You can love a man physically but you needn’t love him spiritually. Or you can love a man but not desire a physical connection. Nature is a funny thing.
When I was 18, I was studying in Germany. One day some of us students went on a trip. There was a young handsome boy called Walter Dobritz and we fell in love. We would sneak out at night and find ourselves a quiet corner where he would sing to me in German: “Sleep my darling and dream of a lot of roses.” That, I think, was my first serious love. After that there were thousands, you fall in love, you fall out of love.
Years later, I met my husband Kameshwar Sehgal at Uday Shankar’s dance school in Almora. He was my student and was eight and- a-half years younger to me. I don’t think I was in love with him in the beginning, but he treated me like a goddess. He was a skilful painter. I once saw a painting by him in which he had stuck fungus from the pine trees. I thought, “My god, look at the talent. If this boy from Indore had been sent to Europe, he’d be a name. I started admiring him and gradually fell in love. When he proposed, I told him that he was much younger and was from a different religion. He told me age does not matter and religion will not be a problem since both of us had enormous respect for it.
The wedding was in Allahabad on 14 August 1942, three days after the Quit India movement began. Everything disrupted. The baraat could not make it. Panditji (Jawaharlal Nehru) was going to come to our wedding because my brother-in-law was his secretary back then and we had heard that he was going to gift us Persian rugs on the occasion. But he was arrested two days earlier and sent to a jail in Pune. When he was released, my brother-in-law went to see him and the first question he asked was where is that young couple. So I asked my brother-in-law later, “Why didn’t you ask him where are those Persian rugs?”
In 1947, a couple of days after Independence, when we were allowed to put up the Indian flag for the first time, people all over Bombay were out in the streets dancing and singing — musicians, artists, businessmen, everyone. So we also decided to go out in a procession from the Prthivi Theatre to Azad Maidan where everyone had gathered. Raj Kapoor was beating the drums, I was dancing behind him and the rest, including Papaji (Prithviraj Kapoor), followed. On my way back home on the train, I heard that a famous writer Ahmed Abbas had called me India’s Isadora Duncan. That was a great compliment because she had been my inspiration. When I told my husband, he said, “How do you think I felt when I heard from my friends that you were out dancing in the streets like a randi?” That was the husband in him speaking. Years later, in his suicide note, my husband wrote, ‘I can stand everything but your arrogance.’ The world knows that Zohra never bowed her head to anyone but Kameshwar.
(Zohra Sehgal has just launched her memoir Close Up: Memoirs of a Life on Stage and Screen, published by Women Unlimited)
– As told to Samrat Chakrabarti