Zohra Segal (27 April 1912 – 10 July 2014) was an Indian actress, dancer, and choreographer.[1] Segal started her career as a dancer in Uday Shankar's troupe, performing in countries such as the United States and Japan. She went on to appear in numerous Bollywood films as a character actress with a career-span of over 60 years.

The famous films she was part of include Neecha Nagar, Afsar (1946), Bhaji on the Beach (1992), The Mystic Masseur (2001), Bend It Like Beckham (2002), Dil Se.. (1998), Saawariya and Cheeni Kum (2007); and the TV serials The Jewel in the Crown (1984), Tandoori Nights (1985–87) and Amma and Family (1996).[2] At the age of 90, she played the central character in the 2002 film Chalo Ishq Ladaaye. Considered the doyenne of Indian theatre, she acted with the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA) and Prithviraj Kapoor's Prithvi Theatre for 14 years.[3] She has also acted in English-language films such as Bend It Like Beckham.

She was awarded the Padma Shri in 1998,[4] Kalidas Samman in 2001, and in 2004, the Sangeet Natak Akademi. India's National Academy for Music, Dance and Drama presented her with its highest award, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship for lifetime achievement. She received the Padma Vibhushan, India's second-highest civilian honor, in 2010.[5] She died in a New Delhi hospital on 10 July 2014 due to cardiac arrest.[6]

Early life and education

Zohra Segal and Uzra Butt part of the 'Uday Shankar Ballet Troupe', ca 1935–37.

She was born as Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan on 27 April 1912 into a traditional Muslim family in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, India, to Mumtazullah Khan and Natiqua Begum, belonging to a Rohilla Pathan family of Rampur, Uttar Pradesh, India. She was the third of seven children – Zakullah, Hajrah, Ikramullah, Uzra (Uzra Butt), Anna and Sabira – and grew up in Chakrata, now in Uttarakhand (near Dehradun). She was a tomboy fond of climbing trees and playing games. Zohra lost vision in her left eye when she contracted glaucoma at the age of one. She was referred to a hospital in Birmingham where she was treated at a cost of £300.[citation needed]

She lost her mother while still young. In accordance with their mother's wishes, she and her sister were sent to Queen Mary College, Lahore. Strict purdah was observed there and the few males invited to speak did so from behind a screen.[7] As a result of seeing her sister's failed marriage, she decided to pursue a career, rather than get married.[8][9]

Upon graduating, her maternal uncle, Sahebzada Saeeduzzafar Khan, who was based in Edinburgh,[10] arranged for her to apprentice under a British actor. They started from Lahore by car and, en route, crossed Iran and Palestine, before reaching Damascus, Syria, where she met her cousin. Then they traveled into Egypt and caught a boat to Europe in Alexandria.[11]

In Europe, her aunt Dicta took her to try out in Mary Wigman's ballet school in Dresden, Germany. Despite having lived in purdah and never having danced before, she got admission and became the first Indian to study at the institution.[12] 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 backstage to meet Uday Shankar, who promised her a job on her return to India, at the completion of her course.[13]


While still in Europe, she received a telegram from Uday Shankar: "Leaving for Japan tour. Can you join immediately?"[11] 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 Segal, a young scientist, painter and dancer from Indore, eight years her junior, belonging to the Radha Soami sect.

For a while, the couple worked in Uday’s dance institute at Almora. Both became accomplished dancers and choreographers. Kameshwar composed a noted ballet for human puppets and choreographed the ballet Lotus Dance.[14] When it shut down later, they migrated to Lahore in the near western India and set up their own Zohresh Dance Institute. The growing communal tension preceding the Partition of India made them feel unwelcome. 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, as an actress with a monthly salary of Rs 400, and toured every city across India with the group, for the next 14 years.

Also in 1945, soon after her arrival, she joined the leftist theatre group, IPTA, acted in several plays, and made her film debut in IPTA's first film production, directed by Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Dharti Ke Lal in 1946; she followed it up with another IPTA-supported film, Chetan Anand's Neecha Nagar. In the same year, it became the first Indian film to gain critical international recognition and won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.[15][16]

Her involvement remained mostly with the theatre, though she did do a few films in between. During their stay in Bombay, the couple came to know many celebrities, including Ebrahim Alkazi, in whose play Din Ke Andhere, she played "Begum Qudsia"; K.A. Abbas, in whose plays she acted at the IPTA; Chetan and Uma Anand in whose house the couple stayed when they first moved to Bombay, and his brother, Dev Anand. She did the choreography for several Hindi films, including Guru Dutt's Baazi (1951) and the dream sequence song in Raj Kapoor's film Awaara.[17] Kameshwar, on the other hand, became an art director in Hindi films and later tried his hand at film direction.[18]

Zohra Sehgal had been acting on the stage in different parts of India and putting up plays for inmates, including at Ferozepore jail.[11] After staging a play, she stayed on to watch an execution.[citation needed]

After her husband's death 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, and starting in 1963, worked as a teacher in the "Uday Shankar style" of dance at his school in Chelsea, during the short period of its existence.[19] Her first role for British television was in a BBC adaptation of a Kipling story The Rescue of Pluffles, in 1964. She also appeared in four episodes of Doctor Who during 1964-65, all of them, however, are currently lost. She also anchored 26 episodes of BBC TV series, Padosi (Neighbours; 1976–77). Her career in the next almost two decades remained sporadic, despite several small appearances in many films.[1]

In London, Zohra got her first break in films and was signed by Merchant Ivory Productions. She appeared in The Courtesans of Bombay, directed by James Ivory in 1982. This paved the way for an important role as Lady Chatterjee in the television adaptation The Jewel in the Crown (ITV, 1984). Thus started the 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, etc.

Return to India

She returned to India in the mid-1990s and lived for a few months in Burdwan. At that time she acted in several films, plays and TV series. She first performed poetry at a memorial to Uday Shankar organised by his brother, Ravi Shankar in 1983, and soon took it in big way; she started getting invited to perform poetry at various occasions. She even traveled to Pakistan to recite verses for "An Evening With Zohra". Her impromptu performances of Punjabi and Urdu became a norm. After stage performances she was often requested by the audience to recite Hafeez Jullundhri's famous nazm, Abhi To Main Jawan Hoon.[13][20][21]

In 1993, the critically acclaimed play Ek Thi Nani was staged in Lahore for the first time, featuring Zohra and her sister Uzra Butt now staying in Pakistan. A performance in its English version A Granny for All Seasons was held at UCLA in 2001.[22] She became very active in Hindi films in grandmotherly roles in from 1996, with frequent appearances in high budget movies such as Dil Se, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Veer Zara, Saawariya and Cheeni Kum. She was 90, when she did the film Chalo Ishq Ladaye in 2002, where she was the main central character of the film and Govinda played her grandson. The film Ishq Ladaye had her riding a bike and fighting the villains as well. In 2008, at the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF)-Laadli Media Awards in New Delhi, she was named Laadli of the century and the award ceremony was presided by the Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit.[23][24]

In her career she has acted with heroes across generations - Prithviraj Kapoor, Ashok Kumar, Dev Anand, Govinda, Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Ranbir Kapoor. In 2012, she became the longest-living actor to have appeared on Doctor Who, as well as the first centenarian associated with the show. The second is Olaf Pooley, who celebrated his 100th birthday on 13 March 2014.

Personal life

She married Kameshwar Sehgal, a Hindu. There was initial opposition from her parents, but they eventually gave their approval for the union. They married on 14 August 1942. Jawaharlal Nehru was to attend the wedding reception, but he was arrested a couple of days earlier for supporting Gandhi's Quit India Movement.[7]

Zohra and Kameshwar had two children; Kiran Segal and Pavan Sehgal. Pavan Sehgal works for the WHO. Kiran is a highly reputed Odissi dancer.

In 2012, Kiran Segal, her daughter, wrote Zohra's biography titled "Zohra Sehgal: Fatty".


On 9 July 2014 she was admitted to the Max Hospital in South Delhi after being diagnosed with pneumonia.[6] She died on 10 July 2014, aged 102, after suffering cardiac arrest and was cremated on 11 July at Lodhi Road crematorium, Delhi.[25][26]



Year Title
1943 Rahgeer
1946 Dharti Ke Lal
1946 Neecha Nagar
1950 Afsar
1956 Heer
1964 The Indian Tales of Rudyard Kipling
1964–1965 Doctor Who (TV series)
1967 The Long Duel
1967 Theatre 625 (TV series)
1968 The Vengeance of She
1968 The Expert (TV series)
1969 The Guru
1973 The Regiment (TV series)
1973 Tales That Witness Madness
1974 It Ain't Half Hot Mum (TV series)
1978 Mind Your Language (TV series)
1983 The Courtesans of Bombay
1984 The Jewel in the Crown (TV series)
1985 Tandoori Nights (TV series)
1985 Harem
1986 Caravaggio
1987 Partition
1987 Never Say Die
1989 Manika, une vie plus tard
1989 The Bill
1990 Mulla Nasiruddin (TV series)
1991 Masala
1992–1994 Firm Friends (TV series)
1993 Bhaji on the Beach
1994 Little Napoleons (TV series)
1995 Amma and Family (TV series)
1995 Ek Tha Rusty
1997 Tamanna
1998 Not a Nice Man to Know
1998 Dil Se..
1999 Khwaish
1999 Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam
1999 Dillagi
2000 Tera Jadoo Chal Gayaa
2001 Landmark
2001 Zindagi Kitni Khoobsoorat Hai
2001 The Mystic Masseur
2002 Bend It Like Beckham
2002 Anita and Me
2002 Chalo Ishq Ladaaye
2003 Saaya
2004 Kaun Hai Jo Sapno Mein Aaya?
2004 Veer-Zaara
2005 Chicken Tikka Masala
2005 Mistress of Spices
2007 Cheeni Kum
2007. Saawariya



  1. ^ a b Zohra Sehgal profile at screenonline.org.uk
  2. ^ Zohra Sehgal Britannica.com.
  3. ^ "Zohra Sehgal: Naughty in her 90s!", The Times of India, 8 March 2009.
  4. ^ "Padma Awards" (PDF). Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. 2015. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 November 2014. Retrieved 21 July 2015. 
  5. ^ "This Year's Padma Awards announced" (Press release). Ministry of Home Affairs. 25 January 2010. Retrieved 25 January 2010. 
  6. ^ a b "Actress Zohra Sehgal dies at 102 due to Cardiac Arrest". IANS. news.biharprabha.com. Retrieved 10 July 2014. 
  7. ^ a b Zohra Sehgal: The drama of life The Times of India, 24 August 2003.
  8. ^ Zohra Sehgal: ninety years young Daily Times, 8 January 2003.
  9. ^ "Ninety and spunky" Archived 5 December 2008 at the Wayback Machine., The Hindu, 19 December 2002.
  10. ^ He was the first Indian principal of Lucknow Medical College.[citation needed]
  11. ^ a b c "Grandma of GLEE". The Hindu. Chennai, India. 4 December 2003. Retrieved 12 April 2011. 
  12. ^ Kiran Sehgal India's dances: their history, technique, and repertoire, by Reginald Massey. Abhinav Publications, 2004; ISBN 81-7017-434-1 p. 22.
  13. ^ a b "The dashing dadima: Zohra Sehgal", The Times of India, 8 April 2001.
  14. ^ India's dances: their history, technique, and repertoire, by Reginald Massey. Abhinav Publications, 2004. ISBN 81-7017-434-1 p. 225
  15. ^ "Theatre and Activism in the 1940s" (essay by Sehgal), Crossing boundaries, by Geeti Sen. Orient Blackswan. Orient Blackswan, 1998; ISBN 81-250-1341-5. p. 31.
  16. ^ IPTA Encyclopaedia of Hindi cinema, Encyclopædia Britannica (India) Pvt. Ltd, Gulzar, Govind Nihalani, Saibal Chatterjee. Published by Popular Prakashan, 2003; ISBN 81-7991-066-0 pp. 63–64.
  17. ^ Baazi University of Iowa.
  18. ^ Kameshwar Sehgal on IMDb
  19. ^ South Asian dance: the British experience, by Alessandra Iyer. Published by Taylor & Francis, 1997. ISBN 90-5702-043-2 p. 26.
  20. ^ "I saw Zohra Segal...", The Telegraph, 3 April 2004.
  21. ^ "Real life drama: Ek Thi Nani" The Hindu, 14 November 2004.
  22. ^ 15 November 2001: Performance Reading of "A Granny for All Seasons" Archived 5 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine. UCLA.
  23. ^ "Zohra Sehgal is ‘Ladli of the Century’", The Hindu, 16 May 2008.
  24. ^ Zohra lives with her daughter Kiran who is a highly reputed Odissi dancer.... The Telegraph, 23 December 2006.
  25. ^ Notice of death of Sehgal, ndtv.com; accessed 13 July 2014.
  26. ^ "Zohra Sehgal Dies at 102" India Today, 10 July 2014.
  27. ^ Official list of awardees – Drama – Acting the Sangeet Natak Akademi Official website.
  28. ^ Padma Awards- theatre personality Zohra Sehgal and... Rediff.com, 27 January 1998.
  29. ^ a b "Padma Awards Directory (1954–2013)" (PDF). Ministry of Home Affairs. Archived from the original (PDF) on 15 November 2014. 

Further reading

External links