Obituary of Zohra Sehgal —A jewel in the crown of Indian Performing Art

EntertainmentObituary of Zohra Sehgal —A jewel in the crown of Indian Performing...

Obituary of Zohra Sehgal

Asadullah Khan: Special for Dispatch News Desk 


New Delhi, India: Obituary of Zohra Sehgal. Zohra Sehgal died today on July 10, 2014. She was 102 year old as was born on April 27, 1912.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi  condoled her death calling her prolific and full of life.

She was not an actress, dancer and choreographer only rather an icon of success for Indian women in the fields of performing art, education and left wing movement. She was also internationally acclaimed performer and dancer and Host of television shows. Her life was not easy but she was an iron lady. Widowed in a young age, she never bowed down to circumstances. Death of her husband was a greatest trauma for a Muslim lady who fought long to marry a Hindu boy and his untimely death left her alone to fight the world with two young daughters. She was exceptional and an example for all women of sub-continent.

Her original name was Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan. She was highly educated woman of her era.

Her father Mumtaz-ullah Khan was a highly respected and rich man of Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India.

She was educated from British run top college of her time–Queen Mary College, Lahore. Upon graduating, her maternal uncle, Sahebzada Saeeduzzafar Khan, who was based in Edinburgh, invited her to England and they started their journey from Lahore by car. Her journey was itself a story like a film as they crossed Iran, Palestine, Damascus, Syria, and Egypt. After reaching Alexandria they took a ship to England. In Europe, she got admission in Mary Wigman ballet school in Dresden, Germany and she became the first Indian to study at the institution.

Obituary of Zohra Sehgal
Obituary of Zohra Sehgal

She stayed in Dresden for the next three years studying modern dance, while living in the house of Countess Liebenstein. She happened to watch the Shiv-Parvati ballet by Uday Shankar who was touring Europe. This was to change her life forever as, impressed by the performance, she went back stage to meet Uday Shankar, who promised her a job on her return to India, at the completion of her course.

According to an article published in India newspapers, while still in Europe, she received a telegram from Uday Shankar:

“Leaving for Japan tour. Can you join immediately?”

Obituary of Zohra Sehgal. Zohra on world tour in 1935

On 8 August 1935, she joined his troupe and danced across Japan, Egypt, Europe and the US, as a leading lady, along with French dancer, Simkie. When Uday Shankar moved back to India in 1940, she became a teacher at the Uday Shankar India Cultural Centre at Almora.

It was here that she met her future husband Kameshwar Sehgal, a young scientist, painter and dancer from Indore who was eight years younger to her belonging to the Radha Soami sect.

There was initial opposition from her parents because they were Muslims and marrying their daughter to Hindu family was difficult for them. However, his father accepted her decision and they were married on 14 August 1942.



They could not think that just five years after their marriage— India would be divided on 14 August 1947. They migrated to Lahore and set up their own Zohresh Dance Institute. The growing communal tension preceding the Partition of India made them feel uncomfortable. They returned to Bombay, with one-year-old Kiran. By now, her sister Uzra Butt was already a leading lady with Prithvi Theatre. Ultimately, she too joined Prithvi Theatre in 1945.

Obituary of Zohra Sehgal. Zohra performing with her husband

In 1945, she joined the leftist theatre group, IPTA and made her film debut in IPTA’s first film production, directed by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Dharti Ke Lal in 1946. She also worked in another IPTA-supported film, Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar that became the first Indian film to gain critical international recognition and won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Zohra with her daughters
Zohra with her daughters

After the death of her husband in 1959, Zohra first moved to Delhi and became director of the newly founded Natya Academy. She then moved London on a drama scholarship in 1962. Here she met Ram Gopal, a India-born Bharatnatyam dancer. In 1963, she started worked as a teacher in the “Uday Shankar style” of dance at Ram Gopal school in Chelsea.

Her first role for British television was in a BBC adaptation of a Kipling story, The Rescue of Pluffles, in 1964. She also anchored 26 episodes of BBC TV series, Padosi (Neighbours; 1976–77). In London, Zohra got her first break in the films and was signed by Merchant Ivory Productions. She appeared in The Courtesans of Bombay directed by James Ivory in 1982. This paved way for an important role as Lady Chatterjee in the television adaptation The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984). This can be consider as second phase of her career, as she went on to appear in The Raj Quartet, The Jewel in the Crown, Tandoori Nights, My Beautiful Laundrette, et al.

Her involvement remained mostly with the theatre, though she did do a few films in between.

Zohra_Sehgal at the age of 100 year

At the age of 90, she got the lead character role in 2002 film Chalo Ishq Ladaaye, where she had stunt sequences, emotional scenes and got the exceptional appreciation from viewers.

She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1998 that is considered highest award in India.


Zohra Sehgal dead

Obituary of Zohra Sehgal

Obituary of Zohra Sehgal—A jewel in the crown of Indian Performing Art

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