Zohra Sehgal

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Zohra Sehgal
Born(1912-04-27) 27 April 1912 (age 101)
Saharanpur, United Provinces
Other namesZohra Mumtaz-Ullah Khan
Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan (birthname)
OccupationActress, Dancer
Years active1946–2007
Spouse(s)Kameshwar Nath Segal
ChildrenKiran Segal
Pawan Segal
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Zohra Sehgal
Born(1912-04-27) 27 April 1912 (age 101)
Saharanpur, United Provinces
Other namesZohra Mumtaz-Ullah Khan
Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan (birthname)
OccupationActress, Dancer
Years active1946–2007
Spouse(s)Kameshwar Nath Segal
ChildrenKiran Segal
Pawan Segal

Zohra Segal[1] (born 27 April 1912) is an Indian actress and choreographer, who started her career as dancer with dancer Uday Shankar in 1935 and worked with him for the next eight years. She has appeared in many Bollywood films as a character actor as well as in English language films and television series.

She also appeared in Bhaji on the Beach (1992), The Mystic Masseur (2001), Bend It Like Beckham (2002), Dil Se.. (1998) and Cheeni Kum (2007); and the TV series, The Jewel in the Crown (1984), Tandoori Nights (1985–87), Amma and Family (1996).[2] At the age of 90, she got the lead character around whom the story revolved in 2002 film Chalo Ishq Ladaaye, where she had stunt sequences, emotional scenes etc. Considered the doyenne of Indian theatre, she acted with Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) and Prithviraj Kapoor's Prithvi Theatre for fourteen years, during the period traveled over India, with the troupe.[3]

She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1998, Kalidas Samman in 2001, and in 2004, the Sangeet Natak Akademi, India's National Academy for Music, Dance and Drama, presented her with its highest award, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship for lifetime achievement. She received the Padma Vibhushan, India's second-highest civilian honor, in 2010.[4]


Early life and education[edit]

She was born Zohra Mumtaz (Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan) on 27 April 1912 into a traditional Muslim family in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India, to Mumtazullah Khan and Natiqua Begum, belonging to Rampur, Uttar Pradesh. She was third of her seven siblings – Zakullah, Hajrah, Ikramullah, Uzra (Uzra Butt), Anna and Sabira – and grew up in Chakrata, now in Uttarakhand (near Dehradun). As a girl she was a tomboy fond of climbing trees and playing games. Zohra lost vision in her left eye as she contracted glaucoma at the age of one year old. She was referred to a hospital in Birmingham where she was treated at a cost of £300.

She lost her mother while still young. As per their mother's wishes, she and her sister were sent to Queen Mary College, Lahore. Strict purdah was observed there and the few males invited to speak did so from behind a screen.[5] As a result of seeing her sister's failed marriage, she decided to pursue a career, rather than get married.[6][7]

Upon graduating, her maternal uncle, Sahebzada Saeeduzzafar Khan, who was based in Edinburgh to study medicine,[8] 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 traveled into Egypt and caught a boat to Europe in Alexandria.[9]

In Europe her aunt Dicta took her to try in the Mary Wigman's ballet school in Dresden, Germany, but she had not ever danced, having lived in purdah for so long. Nevertheless she got admission and became the first Indian to study at the institution.[10] 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. 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.[11]


Zohra Sehgal (bottom left) part of the Uday Shankar Ballet Troupe, ca (1935–37).

While still in Europe, she received a telegram from Uday Shankar: "Leaving for Japan tour. Can you join immediately?"[9] 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 Sehgal, an 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 to marry. 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.[5]

Zohra and Kameshwar Sehgal had two children, Kiran 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 choreographed the ballet Lotus Dance.[12] 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 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 city 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 in 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, it became the first Indian film to gain critical international recognition and won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.[13][14]

Her involvement 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 play, Din Ke Andhere, she played "Begum Qudsia"; K.A. Abbas, in whose plays she acted at the IPTA; Chetan and Uma Anand in whose house the couple stayed when they first moved to Bombay, and his brother, Dev Anand his brother. She did the choreography for several Hindi films, including Guru Dutt's Baazi (1951) and the dream sequence song in Raj Kapoor's film Awaara.[15] Kameshwar, on the other hand, became art director in Hindi films and later tried his hand at film direction.[16]

Zohra Sehgal had been acting on the stage in different parts of India and putting up plays for jails inmates, including at Ferozepore jail.[9] After staging a play, she stayed on to watch an execution.[citation needed]

After her husband's death in 1959, Zohra first moved to Delhi and became director of the newly founded Natya Academy. She then moved 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 the "Uday Shankar style" of dance at his school in Chelsea, during the short period of its existence.[17] Her first role for British television was in a BBC adaptation of a Kipling story, The Rescue of Pluffles, in 1964. She also anchored 26 episodes of BBC TV series, Padosi (Neighbours; 1976–77). Her career in the next almost two decades remained sporadic, despite several small appearances in many films.[1]

In London, Zohra got her first break in the films and was signed by Merchant Ivory Productions. She appeared in The Courtesans of Bombay directed by James Ivory in 1982. This paved way for an 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, et al.

Return to India[edit]

She returned to India in the mid-1990s and lived for a few months in Burdwan. At that time she acted in several films, plays and 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; she started getting invited to perform poetry at various occasions. She even traveled to Pakistan to recite verses for "An Evening With Zohra". Her impromptu performances of Punjabi and Urdu became a norm. After stage performances she was often requested by the audience to recite Hafeez Jullundhri's famous nazm, Abhi To Main Jawan Hoon.[11][18][19]

In 1993, a critically acclaimed play, Ek Thi Nani, was staged in Lahore for the first time, featuring Zohra and her sister Uzra Butt now staying in Pakistan.</ref> A performance in its English version, A Granny for All Seasons, was held at UCLA in 2001.[20] In 2008, at the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF)-Laadli Media Awards in New Delhi, she was named Laadli of the century and the award ceremony was presided by the Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit.[21]

rtoire, by Reginald Massey. Abhinav Publications, 2004. ISBN 81-7017-434-1 p. 22.</ref>[22] Her son, Pavan Sehgal, works for the WHO.

She describes herself as an agnostic[23] having been an atheist in her youth.


As an actor[edit]

1946Dharti Ke Lal
1946Neecha Nagar
1964The Indian Tales of Rudyard Kipling
1964–1965Doctor Who (TV series)
1967The Long Duel
1967Theatre 625 (TV series)
1968The Vengeance of She
1968The Expert (TV series)
1969The Guru
1973The Regiment (TV series)
1973Tales That Witness Madness
1974It Ain't Half Hot Mum (TV series)
1978Mind Your Language (TV series)
1983The Courtesans of Bombay
1984The Jewel in the Crown (TV series)
1985Tandoori Nights (TV series)
1987Never Say Die
1989Manika, une vie plus tard
1989The Bill
1992Firm Friends
1993Bhaji on the Beach
1994Little Napoleons
1995Amma and Family (TV series)
1998Not a Nice Man to Know
1998Dil Se..
1999Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam
2000Tera Jadoo Chal Gayaa
2001Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham
2001Zindagi Kitni Khoobsoorat Hai
2001The Mystic Masseur
2002Bend It Like Beckham
2002Anita and Me
2002Chalo Ishq Ladaaye
2004Kaun Hai Jo Sapno Mein Aaya?
2005Chicken Tikka Masala
2005Mistress of Spices
2007Cheeni Kum



  1. ^ a b Zohra Sehgal profile at screenonline.org.uk
  2. ^ Zohra Sehgal Britannica.com.
  3. ^ "Zohra Sehgal: Naughty in her 90s!", The Times of India, 8 March 2009.
  4. ^ "This Year's Padma Awards announced" (Press release). Ministry of Home Affairs. 25 January 2010. Retrieved 25 January 2010. 
  5. ^ a b Zohra Sehgal: The drama of life The Times of India, 24 August 2003.
  6. ^ Zohra Sehgal: ninety years young Daily Times, 8 January 2003.
  7. ^ "Ninety and spunky", The Hindu, 19 December 2002.
  8. ^ He was the first Indian principal of Lucknow Medical College."
  9. ^ a b c "Grandma of GLEE". The Hindu (Chennai, India). 4 December 2003. Retrieved 12 April 2011. 
  10. ^ Kiran Sehgal India's dances: their history, technique, and repertoire, by Reginald Massey. Abhinav Publications, 2004; ISBN 81-7017-434-1 p. 22.
  11. ^ a b "The dashing dadima: Zohra Sehgal", The Times of India, 8 April 2001.
  12. ^ India's dances: their history, technique, and repertoire, by Reginald Massey. Abhinav Publications, 2004. ISBN 81-7017-434-1 p. 225
  13. ^ "Theatre and Activism in the 1940s" (essay by Sehgal), Crossing boundaries, by Geeti Sen. Orient Blackswan. Orient Blackswan, 1998; ISBN 81-250-1341-5. p. 31.
  14. ^ IPTA Encyclopaedia of Hindi cinema, Encyclopaedia Britannica (India) Pvt. Ltd, Gulzar, Govind Nihalani, Saibal Chatterjee. Published by Popular Prakashan, 2003; ISBN 81-7991-066-0 pp. 63–64.
  15. ^ Baazi University of Iowa.
  16. ^ Kameshwar Sehgal at the Internet Movie Database
  17. ^ South Asian dance: the British experience, by Alessandra Iyer. Published by Taylor & Francis, 1997. ISBN 90-5702-043-2 p. 26.
  18. ^ "I saw Zohra Segal...", The Telegraph, 3 April 2004.
  19. ^ "Real life drama: Ek Thi Nani" The Hindu, 14 November 2004.
  20. ^ 15 November 2001: Performance Reading of "A Granny for All Seasons" UCLA.
  21. ^ "Zohra Sehgal is ‘Ladli of the Century’", The Hindu, 16 May 2008.
  22. ^ Zohra lives with her daughter Kiran who is a highly reputed Odissi dancer.... The Telegraph, 23 December 2006.
  23. ^ Ninety and spunky". The Hindu, 19 December 2002.
  24. ^ Official list of awardees – Drama – Acting the Sangeet Natak Akademi Official website.
  25. ^ Padma Awards- theatre personality Zohra Sehgal and... Rediff.com, 27 January 1998.

Further reading[edit]

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