Mohammed Mumtazuddin Khan was of the bluest of the blue pathan stock with close filial links with the Rampur princely order. He was loaded with property and had no need to hold a job. A man of ample refinement, he nonetheless detested the sobriquet of idle rich and chose to enter the British provincial service. That was in the first decade of the 20th century. Mumtazuddin Khan married a granddaughter of the Nawab of Najibabad who was shot dead by the British in the 1857 uprising; blue stock became bluer.
The couple begot eight children; five were daughters. While the male offspring of Muslim aristocracy almost routinely went to Aligarh for a smattering of higher education, the daughters sometimes read up to the secondary school standard in a local institution for girls, but more often stayed home to have lessons from private tutors under strict purdah. Mumtazuddin Khan chose to break convention; he sent his daughters all the way to Lahore to be admitted to the very posh, very sophisticated St. Mary’s College.
The eldest daughter, Hajrah, lapped up St. Mary’s. She was high-spirited, keen to explore life and dreamt beautiful dreams. An accident, though, interrupted her studies. A minor princeling — a nawabzada, smitten by her beauty, proposed to her. Hajrah thought it would be a bit of a new adventure and said yes. Bidding adieu to St. Mary’s, she joined her husband at his palatial mansion in Cawnpore. Marry in haste and, the adage went, repent at leisure. It took Hajrah less than a week to realize the blunder she had made. The nawabzada had the least scholarly or cultural interests and was insensitive to the core to the susceptibilities of others. In the manner of her great-grandfather, Hajrah revolted. She walked out on the husband, won a divorce, went back to studies, passed examinations one after another and earned a post-graduation degree. Somewhere along the line, this scion of the crème de la crème of Muslim nobility was bewitched by far-out radical ideas. Her second marriage was with the well-known communist, Zainuddin Ahmed. In later years, Hajrah combined teaching Urdu literature at Lucknow University while furiously campaigning for women’s emancipation.
The life story of Mumtazuddin and Natiqua Khan’s second daughter, Zohra, is perhaps even more gripping. Zohra was the prettiest of the lot. She also had a mind of her own far more assertive than that of the elder sister. She too went to St. Mary’s and took her high school examination in 1930. She was 18 and looked forward to a vacation overseas. Zohra had a choice. She could accept the invitation of an uncle — holding the title of nawab — to accompany him and travel to Europe first class on a luxury boat. Or she could travel with another uncle who was proceeding to Europe in a rickety old Dodge via the land route across the Middle East, the Levant, the Mediterranean coast, the Balkan countries and all that; it would be rough going and arduous in the extreme. No matter, Zohra, the society girl fond of ballroom dancing, did not hesitate for a moment, she accepted the challenge of the land route.
It was also time to plan a career. Marriage was ruled out for the present. Zohra’s first aspiration was to be the country’s first woman pilot. She had her father’s reluctant consent, but blinked at the thought of how much pain and suffering would afflict the family if perchance a mishap took place in the air. Without further ado, she reached her decision, she would be a professional dancer. It was a scandalous choice for a damsel hailing from a Muslim aristocratic order. But there she was, with a natural bent for creating scandals.
On reaching Europe in the battered Dodge, she bullied the uncle to take her to Dresden where Mary Wigman ran her celebrated dance school. Zohra was taken in. It was hard work stretching over a span of two and a half years. She however had enough determination and was ever ready for more exciting adventures. Uday Shankar visited Dresden with his troupe for a performance. Zohra was of course in the audience. As the curtain fell, she went backstage, greeted the great dancer and spoke to him about her ambition to be a part of his troupe. He advised her to get in touch with him on her return to India.
Zohra was back home in 1933. Ensconced at her father’s place at Dehra Dun, she pottered around, giving dancing lessons at the local girls’ school, attending parties, keeping up a one-sided correspondence with Uday Shankar. She waited and fretted. At last the call came in summertime 1936. Very soon another first on the part of this Muslim girl of crème de la crème pedigree, her first appearance on the public stage, in what was billed as Uday Shankar’s Hindu Ballet troupe. It was in the role of a companion of Parvati, in a Hara-Parvati number. The venue was Calcutta’s New Empire theatre.
Zohra had arrived. For the next three years, it was a hectic, breathless schedule of voyaging with the troupe to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, all over Europe and the United States of America, Japan. She was learning and re-learning about the exquisite mystique of the art she had pledged herself to.
The Second World War brought the foreign trips to a surcease. But Uday Shankar was on a new exploration. He opened a dance centre for teaching and experimentation at Almora. Zohra was there. By now, she was joined by her next sister, Uzra, equally zestful and equally talented. Something else too happened. Zohra fell in love with a trainee, Kamleshwar Sehgal, much younger in age than her and a Hindu. Another rupture with convention, a Muslim girl of impeccable pedigree marrying a Hindu commoner. But she was Zohra, she was destined to be contrary.
For Zohra Sehgal, it has since then continued to be an existence crowded with a kaleidoscope of changing roles and careers. The Almora centre closed down its shutters, the troupe dispersed, the Sehgal couple moved to Lahore and dared to open a dance school of their own, the Zoresh Dance Centre. Its initial success was of no avail. As clouds of political uncertainty grew denser, an enterprise sponsored by a couple who belonged to the two communities at the throat of each other could not but come a cropper.
Zohra and Kamleshwar were on the move again, this time to Bombay, where Uzra, by now married to Hamid Butt, the promising Urdu writer, had joined Prithviraj Kapoor’s drama group. The sisters, with a filthy rich background, shared, along with their families, a cramped flat on Bandra Hill. Again a fresh beginning for Zohra. Uzra was the lead actress in the Prithvi Theatre. Zohra became her associate, and discovered her guardian angel in Prithviraj Kapoor. If Uday Shankar was Dada, Prithviraj became Papa. He encouraged Zohra all the way, throwing her the challenge of a new role almost every month. The new medium bowled her over in the same manner dancing had done when she was in her teens. What was even more exciting, from Prithvi Theatre to the vibrant Indian People’s Theatre Association movement was just one hop. It was yet another revelation of the depths and distances she was capable of travelling as she started to co-star with Romesh Thapar in the IPTA production of Waiting for Lefty.
Till the close of the 1950s, life and fulfilment became synonymous. But all good things are supposed to come to an end. Suddenly, a lot of developments shook up Zohra’s coordinates. Uzra and her husband shifted to Lahore, Kamleshwar died, the IPTA folded, Prithvi Theatre too was languishing, Zohra was stranded with a very young daughter and a son still a little kid. So yet another switch of career, this time on to Delhi, to assume charge of the fledgling Natya Kala Kendra and, a few years later, the Folk Dance Centre. Both bodies are now defunct, what their purpose was has become the charge of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, but the spadework Zohra had put in remains precious capital stock. Involvement with these institutions allowed her to slake her wanderlust; she travelled several times, across Europe and Asia. Her hankering after new beginnings has never ended. When past sixty, she was back in Bombay, now to be in Hindi films, distinguishing herself in mature roles. The old bug of acting on the stage would not go away though. She went on performing in plays till she was well into her eighties, including one appearance in London, at the Old Vic.
This week, on April 27, Zohra Sehgal, born 1912, completes one hundred years of her amazing frolicking in this world. Yet, she has no illusion about it. She has written a will instructing her daughter and son that in case they are persuaded to bring back home her ashes from the crematorium, they should straightaway flush these down the toilet.