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Zohra Sehgal

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Zohra Sehgal’s biography

Zohra Sehgal (born 27 April 1912, Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, British India) is an Indian actress. She has appeared in many Bollywood films as well as English films and television series.

Her full name is Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan. She was one of the seven children of a land-owning family of Rohilla Pathans settled around Rampur. Like other families of the same class she was brought up in Sunni Muslim traditions — five prayers a day and fasting during Ramadan. As a girl she was a tomboy fond of climbing trees and playing games.

With her uncle who was closer to her than her father, she traveled all the way across India, West Asia and Europe by car. On her return she was once again put in a burqa and sent to Queen Mary’s Girls College, Lahore, meant for daughters of aristocratic families. Strict purdah was observed in the institution and the few males invited to speak there were put behind a screen.

As soon as Zohra passed out of Queen Mary’s, she shed her burqa — this time for ever — and joined Uday Shankar’s dance troupe. She traveled with him, his group of dancers to Japan, West Asia, Europe and America. It was then that she met Kameshwar Nath Segal, a Hindu belonging to the Radha Swami sect, and fell in love with him. He was eight years younger than her. There was initial opposition from her parents but they came round. Although Kameshwar was willing to convert to Islam to marry Zohra, neither she nor her parents insisted on it. The two had a civil marriage in August 1942. Jawaharlal Nehru was to attend the wedding reception, but he was arrested a couple of days earlier for supporting Gandhi’s Quit India Movement.

For a while the couple worked in Uday Shankar’s dance institute at Almora. When it shut down, they migrated to Lahore and set up their own Zohresh Dance Institute. The growing communal tension preceding the Partition of India made them feel unwelcome. They migrated to Bombay. Zohra joined Prithviraj Kapoor. From a dancer, she turned into a stage actress. The next 14 years the couple stayed in Bombay and got to know many celebrities, including Ebrahim Alkazi, Chetan and Dev Anand, Chetan’s wife Uma who later married Alkazi, Balraj Sahni and his wife, Damyanti. They had two children. They had the choice of being Hindu or Muslim. For a while they accepted both, then discarded them. Meanwhile, Zohra came to the conclusion that there should be more to religions than dietary prohibitions against pork or beef and opted for atheism. It is not known what her husband felt about religion except that he was a ‘non-religious’ man.

Zohra had been acting on the stage in different parts of India, including putting up plays for jails inmates. In Ferozepore jail after staging a play she stayed on to watch an execution.

After her husband’s death, Zohra first moved to Delhi, and then to London where she met Ram Gopal. When she did not get roles as a dancer, or an actress, she took on odd jobs like working in the India Tea Centre, but it was in London she got her first break in the films and was signed by Arthur Rank and Merchant Ivory productions. She appeared in The Raj Quartet, The Jewel in the Crown, Tandoori Nights, My Beautiful Laundrette and dozens of others. Back in Delhi, she continued her film career.

In an interview recently, she is stated to have been living in London for over 20 years. She currently lives in Delhi with her daughter.

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