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Zohra Sehgal- the Legend

Zohra Sehgal- the Legend
Ajay S.Rawat, Nainital

The grand old lady who conquered dance, theatre and cinema in her long career is no more. On 10th July 2014, Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan better known as Zohra Sehgal left this mortal world after completing 102 years and a career spanning almost eight decades. Often called Bollywood’s ‘Ladli’, the iconic actress had acted in a number of Bollywood and Hollywood films. Full of wit and instant humour, she was a versatile actress and could transform herself into any role that the moment demanded. She was born into a Sunni Muslim Rohilla Pathan family of Rampur in Uttar Pradesh on 27th April 1912, but her early childhood was spent in Chakrata, Dehradun district. In her teens she saw the legendary Uday Shankar perform in Dehradun during summer vacations and that changed her perception towards life. She was so enamoured by Uday Shankar’s dance and choreography that after finishing college from Queen Mary Girls College, Lahore, she joined Uday Shankar’s dance troupe in 1935 and traveled to Japan, West Asia, Europe and America. During this time she met Kameshwar Sehgal, who was eight years younger and fell in love with him. He was a scientist, painter and dancer. After initial opposition from her family the couple tied the nuptial knot through a civil marriage in August 1942. According to Khushwant Singh the famous writer, “Jawahar Lal Nehru was to attend the wedding reception but was arrested a couple of days earlier for supporting Gandhi’s Quit India Movement.”
Shankar Lal Sah from Almora who has worked as a child artist with Uday Shankar stated that “Zohra Sehgal’s talent blossomed in Almora where she was trained in dance and other art forms in Uday Shnkar’s Acdemy with the best artists and dancers of their time like Guru Dutt, Ravi Shankar, Shanti Bardhan, Simkie, Narendra Sharma, Pradeep Ganguly and others.” Uday Shankar honed the skill of Zohra Sehgal and the mesmerizing beauty of the towering Himalayas in Almora paved the way for her talent to blossom.
Uday Shankar was a pioneer of modern dance in India and was best known for creating a fusion of dance style adapting European theatrical techniques to Indian classical dance, which he popularized in India, Europe and United States in 1920s and 30s. Veteran theatre personality Bhuwan Lal Sah from Bhowali avers that “In 1938 he made India his base and established the Uday Shankar Indian Cultural Centre in Simtola, 3 km from Almora. He invited the best artistes from the country for the Academy’s faculty like Sankaran Namboodri for Kathakali, Kandappa Pillai for Bharat Natyam, Ambi Singh for Manipuri and Ustad Allauddin Khan for music.”
The centre in Almora closed down in 1942 after which she migrated to Lahore with her husband and formed their own dance institute known as Zohresh Dance Institute. After some time she went to Bombay which was a turning point in her career; from an accomplished dancer she became a theatre and film artiste. She joined Indian People Theatre Association and also acted in plays staged by Prithvi Theatre of Prithvi Raj Kapoor for 14 years. She also acted in several national and international films as well as TV serials and won accolades for her sterling performances. Amongst the several honours conferred on her, a few are, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1963), Padma Shree (1998), Kalidas Samman (2001) Padma Bhushan (2002), Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship (2004) and Padma Vibhushan (2010). Her daughter Kiran Sehgal in her biography ‘Zohra Sehgal: Fatty’ released in 2012 wrote that “She loves to be in the centre stage” and it is true she lived a life where she was the cynosure of her friends, admirers and fans and when she left the world at the ripe old age of 102 she was still in the centre stage.