Zohra Segal has received honours like the Padma Shri (1998), the Kalidas Samman (2001), and the Padma Vibhushan (2010). Bollywood’s favourite dadi who craved for attention as she thought she was ugly.
Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan was born in a progressive, aristocratic Muslim family in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, in 1912. Brought up in the age of purdah, Sehgal was sent to Lahore to pursue her higher education at Queen Mary College. Sehgal ended up at Mary Wigman’s school in Dresden, Germany, where she trained in Eurythmics.
In 1935, Sehgal joined Uday Shankar’s dance troupe in Japan, and even though she was rarely cast as the lead because of her unconventional features, she deeply invested in her dancing.
In 1942, Sehgal fell for Kameshwar Sehgal, who was eight years younger than her, and married him in Allahabad, one of the few places in pre-Independent India where a Hindu could marry a Muslim without either having to convert. Sehgal had two children, Kiran and Pavan.
Life in UK
In 1945, Sehgal became a dance director at Prithvi Theatre. She stayed on in that position till 1959, and around that time Kameshwar passed away.
In 1962, she got a theatre scholarship to the United Kingdom. She wouldn’t return to India until 1987. Initially, she studied theatre while living at a students’ hostel “like an eighteen-year-old”, according to her daughter’s memoir of her. Eventually, when Kiran and Pavan moved to London, she took up two jobs — dressing actors in a theatre and working at a store to make ends meet.
Career and acomplishments
Aside from mastering dance and theatre, Sehgal also made a foray into movies. She is internationally known for her roles in television series Dr. Who (1964-65) and the movie The Jewel in the Crown.
In 1993, Sehgal and her sister Uzra Butt starred in Shahid Nadeem’s popular play Ek Thi Nani. This role marked the start of her career as the loving, displaced grandmother always clamouring for a return to tradition. She then went on to star in various movies and TV shows as the quintessential grandmother — Bhaji on the Beach (1992), The Mystic Masseur (2001), Bend It Like Beckham (2002), Dil Se (1998), Saawariya and Cheeni Kum (2007) and TV serials Tandoori Nights (1985–87) and Amma and Family (1996).
She was awarded the Padama Shri in 1998, Kalidas Samman in 2001 and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship for lifetime achievement.
Death and tributes
In 2014, Sehgal was diagnosed with pneumonia and died due to a cardiac arrest on 10 July 2014.