POETIC LICENCE: Zohra Segal: ninety years young
Zohra had made, in 1930, the crucial decision to pursue a career rather than get married. In its time this decision was a heresy for a properly raised girl of her aristocratic birth. Yet she managed to gain family support for her plans and avoided marriage until she herself made the choice and commitment
There aren’t all that many larger-than-life figures left in the world today, but famed Indian dancer and actress Zohra Segal is one of them, as becomes evident when you read her memoirs: “Stages: The Art and Adventures of Zohra Segal”.
Among numerous other roles, audiences around the world have seen her as Lady Chatterjee in the 1980s television production of Paul Scott’s novel “Jewel in the Crown,” in Merchant-Ivory’s film “The Courtesan,” in the British television soap opera series “Parosi” and “Tandoori Nights,” in a Channel 4 production of famed Urdu writer Saadat Hassan Manto’s story “Toba Tek Singh,” called “Partition,” in Srivinas Khrishna’s “Masal,” and in “Bhaji on the Beach.”
Her roles are not those of leading ladies or famous stars; they are well honed, professionally sculpted portrayals that make what is known the world over as a fine actor. As a critic noted, “There are few awards for an Indian actress who looks Chinese, playing in English-language dramas, but whatever is out there, Zohra deserves.”
I have to say, at this point, that there is a family connection between Zohra Segal’s family and mine. Her late elder brother Zakaullah Khan, an engineer by profession, was married to an aunt of mine (my father’s sister, Khadija, a painter and sculptor who lived in Lahore and died a decade ago).
This family connection between Zohra Segal’s family and my father’s family wasn’t the only reason why I was so keen to get hold of a copy of her memoirs ever since they were first published in India in 1997. There was also another reason. This had to do with the fact that the book’s co-author is an American lady named Joan L. Erdman, whom I had met in Chicago on a trip to America in 1989.
Joan Erdman worked at a research institute in Chicago, and it was in her capacity as a scholar that I had gone to see her, without having any idea that she knew Zohra Segal. During my meeting with Ms Erdman, we chatted about this and that. Then, at one point in our conversation she asked me where I was from. I said I was a Pakistani, but that my father’s family had lived in Aligarh before partition. “You mean, you’re from that Omar family,” she said, and then proceeded to tell me all about them.
“How on earth do you know all this?” I spluttered, astonishment writ large on my face. Ms Erdman chuckled, hugely amused at my amazement. “Well, it’s like this,” she drawled. “Do you know Zohra Segal?” “Yes, of course,” I said. “She is my late Uncle Zakaullah’s sister, a famous dancer, and a movie, television and stage actress. But how do you know her?” “I’m helping her write her memoirs,” Ms Erdman said.
Ms Erdman then explained that in 1983, in connection with her own research on famed dancer-choreographer Uday Shankar and the new tradition he had created in Indian modern dance, she had met Zohra’s elder sister Hajrah, and then Zohra herself, in New Delhi. The occasion was the first “Uday Ustav,” a festival organised by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar (Uday Shankar’s brother) and other family members in honour of their elder brother who had died in 1977.
Zohra was asked to conduct dance workshops for troupe members in various Shankar groups and present a recitation at the festivities, which Ms Erdman said she did to great compliments and praise. Over lunch a few days later, Zohra offered Ms Erdman her manuscript to read and Ms Erdman accepted, “largely,” she says, “to learn about her role in the Uday Shankar India Culture Centre at Almora” (a town in the foothills of the Himalayas), which Ms Erdman suspected was crucial to the centre’s organisation and syllabus.
“What I found,” writes Ms Erdman in her foreword to Zohra Segal’s memoirs, “was a life which deserved attention for a number of good reasons. First, Zohra had made, in 1930, the crucial decision to pursue a career rather than get married. In its time this decision was a heresy for a properly raised girl of her aristocratic birth. Yet she managed to gain family support for her plans and avoided marriage until she herself made the choice and commitment.
“And what a career she chose! Based on carefree triumphs in school plays (she completed her studies in 1929), she decided to be an actress, but veered off into dance on her way to Europe. To be a dancer and female in the 1930s in India meant to subject oneself to denunciation as licentious, immoral and impure. No doubt, I thought, this courageous decision had some background in Zohra’s family, upbringing and schooling, as well as in her determination, seen in retrospect, to do as she pleased.
“Secondly, Zohra’s career is impressively successful, albeit with oscillations between privilege and hardship along the way. Her mother died when she was young, and she was educated at Queen Mary’s College in Lahore. Never having studied German, she decided to study dance in Dresden (a city in eastern Germany) at Mary Wigman’s studio. She married one of her students, who was younger than her, and their first school in Lahore failed due to political turmoil during its early years. Her husband, loving and empathetic, never fully found his own artistic career and committed suicide, leaving her with two young children to raise (one of her daughters is the famed Indian Odissi dancer Kiran Segal). She came alone to England to study acting, and stayed to struggle to support herself and her children there.
“Twice she tried to establish herself in Delhi and through circumstances not of her making, was unable to do so. Finding suitable and affordable places to live in London proved difficult, and when she finally accomplished this, her children had left, so she returned to India to be with the next generation in her homeland. Yet, throughout, Zohra has had a successful and wonderful career, and today maintains a spirit which can only be called ‘youthful’.”
Often in tension with each other yet kept in balance, these events endow Zohra Segal’s life and memoirs with a depth and emotional capacity that infuse her voice at every turn. Ever resourceful, in her late 70s she discovered she had more acting offers than before retirement. She is now 90 years young.