The India Habitat Centre’s Stein Auditorium, which can easily accommodate more than 200 people, is almost empty. The auditorium is lit by two floodlights, but the light cast by them is dim, even dull. An eerie listlessness hangs in the air. A few attendees aimlessly exchange pleasantries in the aisle — a lot of people seem to know each other here, and it’s only natural, you presume: the event has been held to commemorate the life of Zohra Sehgal, and it’s attended by her friends, family members and co-artists. This bonhomie of the select few makes you feel as if you have unwittingly — and publically — intruded a private space.
Moments later, Sohail Hashmi, the founding member of the theatre group Sahmat, goes up to the stage to kick-start the evening, “Yeh ajeeb sa humara desh hai. Woh khaaton jisne apne zindagi ko itne josh se 100 saalon se zada jiya, unko yaad karne ke liye kam se kam 100 log toh yahan hone chahiye the (Ours is a strange country. The woman who lived her life with so much vigour for more than 100 years deserved at least 100 people to commemorate her.)” The stillness of the already pervading silence acquires a form with this introduction. Soon, the ineffectual lights in the auditorium fade away, and it now remains partially lit by a flickering light from a screen in front of us; in about a minute, the screen is at its brightest when Zohra Sehgal first appears on it, wearing a radiant white churidar, talking about her times when she was Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan.
A 25-minute documentary on her life, made by Anwar Jamal, shows her confiding in us, with a gleam in her eye, that as a young, resolutely religious girl in Lahore, her prayers invariably materialised with one wish: “Allah, mujhe vilayat bhej de (lord, please send me abroad).” She didn’t know why; it was a typical adolescent dream — shorn of a real reason. It didn’t take long for her wish to be fulfilled: at the age of eighteen, in 1930, she enrolled at Mary Wigman’s ballet school in Dresden, Germany to study modern dance and, a few years later, travelled around the world as a leading dancer in Uday Shankar’s (an iconic Indian dancer and cinematographer) troupe. After spending the next two decades in India, she found herself in “vilayat” again. However, this time, it did indeed appear foreign to her. A lot had happened between then and now: her husband had committed suicide three years ago; she had heard that China could invade India in the then ongoing war, and feared for her kids’ future, who were back in India. Moreover, Sehgal’s fourteen years of acting experience in the renowned India People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in Bombay amounted to nothing in London; she was just another anonymous actor in the city struggling for bit-part roles. Barring Sehgal speaking on the screen, the auditorium is uncomfortably silent; this is not the Sehgal we know. And then she shatters our silence with this: “Mujhe aur bhi problem ho rahi thi kyunki na toh mera figure koi sexy hai ya kuch (My problems had multiplied because it wasn’t as if I were particularly sexy).” The audience instantly bursts into a chuckle. How can it not? In just one line, she endearingly crushes our notions about old age, sexuality and demonstrates the true power of humour. And it’s this facet of hers that’s mentioned a lot during the course of the evening — her “wicked sense of humour”.
People often resort to easy, schmaltzy clichés while talking about the deceased, in the process conveniently glossing over a person’s weakness or anything else that veers from the popular narrative — these trite adjectives make us feel good because they take comfort in the familiar, but can they ever be a true, honest estimation of someone? Shouldn’t we remember someone in entirety — celebrating both their flaws and virtues? Because by doing that, we don’t reduce them to a bunch of lazy labels, depriving them of their quirks that underscore their selves. The essence of someone’s life doesn’t appear in newsreels on television or in obituary pieces in newspapers (and one can perhaps understand why, those mediums and their intent are different); it comes out in intimate reminiscences like these. Saleema Raza, Zohra Sehgal’s niece, lets us in that facet of Sehgal’s life when things weren’t exactly smooth for her: “Her husband was a brilliant man. He was a lot of things — scientist, dancer, painter, homeopathic doctor — but he wasn’t exactly a dependable husband or parent. Ammi was left on her own after his death,” she says. “She was in London trying to earn a living for herself, and she did all kinds of work to raise her family — she worked at the India Tea House, put costumes on the second leads in a theatre group, even sewed curtains in a factory, living on bakshish (tips). And this is the same Zohra Sehgal who belonged to the family of nawaabs, toured with kings and Presidents, and had been a leading lady in plays back in India.” There’s one Zohra-Sehgal-story we all know — one whose protagonist is the endearingly wicked doyen of the Indian theatre. But here’s another: of a privileged past bowing before the penurious present; of coming to terms with ones’ anonymity. It’s also about safeguarding your own self: “Once she went to a doctor to get her knee replaced. She was 92 then,” says Raza. “The doctor wondered aloud why, at this age, she wanted a knee replacement. She said: ‘an actor wants two things more than any other — a perfect entry, and a perfect exit. I want to make sure you give me a perfect exit.'” And, of subverting the meaning of reverence, and finding humour in the mundane: “Once she ordered two double vodkas at a party, and came out of it, sufficiently drunk, her feet tumbling,” remembers Raza. “She told me, ‘see these people. They are thinking that finally budhiya‘s feet are shaking due to old age.’ They don’t know that I am on two double vodkas.”
“You are seeing her as an actress; you are seeing her reciting poetry [in the documentary]; you are seeing her zindadilli (feistiness), but there’s also another side to her,” says Kiran Sehgal about her mother. If we saw Zohra Sehgal acting on screen, Kiran watched her do the same without a camera around. “When she snapped at me for something, I would refuse to talk to her. And then the actress in her came out — she would say nice things about me, my clothes. I knew she was acting, and I always used to tell her, ‘tum acting karna band kab karogi (when will you stop acting)? Why can’t you talk to me normally?'” When it comes to actors, there will always be a gulf between the real person and the reel persona; in fact, it’s this very dichotomy that makes them fascinating. We can only hope to know them. Kiran continues, “She was also very forthright, to the point of being rude. Once, after a performance, someone told her, ‘Oh! So you are Zohra Sehgal? I am such a big fan of yours’, and gently pulled her cheek. She slapped him, and said: ‘Don’t you have any manners?'”
Anecdotes are like snapshots: they freeze a moment of time; they only tell us how we were at a particular moment. For a woman who lived more than 100 years, no amount of anecdotes can distil her life. Just like the different times she lived in, she was perhaps different Zohra Sehgals at various stages of her life. But if there was one thing that the evening held to commemorate her unequivocally communicated, it was this: she was very particular about her place in our conscience. At one point in the documentary, she says: “I noticed my biography was ending on a downbeat note (one that was supposed to be written on her, chronicling her life till 1990). I had gotten so much love from our people that I decided it couldn’t have ended then.” Two years ago, her official biography, Zohra Sehgal: Fatty, written by Kiran Sehgal, hit the bookstores.
The event is about to wind up; the intensity of the flood lights hasn’t changed, but quite inexplicably, the auditorium appears much brighter now. It is also more than half full. Kiran has one final anecdote to share: “One day she was slowly climbing up the stairs of our duplex, and I was quietly looking at her. This is two years ago — she was nearing 100. In the middle of the flight, she turned back, and said: ‘Kya dekh rahi ho (What are you looking at)?’ I said, ‘Yunhi, aap ko dekh rahi hun chadhte hue (Nothing, I am just looking at you climb the stairs).’ She replied: ‘Do you know you are looking at history’?”
Originally published at The Sunday Guardian