Zohra Sehgal

Reginald Massey

Zohra Sehgal in Bhaji on the Beach, 1993; she was one of the first Indian actresses to achieve an international profile. Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

Zohra Sehgal, who has died aged 102, was one of the first female Indian actors to achieve a truly international profile, with roles in the films Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and Bhaji on the Beach (1993). Typically in her later years she played the part of a traditional south Asian woman struggling to come to terms with the pressures of living in a modern, alien culture as her children and grandchildren increasingly abandon the old ways. She also appeared in a number of TV series, including The Jewel in the Crown (1984) and Dr Who (1964-65), and her Bollywood output was prolific well into her 90s.

Zohra arrived in the UK in 1962, to take up a British Drama League scholarship. After working as a dresser at the Old Vic and playing bit parts in the theatre, she became the face of the BBC's early attempts at multiculturalism, presenting programmes aimed at new migrants and appearing in the 1977 serial Padosi (Neighbours). This led to roles in Courtesans of Bombay (1983), a docudrama directed by Ismail Merchant, but it was The Jewel in the Crown that brought her wider recognition, and made her a reliable feature of many subsequent British Asian productions, including Channel 4's first Asian comedy series, Tandoori Nights (1985-87). She was in her 80s by the time she moved back to India, but went on to appear in a string of films, culminating in Cheeni Kum (2007), in which she played the mother of the Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan.

She defied expectations throughout her life: a career in show business was not the conventional choice for a girl from an aristocratic Muslim family in Saharanpur, northern India. Born Sahibzadi Zohra Begum Mumtaz-ullah Khan, she was one of seven siblings; her mother died when she was young and her father rather spoiled her. She first encountered art and culture at Queen Mary College, Lahore, where strict British schoolmistresses educated the daughters of the Indian upper classes.

Having resolved to become a dancer and actor, she managed to get to Germany in 1933, where she studied under the dance pioneer Mary Wigman. She later toured several countries with the dancer Uday Shankar, elder brother of Ravi Shankar, who was then a small-part dancer in his company.

She met her husband, the painter Kameshwar Sehgal, in an arts centre founded by Uday Shankar in the Himalayan foothills. Again, it was an unconventional choice: Kameshwar was eight years younger than Zohra and he was a Hindu. They married, in the face of considerable opposition, in 1942.

The couple started a dance school in Lahore, but the tensions over their marriage forced them to move to Bombay, which was then a comparatively liberal city. They joined the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), which consisted of progressive and secular intellectuals, poets, writers, film-makers, actors and artists. Most of the country's leftwing luminaries were active IPTA members.

In 1946, Zohra appeared in Dharti Ke Lal (Children of the Earth), a film about the Bengal famine of 1943 that formed part of a new wave of socially engaged Indian cinema. The same year, she featured in Neecha Nagar (The Lowly City), a groundbreaking social realist film, Indian cinema's first international critical success and winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes film festival. The atmospheric soundtrack of both films was provided by Ravi Shankar.

After partition in 1947, Zohra, as a leading lady of Prithvi theatre (run by Prithviraj Kapoor), toured the country performing plays advocating communal harmony. In 1959, tragedy struck when Kameshwar took his own life, leaving her to bring up their two young children. Three years later, she took up the British Drama League scholarship and they went to London.

It may have been her regular yoga exercises and absolute discipline in matters of eating and sleeping that gave Sehgal the energy of a woman less than half her age. When I asked her in early 2013 what she had enjoyed most in life, her eyes lit up. "Sex! Sex! And more sex!" she declared.

Padma Vibhushan title in 2010. She is survived by her dancer-choreographer daughter, Kiran; her son, Pavan; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

Zohra Sehgal, actor, dancer and choreographer, born 27 April 1912; died 10 July 2014

courtesy : "The Guardian", Tuesday 22 July 2014 

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Sketches

The woman behind the Mahatma

Shail Raghuvanshi

Kasturba Mohandas Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation needs no introduction. That he worked hard to transform himself from Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to the Mahatma, everyone knows. That he fought hard to help India and its citizens to get their deserved freedom is also well known. Though, how much of it is appreciated today I am not very sure. What few know or even bother to remember is the person behind the Mahatma's success. Yes, indeed. I am referring to Kasturba Gandhi, the simple, unassuming wife of the Mahatma.

Born Kastur Kapadia in Porbabdar, she became Kastur Ba after marrying Gandhiji. She bore him four sons - Harilal, Manilal, Ramdas, and Devdas. History offers proof of the sacrifices that this woman made to enable the Mahatma to work towards procuring freedom for India. Adjusting to a new way of life, giving up the little pleasures that every married woman desires, letting go of dreams that any girl has of wedded life - this and a lot more did Kasturba do, just to let her husband lay a foundation for the task that lay ahead of him. Kasturba let the revolution that ushered in independence usurp her dreams and desires. Not an easy thing to do. Understanding the power of sacrifice for a noble cause is something that requires a lot of self-introspection which most people do not have. But do we remember Kasturba for all that she did?

In many ways, Kasturba’s relationship with Gandhiji was like any other wife in most Indian homes. Most of the time, the man-woman equation is unequal, particularly so for Kasturba and Gandhiji as they were married in an age when equality of rights in an Indian marriage was something unheard of. Arun Gandhi, the grandson of Kasturba and Mahatma Gandhi, says in his book, Kasturba: A Life, “The story of my grandmother’s life is simply this: while Mohandas experimented with truth, Kasturba experienced it.”

Of course, this certainly does not belittle all that Gandhiji did for us. Even today, I credit my freedom to him and will always do. I am only trying to see another aspect into the Gandhiji saga. Kasturba is said to have always been caring and ever helpful. More than anything else, she was always patient with her husband. Having been forced to do without a lot of amenities, she did not permit her husband’s power with the masses to go to her head. Again, something very difficult to do, as pride in a husband’s power and fame is very normal for any woman. Poverty and celibacy were ways of life she willed herself to accept - tough decisions to make. So many times, in our hurry to acquire and maintain a career, so many times in our obsession to live the lives of liberated women, we tend to disregard qualities that define a woman. Yes! They are love and sacrifice. I know! I know! You might rightfully ask me as to why sacrifices need to be made by women alone. Men can make them too! True! But, we cannot generalize in today's world. Not all men are selfish. So many men make sacrifices we never get to hear about. Many men today are volunteering to care and help around in the house. But it is a fact that, even today, women are expected to be loving, to run the household, work outside, take care of the needs of their families and still retain their ‘femininity.’ It is a man’s world still.

It is an unfair society, agreed, but becoming bitter about it will definitely get us nowhere. Nor will getting lost in the tug-of-war of egos get us anywhere! Again, you might question the oft-repeated statement, "Behind every successful man there is a woman..."

“Why be the woman behind the successful man?” you may ask.

“Why not be the successful woman before the man instead?”

It certainly is a question for our times, considering the current environment where women contribute significantly in almost every field that was earlier considered to be a male domain. But what most women tend to conveniently forget now-a-days is that success need not be measured by a career and a ‘high funda’ lifestyle. No success is victory if it forces you to compromise on all those values you hold dear, like relationships and the joys of a family. At the far end of your life, when you have become old and need to depend on others for physical and emotional requirements, will our families and friends be there for us? Were WE there when they needed us the most? Did we take time out (from our busy and successful lives) to share their joys and woes? Or did we say, “Not now, later. Can’t you see I am busy?” Sadly, we were busy getting further and further away from the love that we need the most.

There are many women today who maintain a wonderful balance between work/job and home. They make time for themselves and for their loved ones. Life for them is not a race to prove their identities. Instead, they journey through life experiencing every moment for what it is and not for what it should be.

Women like Kasturba Gandhi often go unnoticed because of their beautiful humility. Arun Gandhi says, “Kasturba Gandhi spent virtually her entire life with the daily all encompassing reality of Mahatma Gandhi’s search for Truth.” Women like these are the ones who make a house a home. Housewives by choice or by circumstance, they live their lives to the fullest, forsaking those little desires they once thought important. They are successful women in their own right, just as much as those working women who believe in themselves and in the right to be happy without trampling on the feelings of their loved ones.

Kasturba was died on February 22, 1944. As we remember Mahatma Gandhi, the successful man, let us salute Kasturba - the successful woman behind the successful man!

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Sketches