New Delhi, April 26 (ANI): "If there is one tragedy in my life today, it is that I can't read and write (due to a problem with her vision). I used to do crossword puzzles night and day. I used read books, one after the other, especially detective novels with a lot of sex in them (winks), my daughter-in-law Seema (grand daughter of Munshi Premchand) used to bring them for me...but now I can't read. I accept it. Its ok...after all I have lived a hundred years."
For a voracious reader, there is nothing more depressing than losing the ability to plunge into books. But Zohra Sehgal is not boring or bored. She hasn't lived one dull moment in her life. This dynamo is so full of energy, that even though she needs assistance to walk, and needs a hearing device, her voice is as strong as ever and her wit is razor sharp. The fluidity of her expressions can shame a Bharatanatyam dancer, her eyes sparkle when she talks about her meetings with greats like Uday Shankar, Prithviraj Kapoor, Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, Saeed Jaffrey, Roshan Seth, Alkazi, Kaifi Azmi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Uzra Butt (her sister) and so many others. Her expressions soften when she talks of her late husband, mother-in-law, her siblings, children and grandchildren.
Zohra Sehgal's life is a life well lived. Born on 27 April 1912 into a Pathan family in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, Zohra Mumtaz was sent to a boarding school in Lahore. She was a tomboy who wanted to be an actress. With her uncle, she traveled by road from Lahore to Balochistan (both then part of undivided India) to Iran, Palestine, Egypt, and then ultimately to Europe to become an actress. But fate had something else in store. She decided to become a ballet dancer.
For a young Indian girl from an aristocratic background, the only exposure to dance was at Ramlilas where young boys enacted even the female roles. Zohra was stunned to see the grace of ballet dancers. From there, began her career as a stage artiste.
"I have spent over 70 years in active professional life, first as a dancer, then as an actor. From 8th October 1935 from Calcutta as a dancer in New Empire Theater....I have done all this, and it was all very exciting...then Prithvi Theatres, and then I went abroad for a holiday, but stayed on for 25 years....I didn't have the money to come back...the first few years from 1962 to 1974 were very difficult, I had to stand in queue for dole, but I never let my children suffer, I gave them the best."
There was no space in England for an artiste of Indian origin in the sixties, but that wasn't going to stop Zohra in any way. She coped with racism, and wouldn't let it bother her.
"I was always a foreigner there, though I stayed there for 25 years, I cooked my own food, I never bothered to learn to cook English food....I wore Indian clothes, never tried to imitate the British. In the beginning it was such that if we were sitting in the bus, the British did not sit next to us, unconsciously in the minds of white people, there was a hesitation. But after 'Jewel in the Crown', they would ask permission...Lady Lilly Chatterjee may we sit next to you....Bilkul palat gaya...children would run up and ask for my autograph. Twenty years had gone by, kaafi naam kama liya ab vapas chalo." I had made a small nest egg."
This is how she took decisions in life. When it got tough, she went to battle with her art, with her talent. Once she had conquered, she moved on to the next art form, the next challenge. A restless spirit seeking new pastures, pushing the boundaries and breaking new ground. That is Zohra for you. "There was a force inside me that told me to get ahead...where it came from, I can't tell."
She isn't just a force, she is a dynamo. Constantly laughing at herself, her dry wit and comic timing is legendary. Her famous quote is You are seeing me now, when I am old and ugly. You should have seen me then, when I was young and ugly." It isn't a flippant sentence. Zohra actually thinks she isn't and wasn't ever beautiful. This comes as a shock to me. And then, I realize that this is probably why she worked so hard in films, theater and dance, spheres of art where one's looks got you the meatiest roles.
Part of Zohra's family migrated to Pakistan after partition. She says she was shocked. "I hated Pakistan.... we all thought it was just a small thing.... partition wouldn't really happen." But it did and it broke up her family, as it did to hundreds of thousands of families. Zohra and her husband Kameshwar Sehgal moved to Bombay and she joined Prithvi theaters, and a new chapter began in her life.
I ask her why she never thought of joining politics, after all her family had close links with the Nehrus. She laughs at my suggestion, "I was an artiste, not a politician. The thought never crossed my mind."
In 2008 the United Nations Population Fund felicitated Zohra Sehgal as the 'Laadli of the Century." She is truly 'the loved one'. By Smita Prakash (ANI)