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Real life drama

The play may have been uneven, but Zohra Sehgal's performance in "Ek Thi Naani" made this year's Prithvi Festival an unforgettable experience, writes UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA.


Riveting performances by Zohra Sehgal (rIght) and Uzra Butt (left).

ZOHRA SEHGAL, at 92, is truly a classic of the Indian screen and stage. It is always such pure pleasure to see Sehgal perform, usually on screen ("Bhaji on the Beach", "The Mystic Masseur", "Anita and Me", "Bend It Like Beckham", "Dil Se", "K3G", "Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam", and a score of other films, good and bad, that are brightened by her sheer presence) that to see her on stage is a rare delight.

For not only is she immensely talented as a performer, she is also matchless in her energy and vivaciousness. Sehgal and her 87-year-old sister Uzra Butt returned to the Prithvi stage together this year, after decades, on November 3, the birth anniversary of Prithviraj Kapoor. Seeing them performing together in "Ek Thi Nani" has been one of the highlights of this year's Prithvi Festival.

Great theatre

At the close of the performance, approaching midnight, the Prithvi audience — a star-studded full house — was aware that what they had witnessed that evening was not only great theatre but also real-life drama, and an experience to be cherished.

The play tells the story of two sisters — one who emigrated to Pakistan, the other who stayed on in India to dedicate her life to her career in acting and dance. The story loosely follows the real-life thread of the two sisters' lives; and in doing so it follows, in some ways, the destinies of the two nations.

Another conflict, and the difficulty of having to make a choice once again, is presented when their young granddaughter Sabeen is offered a role in a television programme.

While one grandmother (played by Uzra Butt) strongly opposes Sabeen's taking up the offer, banning music and dance in their house, the other grandmother (played by Zohra Sehgal) urges Sabeen to express her creativity. The conflict is not merely about the space allowed to women in a conventional society. It is also about confronting the past — and making personal decisions, today, that are informed by an understanding of one's past.

Shahid Nadeem's play, however, is uneven, and some of the performances more so; but there are two performances that make the play an unforgettable experience. One is that of Uzra Butt, with her finely-nuanced portrayal of the woman who, when she moved from India to Pakistan, left behind not only her acting career but also a part of her past.

The other performance, of course, is that of the superb Zohra Sehgal. Ah, but she's amazing! Her every action is infused with her own sheer delight in performance. In "Ek Thi Nani", too, Sehgal brings the stage to life with her presence — so much so that every time she leaves the stage, we wait impatiently for her to return. Every time she laughs (and how much, how delightfully she laughs), we laugh; every time her voice chokes with emotion, we share the depth of her feeling.

As she tells her granddaughter about the magic of the performing arts, we see that magic reflected once again in her ageless face. When she depicts each individual emotion while teaching Sabeen to dance, the audience holds its breath.

Century on stage

Born in 1912 at Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, Zohra Sehgal has lived an entire century on stage and screen. Much before Independence, she was an actress and dancer trained at Dresden before she began her long association with the Uday Shankar Ballet Company, Prithvi Theatre and the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), touring innumerable cities to give performances. After several years in England, she returned to India to settle in Delhi.

The lovely Uzra Butt, born five years after Zohra, is 87. She began her stage career with the Uday Shankar Ballet company in 1937 and went on to become the leading light of the Prithvi stage in the 1940s and 1950s, before moving to Pakistan in 1964.

When Sehgal and Butt first performed "Ek Thi Nani" together in 1993, in Lahore, it was the first time they were appearing on a stage together after four decades. The director's note to the play tells us that the playwright Shahid Nadeem was himself born in Sopore, Kashmir, and migrated as a child. The Lahore-based Ajoka Theatre is celebrating 20 years of its existence with a revival of this play. Samiya Mumtaz, the Lahore-based grandniece of Sehgal and Butt, plays the role of Sabeen.


Graciously acknowledging the standing ovation that her performance received at Prithvi ("What a theatre! What an audience! And it's all the more special today because it's Papaji's — Prithviraj Kapoor's — birthday!") Sehgal looked not in the least tired; and when a member of the audience called out with a request, "Apa, Abhi to Main Jawaan Hoon!" she promptly sat down again, took the lozenge out of her mouth and obliged.

An inspired recitation, entirely from memory, with perfect diction and stunning spirit, of the Hafeez Jalandhari nazm that became synonymous with Malka Pukhraj:

"Hawaa bhi khushagawaar hai/gulon pe bhi nikhaar hai/tarannumein hazaar hai/bahaar purbahaar hai..."

And as the poem drew to a close: "Abhi to main jawaan hoon" — Zohra smiled, and hid her face behind Uzra. A breathtaking performance.

"Ek Thi Nani" presented by Ajoka Theatre, written by Sahid Nadeem and directed by Madeeha Gauharwas performed at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai November 3 and 4, 2004.

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