Happy Birthday Zohra

HOIHNU HAUZEL celebrates the 101 birthday of Zohra Segal, the undisputed drama and theatre queen of India

Last year, on her 100th birthday, she was wheeled into the celebration hall at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre where a houseful of people waited for her. She came draped in a yellow dupatta and a big smile. All through the function, she regaled and kept the gathering in splits. Sometimes she recited verses from her favourite poet Hafeez Jullundhri, “To Main Jawan Hoon”. Clearly, even at 100 then, she did display a lot of zest for life. When her chocolate cake arrived, she took the knife as if it was a dagger and vigorously stroked into the cake and kept the audience even more amused.

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“She jokes around and she’s a lot of fun to be with. Sometimes she feels a sudden surge of love and would give me loads of money and would tell me to ‘go and blow it up.’ Being with her and listening to her story makes me want to be like her. I find her to be such a strong lady.”

Madhyama Segal, great-granddaughter, student and Odissi disciple of Kiran Segal

“Her blood runs through all of us. She will not to give up no matter what. Things may have fallen professionally and personally but the grip inside her will not give up on anything. I have learnt this from her. I am her favourite grandchild being the first grandchild she saw so I was really pampered by her. Now, she advises me on how to be in front of the camera. She always tells me to be my natural self and to move forward in life. As a kid I often visited her in London and she would force me to have raw egg with milk. It was awful but I drank. She was very strict then. She gives us so much of love and affection.”

Sujata Segal, (granddaughter) Television actor

“She is always a mother and I have never thought of her as someone who has done all the works that she has done. Our little jokes, fights, disagreements are mostly on friendship basis. She is more like a friend but now due to her age, there are many things that she cannot do. She is very alive in her mind. She is all there. She has a strong desire to live. I always remember my mother to be an active and a workaholic person. Now, to see her quit immobile make me reflect on the realities of life.”

Padmashree Kiran Segal, eminent Odissi dancer

This evening, it will be a quiet tea party at her house in south Delhi’s Mandakini Enclave where very close family and friends will gather around her.

I first met Zohra Segal when I was a reporter with The Indian Express. I was asked to go and take her view on Salman Rushdie who at that point was visiting India after a gap of 12 years. Her view was important, as there was a family connection. Zohra’s sister was married to Rushdie’s mama (mother’s brother).

When I reached her home, I was ushered into her room by her Odissi exponent daughter, Kiran Segal. I saw two ladies sitting together as if two close friends were meeting after a long time. It was her sister Uzra Bhatt who had come from Pakistan to visit her. It was a meeting after many years and I could see the closeness and affection they shared. “Look at the two of us, isn’t she prettier,” Zohra would who often draw comparison with her sister whom she thinks is prettier than her, asked me. In fact, one of the most popular plays that strung millions of hearts for the very portrayal of Partition sentiments across India and Pakistan was Ek Thi Nani, first staged in 1993. This very play united her with her won sister Uzra Bhatt, whom she was separated after the partition. Whenever the sisters met they would sit together for hours and bond over their stories. Some years ago, when I saw Zohra again, her sister has long passed away. I saw the sadness in her eyes but she did not talk much.

Last year, when I went to meet this once leading lady of Prithvi Theatre, it was a different time and a different moment. She has aged considerably but never without her wit and smile. Her last appearance in Bollywood was in Cheeni Kum in 2007.  This time, I saw a rather quiet person who was seated like a child on a wooden chair beside a large window that overlooked other houses in the apartment complex in Alaknanda, a south Delhi colony where Segal lives with her daughter Kiran. Her hair was clipped and neatly combed back. Except for that pair of hearing aid plugged into her ears, there wasn’t much sign that she’s lived a century. After every sentence, she wiped her lips with a white handkerchief every now and then.

Zohra is truly the undisputed drama and theatre queen of India who regaled us for seven decades. The veteran actor, dancer and theatre and film personality is easily the undisputed theatre queen of India. The last time she ever swayed her body was when she played the role of a grandmother in both Dil Se and Dillagi. What’s remarkable about her is the fact that she was the only Indian to have attended a dance school in Germany. And she has vivid memories of how she started it all. Her sharpness of memory then was evident from our conversation. “It was my aunt Dicta took who took me to Mary Wigman’s ballet school in Dresden (Germany),” she said with a twinkle in her eyes. Back in those days, as Segal recalls there weren’t much option in modern dance except for “ballet.”

And she landed up doing a diploma in modern dance or what she calls Diploma in Eurhythmics. She also mentioned that it was her energies and a force within her that made her work hard to make a name for herself. Interestingly, Zohra drew inspiration from reading the life of dancer Isadora Duncan. The only lessons she took in Indian classical dances was when she joined the Uday Shankar Centre in Almora. That’s when she learnt Bharatnatayam, Kathakali and Manipuri dance. She also recalled that it was Uday Shankar who made it necessary for her to learn these form of dance. But honestly, classical dance bores her.

Back then in England, Segal did composed programmes for Ram Gopal. And most of her lectures on Indian dance were accompanied by a dance demo- often filled by Kiran who danced with a dancing partner, Jeffrey Philips who later took an Indian name as Kama Dev.

Segal also tried her hands at choreography as she did in movies like Dev Anand-starer Nau Do Gyarah and Neecha Nagar that also stars as Segal herself.

Although Zohra is not known to have grudges against anyone, I sometimes wonder about one thing. Would she, in some corner of her mind, hold a grudge against the government for not responding to her appeal for a suitable accommodation when she needed one? When her health started to fall and when it became difficult to climb the second floor of her apartment, she was hopeful that an accommodation would be given to her. The mother and daughter who are both awardees of one of the highest civilian awards (Padma Vibhushan and Padma Shree to Zohra and Padma Shri to Kiran), appealed to the ministry of culture and the Delhi government for a suitable accommodation but their appeals fell on deaf ears. “We have nobody to run to and no one seems to care for my mother, a true artiste who has contributed to the cultural growth of the country.” Kiran has once said this to me. She soon gave up the chase after a point.

This evening, I know,  Zohra would peep out from the large window of her room and wished she could go down and get some fresh air.

Hoihnu Hauzel

Hoihnu Hauzel

Hoihnu Hauzel is an independent journalist based in Delhi, and hopes to promote and connect Northeast with the rest of the country and beyond through her writings and entrepreneurial venture, Northeast Odyssey (www.northeastodyssey.com). She also authored the first-ever comprehensive cookbook on the Northeast, published by Penguin India in 2004. She has been a journalist for 14 years, having worked for the Asian Age, Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Times of India andThe Telegraph. She continues to write on travel, hospitality, art and lifestyle for different publications in India.