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Zohra Sehgal: A hundred magical years (Part -1)

New Delhi , Wed, 25 Apr 2012 ANI

New Delhi, April 25 (ANI): I trudge up the stairs to her second floor apartment in a middle class suburb in Delhi. The first word that comes to my mind is: unpretentious.

The doyen of Indian theatre and films, Zohra Sehgal, lives in a tiny IInd floor apartment. I am here to talk to her about her life, even as her family and fans plan on celebrating her hundred years on planet Earth on April 27th. Zohraji lives with her daughter, the renowned Odissi dancer, Kiran Sehgal.

Two handkerchief size dogs bark incessantly when I enter the flat with my camera unit. I am ushered into a minimalist yet tastefully done up living room. One more floor and into her bedroom, which is even more Spartan. Yellowing walls, a steel almirah, a table overflowing with books, an old photograph of Zohraji on the mantelpiece and a threadbare durrie. My cameramen look at me helplessly. How does one make this place look plush? I smile, we don't. We shoot the interview realistically. Her surroundings reflect her personality: simple, honest, humble, well read, gracious. Unaffected by the wondrous life she has led.

So, we don't put up any pink lights, no props. The centrepiece will be Zohra and her sparkling wit, without any embellishments. I am not disappointed. Zohraji takes me through the hundred years of her life, recalling the most interesting of anecdotes, with clarity and honesty. She doesn't mince words, her memory is not clouded. For the next hour and a half, she talks to me of her childhood, her youth, her loves, her husband, children, theatre, films, dance, partition, Bombay, Lahore, Delhi, Nehru, age related hearing and sight disability and so much more.

I look at her with awe, amazement, respect and admiration; can anyone who has led such a rich life be so disarmingly humble? Not once does she boast about her achievements. She doesn't even mention that she has been awarded the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan and the Padma Vibhushan, besides the Sangeet Natak Academy Award. She corrects me gently when I make a mistake in recounting an episode in her life. She asks me about my life, expresses genuine disbelief when I answer her question about my age and 'tum kahaan kii ho bete (where are you from?)....par tum itnii achhi Urdu aur Hindi kaise bol letii ho"? And this, from a person who is a polyglot herself! And doesn't look a day beyond 70 years.

And yet, she is going to be 100 years old in a few days. Her daughter is bringing out a book about her mother, the Prime Minister's wife, Gursharan Kaur, who Zohra says "main unhe apni betii maantii hoon" will be present at the celebration.

Her eyes well up when she talks to me about her children. "All one can ask of one's children is love and affection and I have got that." And that priceless humour. I ask her if she has any regrets in life, she replies, "Yes, of course I have regrets, I would have liked to be six foot tall, blonde, blue eyes, big bust, slim waist." The philosophical: "Of course I have made many mistakes in life, I have been very naughty, but I won't recount them, (winks at me)...neki batana to shekhi hotii hai."

She quotes me a couplet that Prithviraj Kapoor, who she calls Papajee, used to recite quite often, "Duaen de mere baad aane vale merii vehshat ko, bohat kaanten nikal aaye mere hamrah manzil sey (may those who come after me bless me for my frenzy because a lot of thorns have come out of my way)....if my life can inspire some, it would have been a life worth lived."

Zohra was a path breaker in many ways. She came from an aristocratic family, yet she became a dancer and a theatre performer in an age when these careers were frowned upon. She tells me how she met the famous dancer Uday Shankar in Berlin and found him to be quite pompous initially, but was taken in by his dance form. She joined his theatre group and travelled the world.

Many times in the interview she mentions that she was aware that she was not a great beauty and had to work harder than others to be taken seriously. Zohra, the free spirit, was not tied down to domesticity and a humdrum life. With the able support of her husband Kameshwar Sehgal, she moved home several times, travelled while he handled home and kids.

Her marriage to Kameshwar Sehgal, a scientist and an artiste, in 1942, was a scandal. She a Muslim, he a Hindu and eight years younger than her; they broke all taboos, parental and societal norms. She recounts, "Although I was a very staunch Muslim, I broke all of my cousins forced me to eat ham...since then, I didn't bother...when you fall in love, nothing matters, no religion, no age...we fell in love, but I didn't want to marry him...having an affair was okay...I used to say no marriage, no children, no money...we share everything else."

I persist with my question, so why did you get married then? She answers with a tender smile, "He said to me after some time, Zohra how long will you flit from flower to I said, theek hai, I have tried everything in life, let me try this." Talking about her in-laws, she recounts, that when her father-in-law to be, told his wife that their son wanted to marry the "notorious dancer Zohra Mumtaz", she replied "Jisko usne apne dil kii devi mana hai, hum usko apney ghar kii devi banayenge."

Zohra and Kameshwar Seghal got married on 14th August 1942, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was to attend the wedding reception, was arrested and couldn't present them with the Kashmiri rug he had promised. When a relative met Nehru in prison, he enquired about "the young couple", but impish Zohra, not flattered about the query, replied, "You should have asked him, where is the rug?"

From Saharanpur, to Lahore, to Berlin, to London, Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi, she has lived in many cities and travelled the globe. She has lived through pre-partition India, the World Wars, India-China and India-Pakistan wars, a life of luxury and a life of penury too. So many experiences and so much to share.

More in part 2 of this article. If you would like to watch the video interview By Smita Prakash (ANI)

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