Zohra Sehgal Biography

Zohra Sehgal Biography
Zohra Sehgal

She was born Zohra Mumtaz (Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan') on 27 April 1912, in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India, one of 7 children of a land-owning family of Rohilla Pathans, of Mumtazullah Khan and Natiqua Begum, belonging to Rampur, Uttar Pradesh. She was third of her seven siblings - Zakullah, Hajrah, Ikramullah, Uzra, Anna and Sabira, and grew up in Chakrata, now in Uttarakhand (near Dehradun). Like other families of the same class she was brought up in Sunni Muslim traditions — five prayers a day and fasting during Ramadan. As a girl she was a tomboy fond of climbing trees and playing games.

She lost her mother while still young, though as per their mother's wishes, she and her sister were sent to Queen Mary's Girls College, Lahore, attended by the daughters of aristocratic families, and with all English staff. Strict purdah was observed in the institution and the few males invited to speak there had to do so from behind a screen. As a result of seeing her sister's failed marriage soon, she decided to pursue a career, rather than getting married.

Upon graduating, Her maternal uncle, Sahebzada Saeeduzzafar Khan, who was based in Edinburgh to study medicine, arranged for her to apprentice under a British actor, so they started from Lahore by car and, en route, crossed Iran, Palestine, before reaching Damascus, Syria, where she met her cousin, then they travelled into Egypt, and finally catching a boat to Europe in Alexandria. Once in Europe she did two things first she discarded her burqa forever, and second she changed her mind about her career path, she decided to become a dancer instead. Her aunt Dicta took her to try in the Mary Wigman’s ballet school in Dresden, Germany, but she hadn't ever danced having lived in pardah for so long, nevertheless she got admission and became the first Indian to study at the institution. She stayed in Dresden for the next three years studying modern dance, while living in the house of Countess Liebenstein. Then she happened to watch the 'Shiv-Parvati' ballet by Uday Shankar, who was touring Europe at the time, this was to change her life forever, as impressed by the performance, she went back stage to meet Uday Shankar, who promised her a job on her return to India, at the completion of her course.


While still in Europe, she received a telegram from Uday Shankar, "Leaving for Japan tour. Can you join immediately?" Thus on 8 August 1935, she joined his troupe and danced across Japan, Egypt, Europe and the US, as a leading lady, along with French dancer, Simkie. When Uday Shankar moved back to India in 1940, she became a teacher at the 'Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre' at Almora. It was here that she met Kameshwar Segal, a talented young scientist, painter and dancer from Indore, eight years her junior, belonging to the Radha Swami sect. There was initial opposition from her parents but they eventually gave their approval. Although Kameshwar was willing to convert to Islam to marry Zohra, neither she nor her parents insisted on it. They married on 14 August 1942. Jawaharlal Nehru was to attend the wedding reception, but he was arrested a couple of days earlier for supporting Gandhi's Quit India Movement.

Zohra and Kameshwar Segal had two children, Kiran (b. 1944) and Pavan. For a while the couple worked in Uday Shankar’s dance institute at Almora. Both became accomplished dancers and choreographers, Kameshwar composed a noted ballet for human puppets and also choreographed the ballet, 'Lotus Dance'. When it shut down later, they migrated to Lahore and set up their own 'Zohresh Dance Institute'. The growing communal tension preceding the Partition of India made them feel unwelcome. They migrated to Bombay, with a one year old daughter, Kiran. By now, her sister Uzra Butt was already a leading lady with Prithviraj Kapoor's Prithvi Theatre. Ultimately, she too joined Prithvi Theatre in 1945, as an actress with a monthly salary of Rs 400, and toured every across India with the group, for the next 14 years.

Also in 1945 soon after her arrival, she joined the leftist theatre group, IPTA, acted in several plays and made her film debut, IPTA's first film production, directed by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Dharti Ke Lal in 1946; she followed it up with another IPTA supported film, Chetan Anand's Neecha Nagar in the same year, the film became the first Indian film to gain critical international recognition and won the Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) at the Cannes Film Festival.

Her involvement however remained mostly with the theatre, though she did do a few films in between. During their stay in Bombay, the couple came to know many celebrities, including Ebrahim Alkazi, in whose noted play, Din Ke Andhere, Zohra she played the role of Begum Qudsia; K.A. Abbas, in whose plays she acted for IPTA, also Chetan and Uma Anand in whose house the couple stayed when they first moved to Bombay, and Dev Anand his brother. She did choreography of a few Hindi films as well, including Guru Dutt's Baazi (1951) and the famous dream sequence song in Raj Kapoor's film Awaara. Kameshwar on the other hand became art director in Hindi films, and later tried his hand at film direction

Zohra Segal had been acting on the stage in different parts of India, including putting up plays for jails inmates, including at Ferozepore jail, after staging a play she stayed on to watch an execution.

After her husband's death in 1959, Zohra first moved to Delhi and became director of the newly-founded Natya Academy, and then to London on a drama scholarship in 1962, here she met Ram Gopal, a India-born Bharatnatyam dancer, and starting 1963, worked as a teacher in 'Uday Shankar style' of dance at his school in Chelsea, during the short period of its existence. Her first role for British television, was in a BBC adaptation of a Kipling story entitled 'The Rescue of Pluffles' in 1964, she also anchored 26 episodes of BBC TV series, Padosi (Neighbours), made in 1976-77, though her career in the next almost two decades remained sporadic, despite several small appearances in many films.

In London, she got her first break in the films and was signed by Merchant Ivory Productions, and she appeared in 'The Courtesans of Bombay' directed by James Ivory in 1982. This paved way for a important role as Lady Chatterjee in the television adaptation The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984). Thus starting the second phase of her career, as she went on to appear in The Raj Quartet, The Jewel in the Crown, Tandoori Nights, My Beautiful Laundrette and others.

Zohra came back to India, around mid 1990s, and also acted in several films, plays as well as TV series since. She first performed poetry at a memorial to Uday Shankar organised by his brother, Ravi Shankar in 1983, and soon took it in big way, and started getting invited to perform poetry at various occasions, she even travelled to Pakistan to recite verses for "An Evening With Zohra". Over time even her impromptu performances of Punjabi and Urdu verses have become a norm, as after the stage performances she is often requested by the audience to recite Hafeez Jullundhri's famous nazm, Abhi To Main Jawan Hoon.

In 1993, a critical acclaimed play, Ek Thi Nani, was staged in Lahore for the first time, featuring Zohra and her sister Uzra Butt now staying in Pakistan. The play is based on the lives Zohra and Uzra, who were separated by the Partition of India in 1947, and re-united only in the late 1980s, after a gap of 40 years. This was performed several times both in India and Pakistan, a performance reading of its English version, "A Granny for All Seasons", was also held at UCLA in 2001. In 2008, at the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF)-Laadli Media Awards in New Delhi, she was felicitated as the ‘Laadli of the century’; the award was handed over by the Chief Minister of Delhi Sheila Dikshit. Known for her sense of humour and wit, her all time favourite quote remains: "You are seeing me now, when I am old and ugly. You should have seen me then, when I was young and ugly."

Personal life

She is currently based in Delhi, India, where she stays with her daughter, Kiran Segal, noted Odissi danseuse. Her son Pavan, who works for the WHO, married Seema Rai, the granddaughter of Munshi Premchand, and the couple have three children. She is an agnostic having been an atheist in her youth.

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