TV shows, to start a new stint in Bollywood, playing versions of herself, like the irrepressible grandmother in movies like Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Cheeni Kum.
Through the zigs and zags of her career, through her many personal setbacks, her essence remained unchanged. She seemed to be propelled by nothing but an inner sense of fun and creative energy, at a time when celebrity careers are machine-tooled and calculated every inch of the way. And at least some of her talent was reserved for life, not art. She came to embody strength of will, and a manner of flirtation and mischief that belied decades of accomplishment. She could be trusted to make earnest questions look silly — when asked about the secret of her energy, she said she ate one raw lizard every night. Despite the troubles of her last years, Zohra Sehgal has lived a grand arc of a life.