I may have been about eight or nine when the names of Zohra and Uzra first registered in my mind, as my mother (Sumitra Charat Ram) happened to talk of them. She had come into close contact with the two sisters while studying at the Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre. When video came to our house, we were riveted to a serial named Jewel in the Crown as also Mind your Language, simply because Zohraji featured in them both.
Subsequently, at the invitation of the late Indira Gandhi, Zohra Sehgal agreed to return to India and set up the National Folk Dance Ensemble. I can easily recall how she used to be rather strict with the dancers when it came to things like the dresses they wore and punctuality. The Ensemble was particular about enforcing a sense of discipline. In keeping with her quest for perfection, she visited the regional centres to internalise folk dances herself. On her return, she was a picture of enthusiasm and transmitted that feeling to her trainees as she explained to them what she had seen. She then held a trial show at the National School of Drama (NSD) and was satisfied with the effort.
The dancers had learnt the idiom and the Kamani Theatre was booked for the premiere show. However, as luck would have it, the show could not be held as desired because of paucity of funds with the Sangeet Natak Akademi.
The Ensemble had to be wound up, causing her deep disappointment. There were a spate of articles and writeups in the media urging for the Ensemble to survive, but that was not to be.
During her years at the Ensemble, Zohraji was sometimes seen at the famous Mandi House. During one of her spare moments — probably in 1976 — she came to meet my mother. As I walked into the room — my cascading hair flowing and a big red bindi — in her inimitable style she remarked, with a beam on her face, that I looked just like my mother!
Although Zohraji returned to the UK, her daughter Kiran had begun learning Odissi at the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra. Thanks to Kiran, I was able to be in touch with life as it unfolded for Zohraji. In 1991, the legendary Ebrahim Alkazi returned to the NSD to stage three plays: Din ke Andhere (an adaptation of The House of Bernarda Alba), Julius Caesar and Rakt Kalyan. I was over the moon to witness Alkazi’s return to theatre; and the icing on the cake was the participation of Zohraji in Din ke Andhere.
In 1992, Alkazi founded the Living Theatre. Zohraji was on my interview panel. She asked me as to who I thought was the best choreographer. To her disappointment, I replied Leela Samson and Madhavi Mudgal. “Why not Narendra Sharma?” she asked. I replied that Leela and Madhavi had taken their dance idioms beyond its rigid grammar and expanded it to loftier heights through their choreographic works.
I was smitten by the theatre bug and kept meeting Zohraji at one play or another. Smilingly, she once said to me, “We had to select you and expected you to fail, but you have turned out to be the most dedicated.”
In 1995, I had her in ‘In Conversation’ where she sang and recited dialogues and kept the audience in splits of laughter. “Oh, my burqa was of lovely silk and I was so happy to cut it and make petticoats out of it!” Bold and daring, that’s how she has been. She may have been on the other side of 90, but the twinkle in her eyes and the spring in her steps never betrayed her age. Humour was her lifeline come what may and she would say, “Life becomes a drag if you don’t have a sense of humour.”
She used to brush aside comments about her appearance and emphatically asserted the importance of contentment and commitment to what one wanted as the attributes that provided radiance and fulfillment. She squeezed the best out of life: she derived great joy and content from children, family and most importantly, her work — until 100, she could boast of keeping her work going, as also getting her share of fame and material comfort. “I have not gone into oblivion,” she would often say.
A stickler for routine and discipline, Zohraji disliked people who give up easily in life. Having completed over 70 years of showbiz, she was proud that she still had the fighting spirit in her till the very end. “There is an energy that drives me; a voice that tells me every morning that ‘You must go on’,” she said. She once shared with me the secret of her unbounded energy — yoga, exercise and dialogue recitation every morning. Given that she was denied a ground-floor accommodation by the government, she would climb the 40 steps daily.
During one of my many visits, she proudly showed me paintings done by her granddaughter Sujata. Impressed as I was, I bought one immediately. Having little taste for cinema, Zohraji became the sole reason for me to watch Cheeni Kum. I knew her participation alongside Amitabh Bachchan and Tabu would make for a wonderful film.
As a free spirit born in the early 1900s, life must have been tough even for a true-blue Pathan, but she lived on her own terms and proved that she was tougher and beat life at its own game!
(Shobha Deepak Singh is the director of the Shriram Bharatiya Kala Kendra)