Speaking informally among friends in Lahore during the 80s, Zohra Segal remarked that her sudden change of intention, literally midway on her journey out from India, to train as a dancer instead of an actor was a mistake. “Thank God for that mistake!” I muttered to myself.
Years later she voiced a somewhat contradictory view. On receiving an award where she was lauded as the only Asian who had learnt ‘Expressionism’ from Mary Wigman, the pioneer of this movement in Dance, Zohra, always ready to laugh at herself, said, “There I proudly sat, like a cat who has swallowed the cream, but looking back over my life, as speeches continued, I realized I had learnt to express myself, through face and body, much more deeply from Uday Shankar during my years in ‘Modern Indian Expressional Dance’ than Wigman. As for Theatre and Voice, I learnt that on the job with Prithviji. Though Mary Wigman`s dance methodology definitely gave me the base I built on.”
“I was bored with teaching sports and musical drill behind the high walls of my old school in Lahore,” Zohra wrote after her exhilarating years in Europe. She sought escape by accepting Uday Shankar`s invitation to join his troupe, though earlier she had looked down on “this common nachkayya”.
[quote]The Punjab Drama League, led by G D Sondhi, built the Lawrence Gardens Open Air Theatre in 1941[/quote]
“I appeared on the legitimate stage as a trained, professional dancer for the first time on August 8, 1935 in Calcutta, she noted proudly in her diary. The Company set off on a series of world tours which lasted three years. Brief returns home were spent in rest and preparation of new works each time, to conquer a new continent.
When Hitler`s war put a stop to these tours, Uday Shankar set up his India Culture Centre in the U.P hills, where Zohra taught and choreographed, as well as met and married Kameshwar Sehgal. But when Shankar closed down the centre after five years, to make a dance film, Zohra decided that Lahore was the best place to start their own “Zoresh Institute”. That’s how, when and where my fortunate kismet enabled me to become their student.
I had had two short stints with Kathak teachers. Each time I was left as the last and only pupil in class, as others dropped out, and the disappointed teacher gave up. This time I got two consecutive years at Zoresh Institute, but it almost happened again! I was the only schoolgirl along with Sabra, Zohraji’s own sister (the only Muslim) in the “Amateur Evening-Classes for Ladies”. At the end of the first year, Zohraji told our group that her classes in girls’ schools and colleges had completed several items, whereas this group, due to the irregular attendance of the majority could not complete even one. When performances had taken place only Sabra and I had been chosen. We learnt complete items in a few rehearsals and performed them with Zohraji. Looking around, her eyes alighted on my face, streaming with silent tears, afraid that this class of mine would also be shut down. Upon seeing this, she gave me a big hug, “This pep -talk was not for you. I know you have never missed a class.”
The highlight of my second year at Zoresh was the dance-drama “Shiv-Sati”. Anything produced and directed by Mr. G.D.Sondhi, Principal of Government College, and the power behind The Punjab Drama League which built the Open Air Theatre in Lawrence Gardens in 1941, was bound to be a wonderful and prestigious production. Established and budding actors thronged to the auditions. Sondhi of course, had the right to choose his cast. The first choice he made was to co-opt Zohra and Kameshwar to choreograph and direct the dances. Shiv and Sati, hero and heroine were no doubt to be played by them. The dance theme climaxed in Act 3 with their duet. But the hero also had an earlier duet, and they chose me for that. As a fourteen year old I was elated, and felt honoured to partner my “Ustad”. He composed this in a strong, Kathakali style, and I was delighted to learn something more demanding than what was taught in the group class.
In the play, when the bride arrives in her new home, Shiv`s forest-dwelling companions greet her with crude, primitive gyrations. To show her disdain, Zohra, as Sati, created a serene and graceful solo set in an unusual seven-beat rhythm accompanied by classic string instruments. Only then does her husband reveal himself as the Lord of Dance. Now truly united, the duet they danced to together exhibited all that was best in every dance style presented in the earlier scenes.
The dance of sorrow Kameshwar did after Sati’s death had a great impact on the audience. Caught in the spotlight wearing white, on a dark, silent, empty stage, he entered carrying her dead body with slow steps. Softly a tabla blended in, and music followed his moods as Kameshwar became one with the nostalgia and pain that drove Shiv to slow frenzy.
Summer vacations followed the excitement of this splendid production. And then Kameshwar returned alone. Suddenly all the others dropped out of class and again I was the only one left. I could see that my teacher was bored and baffled about what to do with this one childish pupil. Then I got into trouble with my parents. My father learnt from a colleague, that other girls were staying away from the classes till Zohraji returned after the birth of her baby, expected in a few months. He came home and created a big row. How had I been allowed to go off on my bike to take lessons from a male teacher, alone in his home, he demanded. Even my mother was scandalized, “Why didn’t you tell me?”
I couldn`t understand what the row was about. “Stupid, untalented, uncommitted students, always irregular.” I grumbled in answer. “Just a nuisance to my lessons”. But the parental decision? I knew it! No more dance class! I wept and cried.
My mother went to persuade Kameshwar to come to tutor me at our home. He refused; felt insulted; stood on his dignity; and said the student should seek the teacher. My sister Renu, a serious B.A. student, uninterested in dance, couldn`t bear all this drama. She offered to join me in the ‘class’ till Zohraji’s return, if that would satisfy our parents. So the lessons continued. But even after Zohraji returned with baby Kiran, I was virtually alone in class. She was busy with her baby. Kameshwar now started to teach me a solo item: one of the many legends about “Urvashi”, a famous dancer in the court of Indra-Dev, who fell in love at first sight with the hero Arjun. However, he being a paragon of virtue, rejected her advances, whereupon she cursed him.
[quote]I remember the care with which he taught me a slow and subtle hip-sway, making sure I knew what mistakes would reduce it to vulgarity[/quote]
Not a suitable item for a 15 year old, you might think? I guess the theme was in Kameshwar’s head at the time, and there was no other pupil to pass it on to. I certainly enjoyed the drama of the curse! I remember, also the care with which he taught me a slow and subtle hip-sway, making sure I knew what mistakes would reduce it to vulgarity.
Just at this time, early 1945, Zoresh Institute decided to prepare to take the troupe on a tour around India. I was asked to join but was coming up for my Matric and couldn’t think of putting that off and losing a year. I didn’t bother to mention the tour to my parents, but I didn’t drop my dance lessons for the exam. The tour set off. Their first presentation was at Lahore’s Open-Air Theatre. Every single item was new. I was thrilled watching them, and didn’t feel at all left out.
While they were away I passed the Matric and was enrolled at Kinnaird College for the short summer term. As a mere “firsty”, I made an impact with my “Urvashi” item. A Senior in my hostel played the sitar. We found that my dance fitted well with a “dhun” she played on her sitar: the snake –charmers ‘been’. During vacation in Simla we two became a choice ‘item’ at ‘ladies’ parties’ and charity concerts.
I returned to College after the vacation. I had not known when they left on tour that Zoresh would not reopen after their return . Perhaps they had not planned it at that time.
When Zohra and Kameshwar had come to set up their school in Lahore, no one had blinked an eye at their ‘mixed marriage’. There were a few other such couples, even in the earlier generation, mostly among intellectuals and artists, though I do not recall any other Muslim lady as bold as Zohraji. She had been confident of support from her old school and college mates, for were not many of them – especially the Muslim families, like Begum Shahnawaz`s extended family and friends – among the most notable names in girls’ sports, amateur theatre, and in the sophisticated high life of Lahore? But not a single ex-pupil from her school or college ever joined Zoresh.
[quote]The Urdu papers fulminated against the ‘scion of a noble Muslim family’ playing the part of a Hindu goddess[/quote]
Strangely, although the participants in ‘Shiv Sati’ had given no thought to the religion of the actors and dancers, concerned only with their talent, the newspaper reviews did! Zohraji had herself read us reports from the Urdu papers, on the completion of the play, fulminating against “Zohra, scion of a noble Muslim family”, not only for acting and dancing, but more so for playing the part of a Hindu goddess. The Hindi-language papers were equally furious that the role of the most sacred, divine Sati, was defiled by being enacted by a Muslim.
Zohraji’s autobiographies mention that “on our return to the Punjab, we felt the growing shadow of inter-religious trouble in the Punjab.” She writes of “the coldness of friends” for the first time here, but perhaps their earlier neglect now took on added significance. Also, their tour had been an artistic success, but not a financial one. When urged by her sister Uzra and Hamid Butt to join them in cosmopolitan Bombay’s theatre -world, they set off to try their luck anew.
Acting in films and theatre formed the focus of Zohra’s life now, while choreographing and teaching dance took second place. Touring with “Prithvi Theatres“ brought her national recognition. But when the founder’s ill health, compelled its closure, it was dance that called her to Delhi. Zohra was invited to set up the National Institute for Drama and Dance; later to carry out research on the Folk Dances of India. But both these efforts got bogged down in bureaucratic tangles. Meanwhile theatre, and TV started in Delhi and soon Asian roles in Film and television in the U.K also beckoned, bringing Zohra Sega to international fame once again – the kind dance had given her 30 years earlier.
Zohra Sehgal (1912 – 2014)
1935: Joined the Uday Shankar Dance Troupe. Toured Japan, Egypt, Europe and the US with them
1945: Joined Prithvi Theatre and toured all over India
1946: Made her film debut in Dharti Ke Laal. Her second film, Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival
1962: Moved to London for a drama scholarship
1964: Acted in a BBC adaptation of a Kipling story, The Rescue of Pluffles
1965: Appeared in four episodes of Doctor Who
1976-77: Anchored 26 episodes of BBC TV series, Padosi
1982: Appeared in The Courtesans of Bombay, directed by James Ivory
1984: Played the important role of Chatterjee in ITV’s television adaptation of The Jewel in the Crown
1993: The critically acclaimed Ek Thi Naani was staged in Lahore for the first time
1996 onwards: Frequent appearances in high budget movies like Dil Se, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Veer Zara, Saawariya, Cheeni Kum and UK productions such as Bend it Like Beckham and Bhaji on the Beach