Zohra Segal (1912-2014)
- Ashish Mohan Khokar
Based on archival materials from The Mohan Khokar Dance Collection
July 18, 2014
In the death of Zohra Segal, who witnessed a century of Indian dance and theatre, films and folk dances, an era is gone.
Sahibzaddi Zohra Begum Mumtazullah Khan shortened to Zohra Segal later, was born in Saharanpur, to the Rampur nobility (Rohilla Pathan stock) on 27th April 1912. This lady has seen a century of Indian art and has lived every moment of it. There was no dance in her immediate surroundings. Her mother died early and Zohra, one of seven siblings, was sent to Queen Mary's Girls School in Lahore as she was a bit of a tomboy and needed discipline. The school PT drill became a source of amusement for her and one thing led to other and she went off to Germany with her maternal uncle Saeeduzaffer Khan, who studied medicine at Edinburgh, in a car! Imagine in 1930s going through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and then take a boat from Alexandria to reach eastern "walled" Europe and arrive in Dresden to join ballerina Mary Wigman's school? This is stuff Zohra the great, is made of. Her training under Wigman style made her a true talent, sought no less by Uday Shankar when she met him backstage when he was touring Europe with 'Shiva Parvati' and assured her a job in his troupe once she finished her training and sure enough when she did and returned home, she received a telegram asking her if she would join him for his forthcoming Japan tour. Her father was bit worried. How to send a young girl off on a tour like this? He asked her to think it through. While she was thinking, he went into the bedroom and came out with a train timetable saying, "Beta, the next train to Kathgodam is at 11.22!" Zohra was off.
Not only she danced with and in Dada's production, she remained Dada Uday Shankar's main dance partner (like Simkie, later) and followed him all the way to Almora where she was a principal teacher and taught young boys like Sachin Shankar and Narendra Sharma, who had enrolled at the school. When the institution closed, Zohra married Kameshwar and shifted to Lahore, to start and run Zoresh Dance Institute, where my father Mohan Khokar enrolled. Thus, Zohra Ammi is my father’s first guru too!
Zohra's marriage to Kameshwar (her student and many years younger) who was vastly gifted, brought the young couple to Bombay and its theatre world and she was a permanent fixture of Prithvi Theatres. She did many memorable roles and had a successful innings. Dharti Ke Lal (1946), Neecha Nagar (1946), Afsar (1950), Heer (1956), Indian Tales of Rudyard Kipling (1964) and several TV serials thereafter. Kameshwar did not fare well and opted out. His death in 1959 left Zohra alone and she slowly moved base to England. She had two children by Kameshwar, a son called Pawan and Kiran Segal, the reputed Orissi dancer.
Zohra got a scholarship to study theatre in UK in 1962 and thus shifted and settled there for some time. She met the great Ram Gopal and taught at his school in Chelsea. She set the Thames on fire and soon earned herself an important place in films made in the UK. She became an important link to India. She was instrumental in giving English theatre in India and Indian theatre arts in Europe, a fillip. She did several TV serials in this period (1964 -74) like Doctor Who, The Long Duel and The Guru.
In 1974, her student Mohan Khokar headed the Sangeet Natak Akademi and under Indira Gandhi’s patronage and direction created the National Folk Dance Ensemble, for which Zohra Segal was invited and appointed director. It was a short lived experiment as Delhi politics ruined it.
Having left London for Delhi, Zohra soon found herself without much to do. Not one to sit idle, she was soon engulfed in many cross cultural productions and one saw her in many cameo roles in nearly all Indo-centric international films made those days. It started with the Jewel in the Crown in 1984 to Tandoor Nights in 1987, Bhaji on the Beach in 1992, followed by Amma in 1996. The list is exhaustive.
This association with films brought her to advertisements in the eighties and through the nineties, she has done scores of mainstream films with all top actors like Amitabh Bachchan (as his mother in Cheeni Kum), Dil Se (1998), Kal Ho Na Ho, Veer Zara, Mistress of Spice and last being Saawariya. To think she acted with Ranvir Kapoor's grandfather Prithvi shows Zohra Segal's selfless commitment to art for which she deserves the highest award - Bharat Ratna. She WAS a ratna of Bharat, indeed. She was bestowed Padma Vibhushan in 2010 She died of a cardiac arrest at 3.30pm on eve of Guru Purnima, in her daughter Kiran Segal's home in Delhi, on 10 July 2014. A legend is no more but her legend will live and inspire many.
Ashish Mohan Khokar is a dance historian, critic and author of over 40 books on Indian arts and culture. He is the curator-inheritor of India’s largest dance collection. He has mentored many youngsters and instituted awards and internships that help them. He also helped revive male solo dancing. His films on dance, discourses and critiques through 35 years of in-depth writings, as the Times of India dance critic and editing of India’s only yearbook on dance – attendance - have contributed significantly to appreciation of the dance heritage and history.
www.dancearchivesofindia.com / www.attendance-india.com
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