Zohra Sehgal and her full blooded life

 

 Published in Housecalls July- August, 2006

Text: Ratna Rao Shekar

Photographs: Kamal Sahai

 

 

Zohra

ZOHRA SEHGAL: Abhi tho main jawan hoon

 

It appears a charming irony that these days when upcoming starlets are willing to pay newspapers to have their photographs published, newspapers and magazine are flocking to Zohra Sehgal for interviews and photographs and are willing to pay money for it! She has more movies and is more famous now than she ever was, and people in her neighbourhood insist she has tea with them whenever she goes for a stroll. She also has enough money today to buy a matching bag for every dress. This, the very lady who would scout around for cheap bread in England when she was looking to make a living after her husband died!

 

Zohra Sehgal once told her daughter, the danseuse Kiran Sehgal, “You are seeing me now when I am old and ugly; you should have seen me when I was young and ugly!” She may have said this in all seriousness, but there is hardly anyone with a more interesting face or anyone more youthful …

 

How do you relate the story of a woman who was born in the early 1900s, and whose life has been as tumultuous as this century? You not only have to relate the events of the time but the details of her own life, which has seen more excitement than the first man landing on the moon or the discovery of Marilyn Monroe. A life that has seen more personal horrors than the wars of that period, a life which has been more inventive than the greatest inventions of the century, the telephone and the motor-car

 

How do you describe the life of Zohra Sehgal in a few thousand words? How do you convey the breadth of her activities: from dancing, acting on stage and in films, from the many roles she has played as daughter, wife, mother, her many rebellions, her eternal optimism, and the journeys she took across the world? Or the people she has met during the course of her life, names that she uses in the first person such as Jawahar (Jawaharlal Nehru), those good looking boys with beautiful eyelashes (Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi), or Dada (Uday Shankar)? Of how she broke the conventions of the time by declaring that she did not want to get married but wanted to have a career – it was something unthinkable, coming as she did from an orthodox and aristocratic Muslim family – and veering off midway into a career in dancing, that only tawaifs in north India indulged in then!

 

A competent writer can attempt to tell her story, but even then how do you convey the mobility of her face as she recites Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Intizam’? The persona of a little girl she assumes while reciting Majaz’s ‘Ek nanni munni si pujarin’? How does one capture the many emotions that flit across her face when she talks of her father, of her large family of sisters and brothers many of whom now live in Pakistan, or the tears that well up when she says, “I cannot express what this piece of paper that says I am a citizen of India means to me”? Her sense of humour when she declares that in her life she has gained fame and fortune, not because she danced with Uday Shankar, not because she toured for 14 years with Prithviraj Kapoor as one of his lead actors, but because she is now a recognizable face in Hindi cinema as the stereotypical dadima!

 

Lives such as Zohra’s are the stuff of great biographies and are stories we need to read about in these days of lacklustre heroes. When she wanted to publish her memoirs and approached publishers in England, they said that as her formative years had been spent in India she should find a publisher there, and when she approached Indian publishers they said that as she had studied and worked in England for the better part of her life she should find a British publisher. Finally it was Kali for Women who published her memoirs, Stages:the Art and Adventure of Zohra Sehgal , which she wrote with Joan L Erdman. As I said, it is a difficult task to write about Zohra in a few hundred pages, and not surprisingly, the book falls short of expectations. It can only be a sort of added attraction to the main film, which is Zohra herself.

 

When we call her the first time, she says in Urdu, “Mera waqt barbad mat karo, mujhe exercises karna hai” (Do not waste my time, I have to do my exercises). She then says she charges Rs 3,000 for an interview, and says she is putting money away for her funeral expenses. But we suspect this is more because she wants to put away pesky journalists who have begun to take increasing interest in her.

 

Zohra has agreed to give us an hour and has told her daughter Kiran Sehgal, an odissi dancer, to tell us not to tire her out as she is just recovering from knee surgery. Of course, with Zohra it is hard to say goodbye in an hour, not only because you fall in love with her recitations but also because she is a wonderful raconteur. We just have to mention that we loved her as the gun-toting, ‘dappad maroing’ nanima to Govinda in Chalo Ishq Ladayi and she launches into the story of the film which, incidentally, she says for my benefit, was shot in Hyderabad! She also launches into the story of Cheeni Kum in which she acts with Amitabh Bachchan. In that movie, in one shot where she had to have a glass of champagne, she muttered to no one in particular that she wished the champagne was for real. Someone asked for her address in Delhi, and lo and behold, she says, it was Amitabh himself who sent her a bunch of flowers and a bottle of champagne a week later. “He’s so nice you know, and in this film he acts his age,” she says.

 

Zohra is like a little girl who can’t stop herself from reciting one nursery rhyme for the benefit of her admiring audience, and then goes on to recite the litany of rhymes she has learnt in school. She is not happy reciting just one line of Faiz Ahmed Faiz or Sardar Jafri, but must go on with the entire poem, intonations and accents all in place! “I love an audience you know!” she says with a twinkle in her eye. We, for our part, can only sit in silence watching with fascination the dramas that unfold on the theatre of her face.

 

“I told Kiran to tell you people not to take too much of my time and here I am the one talking so much,” she says, scolding herself. We did not mind the entertaining time with her but did feel guilty when she declared, “Now I cannot do some of my exercises as it’s late in the afternoon.” These include walking up three floors to her apartment which is on the topmost floor, while Kiran stays on the second floor. She walks up and down the stairs at least five times (77 steps, she says from memory).

The first time we meet her she is all dressed up in a pretty blue Lucknowi salwar-kurta, her hair neatly braided with a parinda, and tied into a small knot at the back. The second time we drop in to see her, she has again granted us just one hour. This queen of stage and cinema greets us by our names. “Ratna Rao Shekar saheba, kaisi hain?” she enquires, while I fumble with my atrocious Hindi. Her memory is phenomenal: we had to tell her our names once and they were embedded in her memory. When she mentions a year from her childhood when she left for Almora, or when she returned from Dresden, she says it precisely, remembering the exact date. This comes from keeping her memory sharp by reciting every morning all the poems she knows by her favourites, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Kaifi Azmi, Sardar Jafri, Majaz, and others.

 

Her room is crowded with memorabilia but as she crisscrosses the years of her life, a window to another world, another time, opens before our eyes. She unfurls for us the vast horizons of her world in which we too have begun to feel like characters.

 

Sahebzadi Zohra Begum Mumtazulla Khan, or Zohra as she later shortened it to for passport purposes, was born in Saharanpur in UP in 1912 into an aristocratic Muslim family that traces its lineage to the Pathans. She attributes her sense of pride and loyalty to her lineage even while blaming her habits of parsimony and miserliness to that very background! She was third among seven boys and girls and says that large families were the norm in those times. Her father’s family comprised 19 brothers and sisters! Her mother died in childbirth; the fact that she had children in quick succession must have hastened her early death. It was her father and an older sister who brought them up. “Being an optimistic child and naturally happy, I did not let the fact that my mother had died affect me very much,” she says in her autobiography.

 

Her mother, who was herself uneducated, had wanted all her children to study, and left all the money in her will for their education, especially of the girl children. In a somewhat unusual move, as it was unheard of for girls to go to boarding schools in those days, Zohra was sent to Queen Mary’s College (it was actually a school, she adds), a purdah school in Lahore for children of aristocrats and maharajas. Most of the teachers were British, and no Christians were in fact admitted to the school. In her irrepressible style she writes in her memoirs that no men were allowed into the school, and those like gardeners or sweepers were allowed in only at night when it was thought the girls would be “safely” asleep. The school also boasted of the first 10 lavatories in the state, five in the Indian style for the juniors and five in the European style for the seniors! There was some censorship of Christian prayers such as ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, but she writes that as she was not overly religious she thought that stories from the Bible were just interesting tales to be read for pleasure.

 

She would say her prayers five times a day as a devout Muslim only when she went home for the holidays. The children would spread a jai namaz carpet, and say namaz four times in Urdu and once in Arabic. Much of the time Zohra did not understand what it meant, but she prayed anyway in order to accrue religious merit.

 

In school she was a tomboy, climbing trees and taking part in plays. She was rather good at embroidery but hated the cooking classes. Even when she married, she says, it was her husband Kameshwar who used to cook delicious meals. When, after taking part in a performance of Jack and the Beanstalk her teacher remarked, “My god, what talent, she could earn 10 pounds a week on the London stage!”, she made up her mind to become an actress.

 

Initially, after reading about Amelia Earhart the pilot, Zohra wanted to be a pilot, until she wrote to her father for permission. The girls, it appears, were always writing to him for permission – once her sister Uzra even asked for permission to smoke, to which he replied in Urdu, that of course she could, as a result of which she never did! Anyway, her father replied to Zohra that she could become a pilot, but he would never forgive himself if anything happened to her, at which she gave up the idea, as she didn’t want to die and leave her poor Abbajan in tears.

 

In the 1930s, when she graduated from Queen Mary’s, like all well brought up girls of her time, Zohra was expected to get married and settle down. Zohra, however, rebelled and said she wanted to study acting abroad, a declaration which did not overly please her father. Her mother’s brother, Dr Sahebzada Saiduzzafar Khan (who studied medicine in Edinburgh and was the first Indian principal of Lucknow Medical College), whom she calls Memphis, said she could go by ship to Europe but it might be more fun to travel by car. So one fine morning, she, her uncle, a mechanic and a cousin of the film director Waris Husain, all set off from Dehradun in a Dodge Tourer with a caravan attached for luggage.

 

Zohra, not being good at geography and not one to study maps, had only the faintest notion of where she was heading in her silk beige burqa that she had got sewn for the adventure. She reveals an interesting fact, though: when she wore the burqa as they were leaving Multan and travelling through Waziristan and Baluchistan, Pathans, who she believed were bandits, came and lifted her veil, and looked at her strangely, as in their own village there did not seem to be any system of purdah! She goes on to say that she was dumbfounded to hear Pathans speaking in Pushtu (or Pashtu), and it came as a surprise to learn that most people in these areas had originally been Hindus.

 Zohra1

Somewhere along the way, her uncle’s son Mahmud joined the group with a Swedish companion, and one evening he said to Zohra, “I have heard that you are going to England to act. Show me how you would react if your lover sent you a letter saying he could not meet you? How would you portray initial excitement and then disappointment?” “I had never met many boys, either at home or at school, so how was I to know how a girl would react in such a situation?” says Zohra looking back. Embarrassed, she told him she was not in a mood and, later, while going up to her room, she began to clap her hands in rhythm to the music floating up from the hotel. Noticing Mahmud’s admiring glances, she began to perform Luddi, a Punjabi folk dance she had learnt at school. Her cousin asked why she could not become a dancer instead, and she decided on the spur of the moment that a dancer she would be, having just finished reading a biography of the great dancer, Isadora Duncan.

 

Midway through the journey, the family decided she should go to Germany to the Mary Wigman Tanz Schule in Dresden. There they left her, after providing her with resources to enable her to lead a somewhat carefree life. At the school she was to study dance pedagogy, specializing in teaching dance to young children. When German teachers asked her about Indian dance she did not have the faintest clue, having seen only a few kathak dances at weddings and the Ramlila pageant on the streets.

 

As she was shy, she wore a long blouse and bloomer type of knickers while practising, and saris at all other times. Classes comprised mostly limbering up exercises for the entire body, moving the shoulders forward and backward, twirling the arms around, and working with the fingers and wrists, then moving on to the head, hips, and bending the knees. Incidentally, to this day Zohra goes through the motions of these exercises that take almost an hour in the morning. Unlike classical Indian or Western dance, in creative dance there are no set rules and one just had to let the emotions flow through the body to a rhythm, Zohra explains.

 

At the end of her stay in Dresden in 1933 she was awarded a diploma in eurhythmics, but dance being what it was in India then, there were absolutely no jobs for dance teachers. Being Zohra, forever inventive, she joined as a drill teacher at her old school, Queen Mary’s, Lahore. She taught the girls exercises based on what she had learnt in Dresden and used English songs like ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ for music. Soon a rumour spread to Government House that a German was teaching the girls dancing, which was quite improper, and the principal, a Miss Cox, was summoned. She explained that the teacher was not German but just one of her old pupils who had been to Germany, and she was not teaching dancing but eurhythmics. “They let it pass as no one understood what eurhythmics was,” she recalls.

 

Just as she was becoming reconciled to the fact that despite all her boasts of becoming a world famous dancer, all that she was destined to become was a drill teacher, she received a telegram from Uday Shankar saying he wanted her to join his troupe as a dancer, and could this be soon as they had to leave for Japan?. She had no hesitation, as Uday Shankar and Simkie, his partner, were, by then, taking the world by storm. She had met Uday Shankar when she was studying in Dresden and had been unimpressed, dismissing him snobbishly as a “dhoti-clad Bengali”! While everyone else had been taking his autograph she had had a good mind not to give him her address when he asked for it. But obviously, eventually she did, for when he was looking for dancers from good families to join his troupe, he thought of her.

 

She was with Uday Shankar for nearly eight years, giving over 1,000 performances and touring from North Cape to Luxor on the Nile, from San Francisco in the USA to Penang in Malaysia, and later to Bali and Java as a dancer with the Uday Shankar Ballet Company, being toasted and feted and staying in luxury hotels wherever she went. Her sister Uzra, the more beautiful of the two, was part of the ballet company too, and once when an admirer came to their green room asking for Ms Mumtaz, the witty doorman wanted to know which Mumtaz he wanted, the one with the big eyes or the one with the big hips. Zohra adds that while Uzra was endowed with beautiful eyes, “I had been endowed with surplus wealth in that particular sphere of my anatomy!”

 

When she was with Uday Shankar she met the youngest of the Shankar brothers, Robu, by her admission a sickly child. “Who would have imagined at that time that he would become the world famous sitarist, Ravi Shankar?” she rolls her eyes and exclaims. As a young teenager, he tried to teach Zohra to sing only because his brother thought Zohra had a good voice. She also met Ustad Allaudin Khan at this time, as he had been roped in to compose music for the ballet company. Allaudin Khan not only became Ravi Shankar’s guru but also his father-in-law.

 

The ballet company was dissolved some years later, though not before a private trip Zohra made with Uday Shankar to Bali and Java, meeting ‘Jawahar’s’ daughter, Indira on the ship. “She later remembered me as the woman with orchids in her hair,” she writes.

 

A long-standing dream of Uday Shankar was to start a dance school where he would expound his method of dance and explore his ideas about India’s visual and performing arts. The place chosen was Almora near Ranikhet, in what was then the United Provinces. Zohra was the lead teacher in the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre at Almora. It was here that she also met a student, Kameshwar, a man younger than her and a Hindu, whom she later married.

 

As a young girl, she says, she did not want to get married not only because she had very vague notions of sex but because she saw the unhappy marriage of her older sister and the death of her mother in childbirth. “I chose a career because I wanted to escape marriage,” she says. As girls, they had such vague notions of sex that once when she outrageously flirted with a cousin and he called her a ‘mirch’, she was afraid of becoming pregnant, a maid having just then become pregnant through an illicit liaison!

 

Even when she fell in love and Kameshwar suggested they marry, she resisted the idea until one day she could not put it off any longer, and they decided to tell her father about it. Khandaan and izzat were words loaded with importance then, and when she told her father she wanted to marry a Hindu, he was broken-hearted, though he could not deny his daughter her happiness. The only thing he asked was that she should not get married in Dehradun where he was then living. “When we decided to get married in Allahabad, he came up to the car, and said, “Beti, shall I too come for the wedding?” “To that I said, ‘No Abbajan I have already caused you enough pain, do not come’,” she says, speaking about the incident to us. Tears brim over as she speaks of him and the goodness of his heart.

 

This unusual woman says that just as she was not ecstatic when she saw the Taj Mahal for the first time, she was not overcome with joy when she gave birth to her daughter, Kiran. “I did not believe in ‘Ma ki mamta’ then. That was until one day I heard a faint cry, as if a small cat was meowing next to my hospital bed, and that really tugged at my heart. Since then and until now my heart fills with tenderness when I hear Kiran’s voice,” she says. She has another child, Pavan, a computer professional who currently lives abroad, and who, she says, we must add, as in most interviews he is never mentioned, while Kiran as a dancer in her own right gets all the attention.

 

Kameshwar, while talented both as an artist and a dancer, never really found his peace in the world and, to Zohra’s horror, he locked himself up one day and committed suicide. At that time both were in Mumbai working with Prithvi Theatre, where Zohra was a dance director and lead actor. Her sister Uzra of the beautiful eyes was with the theatre company too, and it is rumoured that she was to Prithviraj Kapoor what Nargis was to Raj Kapoor: the great passion and love of his life.

 

While with Uday Shankar she travelled in first class liners and stayed at the best hotels, with Prithviraj Kapoor she learnt all about simplicity and humility, as Prithviraj himself travelled with them in third class compartments, sleeping on the floor, and eating food that was cooked in a common kitchen, even though he was a member of parliament and entitled to a first class ticket. Pappaji, as Zohra called him, seemed to have left a lasting impression on Zohra, for she says he not only taught her all that she knew about stagecraft but about life itself. For 16 years he kept the tradition of theatre alive in India single-handedly, she remarks.

 

The plays were nationalistic in character, and were conceived by Pappaji himself, often put together in the extempore dialogue which he often broke into, deviating from the original script! The language in the plays was Hindustani, a form of Hindi and Urdu that was easily understood all over North India where they were mostly staged.

 

He would take voice production classes for the troupe himself, and it is from him that she not only honed her Urdu diction but learnt to memorize great Urdu poetry. Just as she does an hour of exercise, moving her body limb by limb, she recites from memory all the verses of Urdu poetry (and some English) that she knows. It was Pappaji who insisted that they recite Hafeez Jullundari’s Urdu poem, ‘Abhi tho main jawan hoon’ which to this day she renders so beautifully.

 

Zohra bade goodbye to Bombay once Kameshwar passed away, as she could not bear to be in the same environment where the two had shared so many memories. After unsuccessful attempts at trying to establish herself in Delhi, she shifted to London hoping to make it as an actor, so that she could support her two children who were then in school and college. Not knowing that Britain had something called the dole for those like her without a job, she survived as a dress assistant to London theatre artists who used to tip her. This woman from an aristocratic family felt humiliated because she had to survive on tips, but if she had to start life all over again she damn well would!

 

It was difficult to break into London theatre with its guilds and agents, especially as she was already in her 50s, but she began to do a series for BBC radio which was then telecasting two shows for Asians, English by Radio and Look, Listen and Speak and Make Yourself at Home, both of which she was asked to anchor. Though she could never go on the British stage, she began to get movie offers, including one with Yul Brynner and Trevor Howard called The Duel. She thought Brynner was rather stuffy while Trevor was all charm. Other offers followed – from Merchant-Ivory films, the first being Guru, and from Channel Four which was then making programmes for Asians. She became a recognizable face in Britain, with people falling at her feet in London. “Pavan who was with me at that time, wished himself a hundred miles from the scene but I quite enjoyed all the attention,” Zohra says truthfully.

 

“What more can I ask at this age: I am with my children and grandchildren, and I have more money and fame than at any other time in my life. Do you know, I have a matching bag for every sari I wear?” she remarks.

 

Although, to shock an interviewer (they get younger and brasher these days, according to her), she said that the secret of longevity was sex, I personally believe the secret to being 94 but feeling 19 and beautiful, is her sense of fun. She has no special philosophy of life, except that, when the chips are down she tells herself, “Get on with it, girl!” She is not particularly clever, she says, and has not thought about what would happen to her after death. However, if heaven is indeed not a hell, where one meets all the boring people one avoided on earth, she would meet all the people who have passed away and left her bereft: people like her Abbajan, Dada, Pappaji, and Kameshwar. What fun even heaven would be with Zohra around!

 

She is not, however, ready to leave, for her Abbajan himself lived up to a healthy 100 years of age. As this beautiful lady sings with such abandon, ‘Abhi tho main jawan hoon’

 Zohra

 

khushiyon ke din manaaye ja,

dil ke taraane gaaye jaa

tujh ko jawaani ki qasam ,dil ki lagi bujhaaye ja

duniyaa meri bassaye ja,

aaja piya aaja piya

abhi to mein jawaan hoon…

abhi to mein jawaan hoon..

zaheed yun hi badnaam hai

gham se tujhe kyaa kaam hai

yeh muskuraati zindagi zindaa dili ka naam hai

dil dil se muskuraaye ja kuchh gaaye ja,

bal khaaye ja

abhi to mein jawaan hoon

 

No concern of expansion or closeness, neither of height nor depth,

Nor of what was or is, nor of the original covenant,

Gone is hope, gone despair, senses and judgment,

Oblivious to all that surrounds me,

All else except the glass is gone.

Let there be no dearth of wine, friendship with a flask remain, let this merriment continue.

Oh singer, strike a raag creating merriment,

Producing anguish,

So that the wail of your instrument sets fire to hearts.

Every lip should voice the cry, “Do not stop, oh wine-bearer,

Fill up my cup, fill up my cup!” (for)

I am yet young! …

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