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Aik thi Zohra

Born in a traditional Muslim family, Zohra Sehgal defied many norms to live life on her own terms and become an accomplished theatre, film and TV artiste

Aik thi Zohra
She was full of life, extremely witty and engaged the audiences.

It was about 25 years ago that Zohra Sehgal was invited to give a talk on her life and work at the erstwhile Goethe Institut in Lahore. There she sat on the stage for two hours and mesmerised the audience with the vivacious details of her ups and downs in what even then was a career that was more than five decades old. She was so full of life, extremely witty and engaged the audiences as only an experienced person from show business could.

She regaled the many that were present with anecdotes from her life and decisions taken in her career, which may have lost their poignancy but in retrospect when they happened must have been tough and agonising options to exercise.

As a young woman, she had decided to be in the world of arts by joining the institution that Uday Shankar had set up for the performing arts in Almorah, India. For a young Muslim woman to have chosen this area for herself must have resulted in opposition on many fronts. It was extremely rare and almost unheard of as arts and show business were almost out of bound territory for the purdah-observing Muslim women of the ashraaf.

Even then the debate about sending women to school, let alone a college was violently eating into the foundations of a male dominated environment. It was like walking on burning coals. Probably that was really the beginning when women’s right to some formal education were being acceded to but higher education was still out of bounds for them. If there was to be education it was only to augment the prospects of marriage and not in any way to hinder it — because till the 1930s it was not considered proper for women to be educated beyond the primary school level.

One can say that though formal education had been initiated for Muslim women with the school being set up in Aligarh by Sheikh Abdullah, it was rare for women to be sent to school with the approval of the parents and the extended family. There were a few examples who were only grudgingly granted permission by the elders. Ismat Chughtai was one of the first five or six students in that school and her account in Kaghazi Hai Pairahan gave a good description of the state of women and their education then. 

In the few roles that she did in the later part of her life in some of the hugely popular films…she was loved and admired by an audience that knew little about her valiant and brilliant past.

But Zohra Mumtaz (Sehgal) was made of sterner stuff. From United Provinces of the colonial India she went to Queen Mary College in Lahore and then at that age and in that time went on a tour to Europe and discovered a totally new perspective on life.

She studied dance in Germany and joined Uday Shankar’s troupe that was on tour of Europe.

In her account at the Goethe Institut, she praised her father who did not openly reject the idea of her joining this field. Though he did not approve of it wholeheartedly, he did not object to it openly and allowed her to decide her future.

This brave decision summed up the personality of Zohra Sehgal who treaded the path of film, theatre, radio and television for all of her 80 odd years of adult life.

As a young woman she decided to join the world of arts.

As a young woman she decided to join the world of arts.

In the beginning, she was associated with Indian People’s Theatre Association, a journey that she trudged almost all alone because the man she married died after about 15 years of their marriage. Later she was not alone as she was joined by her sister Uzra Mumtaz (Butt) and both were destined to carve a place for themselves in a world that was totally new to them.

Uzra Mumtaz (Butt) who was in Prithvi Theatres after her stint with Uday Shankar at some  point  decided to shift to Pakistan and lived a life of almost oblivion before she was discovered and cast in roles by Ajoka in the late 1980s.

Uzra Butt became a permanent feature of the Ajoka team and performed for the group as long as her health allowed her to be on stage. The emotional bondage and option of political loyalty among the divided Muslim families of India and Pakistan has resulted in a tangle that has not been properly explored in art and literature.

It was a memorable occasion when the two sisters teamed up to perform for Ajoka’s Aik Thi Nani. Zohra and Uzra played the two roles, differing in their views about what they wanted their progeny to do. The differences become open when the granddaughter decided to join show business as a career. It may have been the reliving of debate and almost open confrontation that may have taken place in their own household about 60 years ago. Then the father allowed the daughters to do what they wanted to do — and in the play as well, the granddaughter (played by Samia Mumtaz, their grandniece in real life) in the end also got away with what she wanted to do.

The choices open to women and the difficulties involved were just as poignant when Aik Thi Nani was performed as it was decades earlier when Zohra and Uzra were choosing the difficult options for themselves. The play resonated well with the times.

Starring as Amitabh Bachchan’s mother in the movie 'Cheeni Kum’.

Starring as Amitabh Bachchan’s mother in the movie ‘Cheeni Kum’.

Zohra Sehgal had a very successful career. She moved to England for some time and played roles in hugely popular serials like the Mind Your language, Tandoori Nights, Jewel in the Crown but she was known to the wider public when she started to appear in popular films. This medium has an unprecedented outreach and it has now been matched by the television channels, both terrestrial and satellite.

In the few roles that she did in the later part of her life in some of the hugely popular films and with some of the leading stars of the Indian film industry, she was loved and admired by an audience that knew little about her valiant and brilliant past.

She won many laurels like Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan, Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, Kalidas Samman and Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship besides many others.

Read also: Zohra Phuppi: an inspiration by Khusro Mumtaz

Sarwat Ali

The author is a culture critic based in Lahore

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