Birthday: April 27, 1912
Sun Sign: Taurus
Also Known As: Zohra Mumtaz Segal, Sahibzadi Zohra Mumtazullah Khan Begum
Born Country: India
Born in: Saharanpur, United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, British India
Famous as: Actress
Spouse/Ex-: Kameshwar Nath Segal
father: Mumtazullah Khan
mother: Natiqua Begum
children: Anna Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan, Hajrah Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan, Ikramullah Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan, Sabira Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan, Uzra Butt, Zakullah Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan
Died on: July 10, 2014
place of death: New Delhi, India
Cause of Death: Heart Attack
education: Queen Mary College - Lahore, Queen Mary's Girls College - Lahore, Mary Wigman’s Ballet School
Who was Zohra Sehgal?
Zohra Sehgal was an Indian actor, choreographer, and dancer, best known for starring in numerous Indian and British films during her long and illustrious career. She was born in Rampur, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. She hailed from a family of Rohilla Pathan Muslims. She was the third of the seven children in the family. Her parents were affluent. When she contracted glaucoma in one eye at the age of 1, she was treated in the U.K. Upon graduating from ‘Queen Mary College,’ Lahore, she joined a ballet school in Dresden, Germany, and learned modern dancing. She met Uday Shankar in Europe. He promised to work with her back in India. In the mid-1930s, she joined Uday’s troupe and performed in Japan, Europe, Egypt, and many other places. In the mid-1940s, she began doing theater with ‘IPTA’ back in India, and in 1946, she made her film debut with the movie ‘Dharti ke Lal.’ Since then, she has appeared in many Indian (Hindi) and British films. Some of her most popular Hindi films are ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam,’ ‘Veer-Zara,’ and ‘Saawariya.’ She was honored with a ‘Padma Shri Award’ by the Indian government in 1998 and was adorned with many more honors in her lifetime.
Childhood & Early Life
Zohra Sehgal was born Zohra Mumtazullah Khan Begum, in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, on April 27, 1912, to Mumtazullah Khan and Natiqua Begum. Hers was a big family with seven children, and she was the third child of her parents. Soon after she was born, the family moved to Chakrata (part of modern-day Uttarakhand). She was raised in a highly conservative environment, as she belonged to a Rohilla Pathan Muslim family.
She contracted glaucoma and lost vision in one eye when she was 1 year old. Following this, she was taken to Birmingham, England, where she was treated successfully.
She was quite unlike other girls of her age back then. She grew up as a “tomboy” who played with boys and climbed trees. She lost her mother when she was still quite young. Her mother wanted all her daughters to study. Thus, Zohra joined ‘Queen Mary College’ in Lahore after graduating high school.
She was also pressurized to get married in her early 20s. However, since she had seen how her sister’s marriage had crumbled, she decided to go against the prevalent norms and refused to marry young. By then, she had started becoming interested in performing arts.
Soon, one of her uncles, who lived and worked in Edinburgh, invited Zohra over and arranged an acting tutor for her. She thus moved to Europe and joined acting classes. However, one of her aunts, Dicta, got her enrolled into dancing classes at Mary Wigman’s ballet school, located in Dresden, Germany.
Zohra became the first Indian to learn dance at the school. Soon, she perfected ballet and modern dance and emerged as a great dancer. She began performing on stage in different parts of Europe.
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While staying in Europe, she came across a ballet show named ‘Shiv-Parvati’ by ace Indian choreographer Uday Shankar. She became Uday’s fan immediately and met him backstage. It was a life-altering meeting for her, as Uday promised her that he would work with her once she completed her dance training.
Sometime later, Uday got an opportunity to perform in Japan, and he invited Zohra to be part of his dance troupe. She accepted the offer, and it was the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration. In the mid-1930s, Zohra danced with Uday’s troupe across nations and continents, in Japan, Egypt, and the US. Soon, she became the lead dancer in the troupe.
Uday returned to India in 1940, and Zohra accompanied him. She began working as a dance teacher at the ‘Uday Shankar India Cultural Center’ in Almora.
A few years later, she migrated to Lahore with her husband and set up her own dance institute, the ‘Zohresh Dance Institute.’ However, political and communal turmoil was rampant in India back then, and Hindu–Muslim couples were not entertained. They thus returned to Bombay.
Her older sister worked with the famous ‘Prithvi Theatre’ in Mumbai. Zohra joined the same theater group as an actor. She then participated in many theatrical plays across the country.
She was a leftist by ideology. Thus, in 1945, she left ‘Prithvi Theatre’ and joined a leftist theater group named ‘IPTA.’ She did many plays with them on stage. She also began the next phase of her career with them and ventured into films.
She made her full-fledged film debut in 1946, with the film ‘Dharti ke Lal.’ The film starred Balraj Sahni in the lead role and was based on the Bengal famine of 1943. The film was appreciated by critics for its realism. It was also one of the first films that marked the arrival of the Indian “new wave” cinema.
The same year, Zohra appeared in yet another film, ‘Neecha Nagar.’ It was another realistic drama. The film turned out to be vastly successful both critically and commercially and won the ‘Palme D’Or Award’ at the ‘Cannes Film Festival.’ It is still regarded as one of the most important Hindi films of all time.
She mostly played supporting roles in these commercially and critically acclaimed films. These were also the first few Indian films in history that received international critical acclaim. Despite her success in these films, Zohra mostly did theatrical plays over the next few decades.
Her husband passed away in 1959. Following this, she moved to Delhi, to start her own dance academy, the ‘Natya Academy.’ Apart from acting, she also choreographed songs in many films, such as Raj Kapoor’s ‘Awaara’ and Guru Dutt’s ‘Baazi.’
Her international reputation was also soaring with the international acclaim she received for her films. In the 1960s, she moved to the U.K. and appeared in two Western TV series: ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘The Indian Tales of Rudyard Kipling.’
Toward the late 1960s, she appeared in British films such as ‘The Long Duel’ and ‘The Vengeance of She.’ As she received more offers to star in English films, she appeared in movies such as ‘The Courtesans of Bombay’ and ‘Tales that Witness Madness.’
In the 1990s, she returned to India and began working in Hindi films. She appeared in many popular films such as ‘Dil Se..,’ ‘Dillagi,’ and ‘Veer-Zara.’ The 2007 film ‘Saawariya’ was her last film as an actor.
In 1998, she was awarded the highest Indian civilian honor, the ‘Padma Shri.’ In addition, she had also been a recipient of honors such as the ‘Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship’ and the ‘Padma Vibhushan.’
Personal Life & Death
Zohra Sehgal was married to Indian dancer, choreographer, and scientist Kameshwar Segal. The couple had two children together. They remained together until his death in 1959. Zohra never remarried.
She passed away due to cardiac arrest on July 10, 2014, in New Delhi. She was 102 years old at the time of her death.