The Performer, the Person, and the Times She Lived In
Nadeem Shah
ZOHRA! A BIOGRAPHY IN FOUR ACTS by Ritu Menon Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2021, 272 pp., 599.00
March 2022, volume 46, No 3

It is not easy to pen down in a book the journey of a multifaceted personality who spanned a century of the performing arts in India and Europe, with accomplishments in dance, theatre, film and television. The author of the biography Zohra! A Biography in Four Acts, Ritu Menon, acknowledges this challenge right in the beginning and articulates in the preface the locus of the book: ‘For Zohra, I thought I could situate her remarkable life and the choices she made in the equally significant and transformative junctures she found, or placed herself in, whether in Dresden or Almora, Lahore or Bombay, London or Delhi. A great churning in the arts was taking place in all of them and she, having lived for a hundred years, witnessed, partook of, and wholeheartedly participated in it.’ In the process, what we have is a cultural landscaping of the Indian subcontinent and Europe through a phenomenal telling of Zohra Sehgal’s life story.

As a historian and practising Dastango, I particularly enjoyed how the author has merged life histories with the histories that were shaping up in the realm of performing arts for people in and from India and South Asia: How the arts were diversifying—the methods and techniques that allowed this diversification, how various voices and movements were finding a foothold in the cultural space, who the supporters were and how funds were arranged to accommodate the practice and culture of the non-traditional, and how all of this has been captured with Zohra as the standpoint. This book also provides crucial sociological insights by addressing Zohra’s family, lineage and upbringing thereby dispelling stereotypical notions about women from elite Muslim families in pre- and post-Independent India.

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