Zohra Sehgal died at the age of 102 on July 10, 2014. She lived a great life, full of love, humor and zest for life. She was born on April 27, 1912 in the Uttarpradesh district of Sahranpur. Her full name was Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan, she was the third child in the family of seven kids.
Zohra was born in a rich family of land-owners, called Rohilla Pathans.
Barely, one year old, Zohra lost her eye-sight in the left eye, because of glaucoma. The family could afford a treatment in Birhmingham, which went up to of £310,000 for the operation.
Zohra lost her mother when she was quite young. She was bought up as a devout Sunni Muslim. But she was a total tomboy always challenging boys and playing games that including climbing trees. After finishing school, Zohr attended the Queen Mary’s Girls College, which was an elite college in Lahore, in those days.
Zohra was more interested in pursuing a career in dramatics than settle down, as she already saw the woes of her sister’s marriage. So once she finished her graduation, she took guidance from her maternal uncle Sahebzada Saeeduzzafar Khan, who asked her to come to his place at Ediburgh and learn acting as an apprentice. Zohra and her maternal uncle travelled in a car from Lahore towards Iran and then to Palestine and to Damascus in Syria. After that the duo set off to Egypt, and travelled to Alexandria, in a boat.
Once she was in Europe, Zohra decided to not to wear the burkha again and started learning dancing. An aunt settled there, known as Dicta made sure that the girl attended ballet school in Mary Wigman’s ballet school in Dresden, Germany. Zohra Seghal was the first Indian to study dancing at that institution. A popular Indian dancer of that time, Uday Singh, was touring Europe. Zohra was enamored by his Shiv-Parvati ballet and asked her for a job. The dancer promised that once she finishes her course, he woudld give her a professional dancing assignment.
Some months later, Zohra got a telegram from Uday which said, “Leaving for Japan tour. Can you join quick?” She quickly packed her bags and became a part of his group, from August 8, 1935. The dancing troupe toured Europe, USA, Egypt and Japan. Zohra’s pairing with French dancer Simkie became popular. She came to India and became a dance teacher at Uday Shankar’ dance institute, the Indian Cultural Center, at Almora. She met a young dancer, painter and scientist from Indore, known as Kameshwar Saigal, and fell in love. The family met stiff opposition as the man was from Radhaswami sect, while Zohra was a Sunni Muslim. Finally, the parents gave in, and the couple married on August 14, 1942. By this time, Zohra Sehgal had become really famous. The first prime-minister of India, Jawaharal Nehru was supposed to attend the weeding but he was taken to prison two days ago because of his participation in Mahatma Gandhi’s Quit India Movement.
Zohra and Kameshwar Sehgal had two children, Kiran and Pavan. The couple ran the dance institute well and trained many young talents. But due to paucity of funds and migration of people in other vocations, the institute had to shut down. Zohra and her husband then went to Lahore with kids and started their own dance academy called Zohresh Dance Institute.
The partition affected the lives of Zohra and her husband too, they had to return to India. Zohra’s sister Uzra Butt had by then, became the lead actress in many shows in the Prithvi Theater, set up by Prithviraj Kapoor. Zohra joined the theater in 1945, at that time, she was drawing a monthly salary of Rs. 400. As a performing arts group, the troupe would tour different parts of the country and perform for 14 years.
Zohra also dabbled in IPTA Theater and performed plays that had a leftist tilt to their shows. She debuted in her first feature film called ‘Dharti Ke Lal’ in 1946, which was directed by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. Zohra Sehgal then did her second film, which was also produced by IPTA and directed by Chetan Anand called ‘Neecha Nagar’. This movie was also the first Indian movie to get global recognition worldwide and also won Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
Zohra Sehgal loved theater more than films and would do the latter only if a subject would interest her. She would stage plays even for inmates in Ferozepur Jail. But she did choreography for quite a few films. Zohra went on to do choreography for popular numbers in Guru Dutt’s Baazi and Raj Kapoor’s blockbuster ‘Awaara’. Kamleshwar went into art direction and directed a couple of movies.
Zohra mainly concentrated on theater and did a few films in between. She did choreography for a few hIndi films. Very few people now know that Zohra Sehgal choreographed Guru Dutt’s Baazi (1951) and the dream sequence song in Raj Kapoor’s film Awaara. Kameshwar, on the other hand, became an art director and also tried directing a few Hindi films.
After her husband died in 1959, Zohra Sehgal went to Delhi and became the head of the ‘Natya Academy’. She immersed herself into theater, travelled to London and taught dancing in Chelsea. Zohra acted in a British TV serial in 1964, called ‘The Rescue of Pluffles’ based on a story by Rudyard Kipling. She was an anchor to the Indo-British TV show ‘Padosi’ (Neighbors) which ran from 1976-77
Zohra was then hired by Merchant Ivory Productions to act in their films. She had a stellar role to play in ‘The Courtesans of Bombay’ directed by James Ivory in 1982. She then played the role of ‘Lady Chatterley’ in ‘The Jewel in the Crown’ in 1984. She went on to more tele-films and movies like The Raj Quartet, My Beautiful Laundrette, Tandoori Nights and others.
Zohra Sehgal returned to India in 1995 and continued working in theater, TV shows and movies. She played Aishwarya Rai’s grand-mother in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999). Ek Thi Nani(1993) had her teaming with her real sister Uzra Butt, and the movie was critically acclaimed. The story was based on their real-life about two sisters, Zohra and Uzra, who were separated by partition in 1947 and reunited in the late 80s, after 40 long years. Uzra died at the age of 93, in 2010.
Zohra Sehgal was an agnostic and was known for her sense of humor, which was evident in almost all her interviews. Her daughter Kiran Sehgal is an Odissi dancer, while her son, Pavan, married Seema Rai, the grand-daughter of Munshi Premchand, and has three children.
The United Nation Popular Fund gave her the title ‘Laadli of the Century’ . R. Balki directed Cheeni Kum in 2008, and cast Zohra as the mother of Amitabh Bachchan. The director said, ” Zohra celebrated her birthday on the sets, in spite of the temperature being at 42 degrees at Qutub Minar, Zohra was full of life and went on dancing and moving around zestfully.”
Zohra was diagnosed with cancer in 1994, but even that disease failed and was treated in front of her indomitable spirit. She is the only actress who worked with four generations of the film industry, especially the Kapoors. Zohra’s humor and zest for life continues to be an inspiration. One of her famous quotes was ‘ You are seeing me now, when I am old and ugly. You should have seen me then, when I was young and ugly.” When Zehra was asked if there was any regret she had in life, she said that she wished she was well-endowed.
Zohra Sehgal Movies and TV shows
1946 Dharti Ke Lal
1946 Neecha Nagar
1964 The Indian Tales of Rudyard Kipling
1964–1965 Doctor Who (TV series)
1967 The Long Duel
1967 Theatre 625 (TV series)
1968 The Vengeance of She
1968 The Expert (TV series)
1969 The Guru
1973 The Regiment (TV series)
1973 Tales That Witness Madness
1974 It Ain’t Half Hot Mum (TV series)
1978 Mind Your Language (TV series)
1983 The Courtesans of Bombay
1984 The Jewel in the Crown (TV series)
1985 Tandoori Nights (TV series)
1987 Never Say Die
1989 Manika, une vie plus tard
1989 The Bill
1992 Firm Friends
1993 Bhaji on the Beach
1994 Little Napoleons
1995 Amma and Family (TV series)
1998 Not a Nice Man to Know
1998 Dil Se..
1999 Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam
2000 Tera Jadoo Chal Gayaa
2001 Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham
2001 Zindagi Kitni Khoobsoorat Hai
2001 The Mystic Masseur
2002 Bend it Like Beckham
2002 Anita and Me
2002 Chalo Ishq Ladaaye
2004 Kaun Hai Jo Sapno Mein Aaya?
2005 Chicken Tikka Masala
2005 Mistress of Spices
2007 Cheeni Kum
Zohra Sehgal Awards
Here are the awards won by Zohra Sehgal :
1963 Sangeet Natak Akademi Award
1998: Padma Shri
2001: Kalidas Samman
2002: Padma Bhushan
2004: Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship
2010: Padma Vibhushan
Zohra Sehgal young pictures