Zohra Sehgal, a respected Indian film and theatre actress, choreographer and dancer, was born on 27 April 1912 in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, to Mumtazullah Khan and Natiqua Begum. She had six siblings.
She studied at Lahore’s Queen Mary College. After finishing college, she went to Europe and, unusual for her time, enrolled at Germany’s Mary Wigman’s ballet school.
In a profile on Sehgal, Sunil Sethi wrote in the Outlook magazine: “Unexpected things happened to her from an early age. At the age of seven she was sent off to a purdah boarding school in Lahore, in itself an unusual happening in 1919 but unheard of among UP’s Muslim aristocracy. Donning a beige silk burqa in 1930, she set off for Europe by road with her uncle, with the tacit understanding of marrying his son, then an undergraduate at Oxford. To escape the eventuality she dropped off at Dresden and learnt dance for two years.”
During her years in Germany, the famous choreographer Uday Shankar and his troupe were touring Europe and she watched their performance. In 1935 she became a member of his troupe, and toured the world. She later began teaching at the Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre in Almora (in present-day Uttarakhand). This is where she met the dancer and artist Kameshwar Sehgal, whom she married in 1942.
Many decades later, recalling the circumstances of her marriage, she said in an interview to the Tehelka magazine: “I don’t think I was in love with him in the beginning, but he (Kameshwar) treated me like a goddess. He was a skilful painter. . . . I started admiring him and gradually fell in love. When he proposed, I told him that he was much younger and was from a different religion. He told me age does not matter and religion will not be a problem since both of us had enormous respect for it.”
A life well-lived
The couple went to Lahore but returned to India and Zohra joined Bombay's Prithvi Theatres.
She made her film debut with Dharti Ke Lal (1946), which was directed by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas. Her next film was the award-winning Neecha Nagar, directed by Chetan Anand.
She continued to act in plays and choreographed for films like Baazi and Awaara. She was the director of the Natya Academy for some time. Later she appeared in several British television shows and did small roles in films.
In the 1980s she played the role of Lady Chatterjee in The Jewel in the Crown, a TV show. She went on to appear in other TV series such as Tandoori Nights. After the mid-1990s, she’s appeared in several Indian films, including Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Veer-Zaara and Cheeni Kum.
Feisty as ever, with a wicked sense of humour in her old age, she told the Times of India in an interview: “I don't understand the hullabaloo about inner beauty. What actually brings out your beauty is the radiance of being content and you can only be content when you are employed in something you love. . . . Whatever I’ve done, I’ve done it for love of acting, fame and power. The love for life and work probably radiates as my inner beauty!”
Also on this day:
1960 — Rajshekhar Basu, popular Bengali writer, passed away
2009 — Feroz Khan, Hindi film actor, director and producer, passed away