Zohra Sehgal, doyenne of Indian theatre, dies at 102
Zohra Sehgal, a quintessential Bollywood diva who essayed character roles with aplomb in a career spanning over seven decades in both theatre and cinema, died in New Delhi on Thursday. She was 102.
A Padma Vibhushan awardee, Sehgal breathed her last at Max hospital in New Delhi at around 4.30 p.m.
“She was admitted yesterday and diagnosed with pneumonia. A heart patient, she suffered a cardiac arrest and passed away,” a senior doctor at the hospital said.
“She was unwell for last three-four days,” daughter Kiran told PTI. Sehgal would be cremated on Friday at 11 a.m. at the Lodhi Road crematorium.
The news was broken in the night by historian Irfan Habib who tweeted, “Just confirmed that Zohra Aapa is no more…”
In another tweet, he said, “Extremely sad to know about d passing away of Zohra Sehgal, a woman who lived a full life on her own terms. Great loss to art and culture. RIP.”
Sehgal started her career as a dancer with Uday Shankar in 1935. She had appeared in many Bollywood films as a character actor as well as in English language films besides television series and plays.
Often called the grand old lady of Bollywood, she last appeared in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Saawariya (with Ranbir Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor) in 2007. She acted in hits like Cheeni Kum (with Amitabh Bachchan), Dil Se (with Shah Rukh Khan and Manisha Koirala), Veer Zaara (Shah Rukh and Preity Zinta), Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai) and Bend It Like Beckham.
Born on April 27, 1912 in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh in a traditional Muslim family, Sehgal, third of her seven siblings, grew up in Chakrata near Dehradun and was sent to Lahore to pursue her higher education.
As a dancer, she performed across Japan, Egypt, Europe and the U.S.. She married scientist, painter and dancer Kameshwar Sehgal in August 1942. The couple had two children, Kiran and Pavan. Kameshwar died in 1952 and Zohra raised the children all by herself.
On her return from foreign trips, Sehgal had to don the burqa while studying in Lahore’s prestigious Queen Mary College, meant for daughters of aristocratic families, an institution where strict purdah was observed and males invited to speak there were put behind a screen.
Considered the doyenne of Indian theatre, Ms. Sehgal acted with Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and Prithviraj Kapoor’s Prithvi Theatre for 14 years. In 1946, she debuted in IPTA’s first film production Dharti Ke Lal, which dealt with the Bengal famine. She also acted in another IPTA film — Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar.
She choreographed for a few Hindi films as well, including classics like Guru Dutt’s Baazi (1951) and the dream sequence song in Raj Kapoor’s film Awaara.
Sehgal moved to London on a drama scholarship in 1962, where she appeared in many TV productions including The Jewel in the Crown, Tandoori Nights, My Beautiful Laundrette and The Raj Quartet.
In 2012, daughter Kiran wrote Sehgal’s biography named Zohra Segal: Fatty. Kiran, herself an Odissi dancer, expressed grief that during her dying days, her mother could not even get the government flat she had asked for.
“She was always so full of life and energy. I am in very different state of mind right now… But, what is more tragic is that during her dying days, she could not even get the government flat she had asked for,” she told PTI.
Rich tributes poured from the film industry, soon after the news of her demise.
“Zohra Sehgal passes away at 102 yrs…What a journey and what an immensely lovable co-star! Prayer for her blessed soul!,” actor Amitabh Bachchan tweeted.
Filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar paid his homage by sharing a vintage picture from the 1940 on Twitter. “Zohra Sehgal, during a stage performance…” he tweeted.
Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Prakash Javadekar too expressed his heartfelt tribute.
“My condolences on the sad demise of the veteran actress Zohra Sehgal. Her legendary contribution in the field of art & cinema will live on,” Javadekar tweeted.
Television producer Siddharth Basu tweeted, “Forever young at heart & in spirit even at 102, the irrepressibly endearing Zohra Sehgal finally belongs to the ages. May she rest in peace.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his tributes said her acting was admired across generations.
“Prolific & full of life, Zohra Sehgal made a mark through her acting which is admired across generations. Saddened on her demise,” he tweeted.