Remembering Zohra Segal

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Issue No: 97July 15, 2014


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Remembering Zohra Segal

Veteran stage and screen actress, Zohra Segal passed away in Delhi last week at the grand old age of 102. This issue is dedicated to this incredible performer, and the infectious spirit that was synonymous with her and her work.

Zohra Sehgal, a doyen of performing arts in India whose contributions spread across dance, theatre and film, has passed away at 102. A student of Mary Wigman, a dance partner of Uday Shankar, initiated into theatre by Prithviraj Kapoor, a collaborator of Guru Dutt, and a rustic traveller by heart, she represented an Epic Era of Modern Times. She was a dear teacher at the seminal Almora Center of Uday Shankar where Narendra Sharma was fortunate to learn principles of choreography under her. Her passing compels one to reflect on the times she lived and let others live.
a Facebook post by dancer and choreographer, Bharat Sharma

A conversation with Zohra Segal: extracts

Zohra Segal began her career as a dancer. Her acting career began with Prithviraj Kapoor's Prithvi Theatres in the 1940s. To mark Prithviraj Kapoor's centenary in 2006, Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai created an exhibition around his life and theatre work, involving several of the actors who had worked with him between 1944 and 1960 as part of Prithvi Theatres. What follows is an extract from an interview with Zohra Segal in the summer of 2006 in Delhi. The conversation was with Vikram Iyengar and Tanaji Dasgupta, who researched the material for the exhibition.

I joined Uday Shankar in 1935 and my first public performance was on the 8th of August, 1935 at the New Empire Theatre. So this August I completed 70 years of non-stop showbiz. Of course, that’s apart from when I gave birth to the two children – I mean I would have done it on the stage but the audience would have ... [laughs]. So from Uday Shankar I learnt stage presence, I learnt from Kathakali the miming and stylised form of acting. But I didn’t have the voice. We didn’t use that in dance. So when I joined Prithvi Theatres I had to learn how to project for the theatre. So all this I learnt from Papaji [Prithviraj Kapoor]. Even when Shashi [Kapoor] came to watch my show I told him "Beta! sab tere baap ke den hai" [this is all from your father].

Zohra Segal with husband and co-dancer Kameshwar Segal

I was a dancer and had my own school in Lahore, and because of Pakistan and my husband being Hindu it was difficult for us. So my sister, already one year as heroine of Prithvi Theatres, said 'why don't you come to Bombay and try your luck in films, in dancing?' So we went down as dancers. But the roles that were offered to me in the dance were so horrible. What the director came and said was 'Zohraji, you come out of a bowl wearing a swimming costume'. Can you imagine! Of course, I was young then. But the idea of making things like that and you know the emphasis on box office and sex in the films ... So I didn't like that at all. I used to go over with my sister to watch rehearsals of Prithvi Theatres. I was not very much enamoured by Shakuntala, his first play, although I thought Prithviraj as Dushyant the king and my sister as Shakuntala were wonderful and suited the role. But the rest of the background sets and all were very dated and I was not much taken with that Parsi Theatre effect. But the next play was about the independence, Deewar, the division of India - that hit me like anything. I said 'choro dance vance ko' [let’s drop all this dancing-vancing].

Papaji never refused anybody – that was my record. He said he didn’t want to take me since my sister was the leading lady and got the highest salary. How could he justify giving me – her elder sister – less! Secondly, he said he didn’t have roles to offer a dancer of such standard. So I said, ‘Papaji, salary vagera choro. Mai to kisi bhi tarah apke theatre me ana chahti hoon.’ [Papaji, never mind the salary. I want to join your theatre in any way possible]. So I was taken on as the dance director. Damayanti Sahni was playing vamp – the English woman in Deewar. A few months later she left to do films, so then I got that role. Apart from Pathan where I played Papaji’s wife, I never played the heroine. I wish somebody would make me heroine but shakal aisi hai [such is my appearance]! But I played a lot of character roles, vamps and nasty women and funny characters and touching characters. Like in Ghaddar I played the old maidservant in which I had to play from a middle aged woman right up to the age of 80.

Zohra Segal (left) in 'Deewar'

When we were not touring we used to meet at Opera House. We would reach there at ten. The first session was mine - physical exercises, half hour physical warming up and half hour creative or rehearsing the previous dances or creating new ones. Then we would have voice. Not so much on speaking but based more on singing. Ramgopal Ganguli was our music director, he would take singing classes. And after that one hour of Hindi and Urdu classes taken by Manek Kapoor, who would check our pronunciation. My sister Uzra Butt and myself - we come from Rampur, a typical UP town, and because we had gone for ten years to a boarding school in Lahore, Queen Mary's College, with all English talk and with Punjabi influence in English, our Urdu pronunciation was very bad. So you see it was Manek Kapoor from whom we learnt Urdu pronounciation as well as a bit of Hindi. The rest of the period we spent in rehearsing the actual play. Scene by scene or whatever needed to be done. Papaji never taught anybody anything. He would just correct something and we had to listen carefully and take or own juice from his teachings. And of course watching him… I was there for 14 years, my sister was there for 16 years ... just watching him perform as much as we could, whenever we could was in itself a lesson.

When we were touring for about sixteen years the theatre had a great impact even in the South, where Hindi was a problem. Papaji used to say that the films maybe very bad but they've done one good thing. They've made Hindustani a language which everyone understands. It was also a new thing of doing realistic style of acting. The theatre of course closed down way back in 1961, but even immediately after that there was hardly any mention of this great professional company. I think the only national professional company. Of course people like Alyque Padamsee and Utpal Dutt have done some wonderful theatre, but they didn’t have the nationalistic feel to it, which our theatre had. And people ignored it. I don’t know what the reason was.

Full of life and mischief

Zohra Segal (right) with her sister Uzra Butt in the play Eik Thi Nani

I met Zohra Segal only twice in my life and I don't think I'm likely to ever meet anyone who was as full of life and mischief. She made people laugh and some times embarrassed the hell out of them..

The first time I met her was in 2002 when Roysten Abel came to Bangalore to perform The Spirit of Ann Frank. This was the first fund raiser for Ranga Shankara (which was under construction), a project that several theatre people in Bangalore were involved with at that time. It was a star studded cast with Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das, Zohra Sehgal, Mandakini Goswami and Anastasia Flewyn and yet she was the star (both on and off stage) and most importantly, she knew it! We were discussing the press conference and Nandita asked if there was enough time for her to quickly go upstairs and change.

"Of course Nandita," she interrupted, "Press conferences can wait. But quickies can't. There is always time for a quickie!" Nandita laughed and laughed while I nearly died of embarrassment. She was about 92 and used to wear a hearing aid and whenever rehearsals were being discussed or work.. someone would have to repeat everything to her, because she kept complaining that she couldn't hear. Once she was walking in front of us and Nandita whispered to me that we should sneak out for an Andhra meal. She turned around and said, "I heard that, and I want to come for the Andhra meal too." An hour later, Nandita and Shabana were talking about going to Vimla Rangachar's sari place to buy some saris in the afternoon. "I want to come too" she said and Shabana asked her. "Apa, how come you hear everything that is whispered behind your back but never what is said loudly in front of you?" "I think i have selective hearing", she said and walked away.

At the press conference someone asked her how she felt about working in in the theatre for no money. "I always get money, I don't do work for free," she said and turned to me and whispered, "as I grow older, I have become very greedy, I want to accumulate lots of wealth." She crinkled her whole face and laughed... I had no idea whether she was joking or telling the truth.. the idea of a 92 year old being greedy was just too absurd, and we ended up laughing so much that someone had to run to fetch water(for her, not me).

The shows were a super success and we dropped her back to the airport... She was laughing and cracking up till we reached the entrance and then she became all quiet and gloomy and whimpered that she'd like a wheelchair. We were all worried and asked her if she was unwell. "No not at all," she said, still in character, "but why wait in long lines, when you can get efficient service in a wheel chair, and also a young, strapping attendant to wheel you around!" As she was being wheeled in, a man in his fifties walked up to her, knelt next to the wheelchair and said how happy he was to meet her, "I saw you at a show 20 years ago madam, and you don't look a day older." She replied: "Thank you young man, and I wish I could say the same about you!"

The second meeting was when she came with the play Eik Thi Nani, as part of the Prithvi Theatre festival at the opening of Ranga Shankara ... she'd forgotten all of us, of course. When she walked into to Ranga Shankara, a lot of young people came up to touch her feet, she allowed it for about a minute, and then yelled, "Stop all this, otherwise I will have to beat all of you". That put a stop to it immediately.

Just before the show she insisted that I take her to the disabled loo because "it's urgent" and this was 5 mins before the show. When she asked me to come inside with her, I thought it might be because she needed assistance (94 and all that). She shut the door, opened her pouch took out a kajal pencil, applied kajal, then some roll on perfume. Asked me to smell her wrist. I said it smelled great. Then for 2 minutes she made monkey faces in the mirror and said, "come let's go." Seeing my stunned expression, she said, "face exercises" I asked her if she didn't want to do susu, she gave me a withering look, grunted and walked on.

Later when I told her that the money that we raised from The Spirit of Ann Frank was used to build this theatre, she looked pleased, then suddenly she turned grim asked. "You mean I didn't get paid for that show? Did I do a free show? I don't remember doing a free show." We had a tough time explaining to her that she had not done a free show and that Roysten Abel had paid her for the shows and that the ticket collections were used as a fund raiser. "That's okay then, because I don't do free shows", she said turned a bit grumpy. It was totally absurd!

Theatre writer and producer, Nimi Ravindran is based in Bangalore

Tidbits from Facebook

Zohra Segal (left) in a scene from The Spirit of Ann Frank

What follows is a collection of Facebook posts from people who knew, worked with or somehow interacted with Zohra Segal, each encounter leaving an indelible memory.

I went to meet her to ask if she would act in my play The spirit of Ann Frank 12 years ago. I reached at 11am and was asked to wait since she was in the middle of her voice exercises. When she came down she asked me what the play was all about. I gave her a very brief description. She said "Ok, now that you like my face and I like yours, you can leave. I will see you at rehearsals".
On the first day of rehearsals she wore a white Mundum-Neriyathum with a kasavu border knowing i was from Kerala. She always made sure that she was the centre of attraction in a star-studded cast. Always punctual and had a wicked comment if any one came late. Post our run of the shows in the country she organised a lunch at the India International Centre in my honour.
No other actor has ever done this for me. They seldom make people like her and she made the most of her existence. I am sure she has everyone in splits above. What A Life Zohra Segal! Salutations!
- Theatre director, Roysten Abel

I think it was 1976 that Zohra Aunty came to meet Mummy (Sumitra Charat Ram). As I walked into the room my cascading hair flowing and a big red bindi, she remarked that I looked just like Mummy. She then became the head of National Folk Dance Ensemble and ran it successfully for about a year. Then it had to be closed down giving her immense grief.
Subsequently, I met her frequently and she did a programme for us 'In conversation with Zohra'. It was amazing that when the audience asked her questions and to repeat dialogue from her plays, she remembered every line.
Then when I joined Living Theatre, she was a member of the panel of persons who interviewed me. Her passing away is an irreparable loss but as her daughter said, that in the end she was very unhappy with her illness and wanted liberation. And so she joined her sister and left us bereft ... but vivid memories to live by.
- Shobbha Deepak Singh, Chief Executive Officer at Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra, Delhi

Zohra Segal in Almora

Zohra Segal in Almora

Photos taken by Shobha Deepak Singh's father in 1940 at the Almora Dance Centra. The lady in the Black sari is Zohra Segal and the gentleman in white is Devendra Shankar.

When Zohra-ji peeled and ate oranges on stage, I learnt that this too can be done. That you could eat real food in make belief stories. This was in a play I watched at Dilli Haat for cancer survivors. She was one. Then many years on, when she recited 'Abhi toh mein jawaan hoon' at that particular Bharat Rang Mahotsav opening, we collectively flooded the aisles of Kamani Auditorium and we wept. But today I smile at this life well lived. Thank you Zohra Segal for showing so many young ones like us that age is truly just in our heads.
- actress and arts manager, Mallika Taneja

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