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'She weighs herself everyday'

A few days ago, just before going to bed, Kiran Segal, 67, showed her mother, Zohra Segal, 99, the cover design of her forthcoming biography. It read, ‘Zohra Segal ‘Fatty’. Kiran glanced at her mother, waiting for her reaction. Zohra scowled. “Didn’t you suggest ‘Fatty’ and ‘Hitler’?” she said. “Why did the publishers leave out ‘Hitler’?”


Kiran Segal with her mother, Zohra Segal, in London

Kiran cannot stop chuckling over the phone from Delhi. “That’s Zohra Segal for you,” she says. And she isn’t just referring to Zohra’s love for witticisms and the infectious sense of humour that she’s famous for on screen. “Oh, she loves all the attention. She’ll do anything for it.” On April 27, Zohra Segal will turn 100 and receive the biography as a gift from Kiran, a renowned Odissi dancer. Zohra was born in 1912 in Sharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, and was the third of her seven siblings. She went to a boarding school in Lahore and, after graduation, accompanied her maternal uncle to Germany.

They went by road and Zohra watched wide-eyed as Iran, Palestine, Damascus, Syria, and Egypt unfolded before her eyes. In Germany, Zohra ditched the burkha forever and became the first Indian to study Eurhythmics. She later met Uday Shankar in 1935 and travelled the world as part of his dance troupe. In 1940, she began teaching at Shankar’s school in Almora and later met her future husband, Kameshwar, who she married in August 1942.

Dance, theatre, love, marriage, ambitions, loss and life — it is a long 100 years to put down. “I am no writer, really. I’ve just tried to tell it like it is — like a daughter speaking of her mother, not of Zohra Segal, the senior dancer-actor. The only thing I know, and am comfortable with, is dance,” she admits, at least twice during the interview.


Zohra Segal, says Kiran, always maintains that she was born to act

True, the book’s first few chapters illustrate that it is a casual but earnest attempt written over six years — the result of numerous conversations and candid, late-night chats between the daughter and her mother. Apart from discussing Zohra’s lineage, family and, later, her marriage to Kameshwar, the book contains frank, intimate details on the centenarian.


Zohra Segal at a beach in the 1930s

“People who’ve watched my mother in films like Cheeni Kum know she is a vivacious, boisterous child at heart. But not many, for instance, know how lewd she can get! Say, if someone 80 years younger comes to meet her — she’s perfectly capable of cracking a filthy joke just to shock them out of their wits, stand back and watch the fun,” laughs Kiran. She adds Zohra is aware that all her eccentricities are in the book — how “kanjoos” she is, how averse to criticism she can be, even the fact that she’s self-involved enough to brood all day if, say, no one notices her at a party.


Zohra Segal with Kameshwar Segal whom she married in August 1942

Kiran’s frankness is refreshing and she says she always intended to tell it all. “She’s my mother, and like all daughters, I’ve loved her dearly, laughed at her whims, and even resented her at times,” says Kiran. Zohra has never been a typical mother, she adds. “She was never the khana-parosnewaali mother, not someone who’d see your running nose and rush to wipe it. Instead, she was strict and the sort who’d ask you to do it yourself. She was a complete workaholic and took great pride in it, too,” says Kiran.


Zohra Segal on the way to the US with her sisters, Uday Shankar and their dance troupe

As a child, after the family shifted to Pali Hill in 1945, Kiran says she spent most of her free time at Prithvi Theatre, where Zohra worked as an actor. “I wanted to go play and be like other children of my age, but I couldn’t really help it,” she admits. Then, during the India-China war in 1962, Kiran was a second-year student at Lady Shri Ram College and Zohra was away in Russia for her lectures in dance. She promptly asked Kiran to leave college and join her in Russia to avoid any untoward incident. “I had to leave college, and was quite bitter about it. But, then, that’s a part of the relationship, is it not?”

Kiran lovingly calls Zohra ‘angrez’ (foreigner). “There’s something very westernised about her, and the way she runs her home. We eat in steel thalis, but there’s always a knife, fork, dessert spoon and a soup spoon beside each one.” After her father’s suicide in 1959, she says she has seen her mother break apart and come together, in turns. “So much changed in her life, but we are, like any other mother-daughter duo, together, and that’s what matters.”
Zohra is Kiran’s ‘Fatty’ because of her obsession with her weight. She weighs herself every day and if the scale shows an extra kilo, she promptly tells their cook to eliminate yogurt, butter and lassi from her already controlled diet. “‘Kareena Kapoor ke baad tumhara number nahin aane waala’ is what I repeatedly tell her while she’s on her size-zero spree,” laughs Kiran.

Eagle Eye
Thoughts of my childhood bring back many memories. Ammi could be very strict when needed but, as a child, I could never understand why. When we were in Mumbai and she was employed by Prithvi Theatres as dance-director, she used to take me with her to Opera House in Charni Road — the theatre where the troupe used to rehearse and perform. Opera House still exists. Her ‘eagle eye’ would be on me all the time. She would make me practice with the theatre boys and girls and, if there were no dances to be rehearsed, I had to sit in the auditorium and not budge an inch while the troupe rehearsed.


Zohra Segal with Uday Shankar at the Raja Rani Temple in Odisha

‘Making up’ in those days was quite a journey on one’s face. First the base, which used to be in a tube and had to be initially applied with little dots and then spread till it became an even layer; then the shading, highlighting, then the ‘puff’, which attacked you and you lost yourself in a cloud which you thought you could never come out of and, finally, the water spray and patting every part of your face ‘into place’! Lipstick, eyebrow pencil and mascara were the icing on the cake.

As the ‘foreign woman’ in Deewar, her portrayal used to embarrass me. In the play she wore Western clothes, kept smoking a cigarette and flirting with men. The story was about two brothers who were very close and lived together with their respective wives but are finally separated due to a foreign woman who enters their lives. This leads to their home being broken up by a wall that divides the house into two — reflecting the ‘Partition of India’.

Even now when she is flirting or being naughty with the opposite sex, I cringe; my brother and I really suffer! Had I not been her daughter, I would have also enjoyed her comments, like everyone else. But, being her daughter, I just can’t and very often when she is uttering these embarrassing comments to an interviewer, if I am in the same room, I just walk out.

Ammi joined Prithvi Theatres in October 1945, but she initially started with the theatre as a dance-director. She said that Papaji (Prithvi Raj Kapoor) was so large-hearted that he never said ‘no’ to anybody who wanted to join — she reflected for a while and added, “Except me!” Apparently he had refused my mother when she initially wanted to join his theatre and so she joined as dance director.

She was extremely strict and very good as a teacher. I don’t think anybody ever missed her classes at the theatre. My mother never took any nonsense from anyone and knew how to put the ‘cheeky ones’ in their place. She would start off the class with the body warming exercises which she had learnt under ‘Dada’ (Uday Shankar) and then proceed with the dances—revision or new compositions.

This was also my initial training in dance with her. Some of her other disciples were Ruma Ganguly, who was Kishore Kumar’s first wife; Gopa Lal; Hira; Indumati Lele, who has her own group of dancers now; Kumud (Lele) Shankar, who married Sachin Shankar; Satyanarayan, who became a dance director in Bollywood; Prayagraj Sharma, the famous film scriptwriter and several more who have made a name for themselves.

In any case, all the actors of Prithvi Theatres were students of my mother—even now, whenever Shashi Kapoor meets her, he starts doing all the hand exercises which she taught him! Ammi is also my very first Guru in dance! As a kid I enjoyed dancing but what I did not enjoy was the strict discipline it demanded. Even when I was about eleven or twelve years old, I remember my mother choreographing dances on me when all I wanted to do was to go out and play with my friends.

Whenever I was free from school, she would take me to Prithvi Theatres with her. I participated in all the warming-up exercises and dances with the other theatre artists. She was very, very strict as a teacher! From the Uday Shankar style I went on to Bharatnatyam and finally Odissi. In my teaching it is my mother’s training that has helped me a lot. Over the years I have also created several body exercises, which my disciples learnt and are using in their teaching.

When asked by Sheila Dhar what she enjoyed most in her varied career (during an interview almost twenty years ago), Ammi said, “Teaching. I’d have been a great teacher, I know. Far better than I was a dancer or actress. I realised this when I was a dance-director at Prithvi Theatres. As an actress I have earned much money, prestige, even the love of people. But, I had the advantage of sharing the limelight of others — first Uday Shankar, then Prithviraj. But because of my looks or for some other reason, I lacked star quality. If I had been able to have a school or performing troupe of my own, where I could have taught, I would have been a great person. I’m sure of that.”

Ammi had composed dances to Rabindranath Thakur’s poetry with music by Salil Choudhury. I still remember a couple of tunes. I was supposed to give a solo dance (my very first) to a poem ‘Baul baul, bajaye, bajaye, bajayere, bajayere ek tara…’ Rehearsals were very enjoyable and great fun, but on the day of the show I got stage fright and, when my turn came, I refused to move. My mother, who was standing behind me, felt me clutching her and saying, “Maine nahin jana” (I do not want to go), to which she ordered, “Kaise nahin jana” (How can you not go) and gave me a solid push (or so I thought)! Once on stage, I enjoyed myself thoroughly and have been doing so till today.

Another incident comes to mind that took place in Porbandar, Gujarat, around 1953. Pavan was just a baby and he was also on tour with my mother and me as part of the Prithvi Theatres troupe. We were all sitting in Prithviraj Kapoor’s room one morning and his faithful servant Pyarelal (a boney man with lovely shiny brown skin, huge moustache, banyan [vest] and khaki shorts) brought in Papaji’s chai and placed the tray on his bed where Pavan was crawling.

Everyone was too busy talking and no one noticed Pavan aim for the teapot! Within seconds the boiling tea was on him and he shrieked and shrieked! Huge blisters appeared on his right thigh and leg—the doctor arrived immediately and my mother held on to her baby boy who was howling with pain while the doctor cut open the blisters. I distinctly remember how he cried and with every shriek my heart shrieked as well. Had I been the mother, I would have broken down, but Ammi just held on to him firmly. She held back her pain and tears for the sake of her son. I wonder if so much holding back and control is good. 

Excerpted with permission from Zohra Segal ‘Fatty’, published by Niyogi Books 

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