Zohra Segal's Shankar-Style Choreography in Neecha Nagar (Hindi, 1946)

Saturday, February 8, 2014
For some time the only thing I knew about Zohra Segal was that she was an adorable elderly woman who had small roles in a lot of recent Hindi films. Then I learned that Zohra's life has been one of path-breaking excitement! From her burqa-clad beginnings in an orthodox Muslim family, she moved from one adventure to the next: training in Mary Wigman's famous modern dance school in Germany, dancing as a core member of Uday Shankar's troupe, marrying the Hindu Kameshwar Segal (aka Sehgal, Seghal, Saigal), choreographing dances for films and theatre, and finally acting, her greatest love, first on the stage with Prithviraj Kapoor's company and the IPTA and then later on the silver screen and television series such as The Jewel in the Crown.

Zohra w/ Ravi Shankar, Paris, 1937 (source)
Zohra's dance background and involvement with Uday Shankar's artistic legacy is fascinating and helps fill in some gaps in the data. After Shankar's wild success with Simkie in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he returned to India and added more Indians to his troupe including Zohra who became as prominent a dancer as Simkie. The period was fruitful with significant choreographies, touring, and finally the opening of Shankar's dance school in Almora in the late 1930s. Zohra's teaching and organizational skills learned in Germany proved influential in her role as the Almora school's main teacher and creator of the institution's syllabus [3]. But in the mid-1940s, Shankar's desire to devote all his energies towards making a dance film caused conflict with the long-time members like Simkie and Zohra [1]. Around this time Zohra left the dance school with fellow Almora dancer Kameshwar Segal whom she had married [3]. Due to internal conflict as well as external factors, the Almora dance school abruptly closed in 1944 and Shankar moved to Madras to begin making his dream production, Kalpana. 

After leaving Shankar's school and starting a short-lived Zohresh Dance Institute in Lahore, Zohra and her husband moved to Bombay and she choreographed for a small number of Hindi films. What inspired this post was my realization that Zohra was among a number of former associates of Uday Shankar who propagated his dance style in films. V.A.K. Ranga Rao, who considers Uday Shankar and the 1948 film Chandralekha as the two biggest influences on the development of dance in Indian cinema, notes that the students and employees of Shankar's Almora center "received the kind of allround training that was unthought of in [the] Indian dance world till then." Dancers like "Narendra Sharma, Sachin Shankar, Mohan Segal, Shanti Bardhan, Guru Dutt, Lakshmi Shankar and the couple Zohra and Kameshwar Segal who worked and learnt from him then in those halcyon days in Almora, became independent choreographers and most of them worked for films [spreading] the Uday Shankar turn of limb, taste of aesthetics around" not only in choreography but also in "make-up, costume, music, lighting, staging and showmanship."

Neecha Nagar credits
But Zohra is special because she showcased the Uday Shankar dance style in film two years before Kalpana was released. The film was Neecha Nagar (1946, Hindi), and her contribution was two beautiful dances (a "twin" and "trio" dance) with graceful side sways, undulations, arm positions, and hand gestures that look directly inspired by the Uday Shankar style as evidenced from extant footage of KalpanaCould it be that Neecha Nagar is the earliest instance of Shankar's dance style in Indian cinema? And also an early example of the "twin dance" style? Take a look (and the woman seen resting her face on her hand? That's Zohra herself!):

Starts 2:44

Starts 4:53

Neecha Nagar is significant as the only Indian film to have won the highest award at the Cannes Film Festival (and nearly 10 years before Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali won a lesser prize at Cannes), although the opening title cards note that the dances were removed in the print sent to Cannes. Unfortunately the full print (with the dances) released in India was not a commercial success, and as Uday Bhatia notes in his excellent article, the "forgotten masterpiece" is hardly known "outside of academic circles" and "remains little more than a trivia question in the land of its origin."

Finding information about Zohra's choreography in films is difficult. In her memoir, she only talks about her film work in a general paragraph of disgust at the "debasement of art" she was asked to do in her film roles. Pages and pages are dedicated to her time at Prithvi Theatres and her association with the highly-influential Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA). What is perplexing is that she mentions the 1946 film Dharti ke Lal made entirely by IPTA members, but she does not mention Neecha Nagar released that same year which was not only also produced by the IPTA [2] but also contained her acting and dance choreography!

The best sources of information about Zohra's dance direction in films are C.S. Lakshmi's 2000 book Conversations with Women Dancers and daughter Kiran Segal's book about Zohra, Fatty. C.S. Lakshmi thoroughly interviewed Zohra about her dance background despite Zohra's surprise (exclaiming "of my fifty-five years in show biz, I have really been a professional dancer only at the beginning"). Here are some excerpts:
[Zohra] As the Zohresh Dance Institute in Lahore drew to a close,"...this beautiful sister of mine, Uzra Butt, who was already Prithviraj's leading lady contacted me at this time. Prithviraj Kapoor had just started a theatre, a year earlier. And my sister wrote and said, 'Why don't you come to Bombay and try your luck here, in films?' So, both my husband and I went to Bombay to try our luck as dancers. But the films there were so awful. The type of things I was expected to do--in one, the director came and said, 'Look there is a big bowl of roses and you come out of it in a bathing costume.' (Laughter) Uday Shankar's training was such that even parts of our body, our stomach or midriff, could not be seen. We had always worn churidar-pyjamas under our skirts. We didn't always cover the head. It depended on the type of dance, but his approach was very, very proper."
[C.S. Lakshmi] "For how many films did you do dance direction?"
[Zohra] "Well, not very many, about nine or ten in all. Baazi became a hit. Also for Nau Do Gyarah, C.I.D., Faraar, not this recent Faraar but another. Faraar made with Ashok Kumar, and Heer Ranjha. I have forgotten. It was so long ago."
[C.S. Lakshmi] "What was your experience of being a dance director in the male-dominated film world?"
[Zohra] "I didn't really like it. Not so much because it was male-dominated but because you had to, more or less, cater to what the director wanted except perhaps for Guru Dutt's films like Baazi. He had been my pupil in Almora when I was teaching. So he knew the technique of Uday Shankar and he liked it. That's why he asked me to come. So, I had no problem with him because he knew my style and he let me do whatever I wanted. But with other directors, you know, they had their own emphasis on the box-office and sex and it went against my grain and my upbringing..."
Kiran Segal's book Fatty sheds some light on the influence Zohra had on dance through her training of everyone associated with Prithvi Theatres. Kiran notes that students Suresh Bhatt and Satyanarayan later went on to give dance direction in films, and she also lists Badnam (directed by DD Keshav) as one of Zohra's film choreographies. Kiran also notes that the female dancers identified in the credits of Neecha Nagar, Ruma Ganguly (apparently the same person as Roma Ghosh, once married to Kishore Kumar) and Gopa Lal, were students of Zohra at Prithvi Theatres!

Film Credits Clockwise: Faraar/Dev Anand
in Goa
, CID, Baazi, and Nau Do Gyarah.
I was only able to find two other examples from Zohra's film choreography that feature the Uday Shankar-style influence: "Suno Gajar Kya Gaaye" from Baazi (1951) and "See Le Zubaan" in Nao Do Gyarah (1957). The latter is especially interesting in its subtle Shankar influences in the hand gestures and movements, the hand shimmies, the Kathakali-style hand pushes, and the rotations around the central axis--all implemented by Zohra despite the Western-style music and murder-mystery backdrop. Sneaky!

The 1950s seems to be when the other artists formerly associated with Uday Shankar began choreographing for films, such as Sachin Shankar, Narendra Sharma, and the work of Simkie. The career paths of students associated with Uday Shankar's school and film work, their influences on cinema and theatre dance, the influence of leftist groups like the IPTA, and the greater context of Indian independence and India's cultural and artistic awakening begs for further study and analysis!

1. Abrahams, Ruth. "The Life and Art of Uday Shankar."
2. Bhatia, Uday. "Risen from the Depths (Neecha Nagar)." The Big Indian Picture blog.
3. Lakshmi, C.S. Mirrors & Gestures: Conversations with Women Dancers. 2003.
4. Ranga Rao, VAK.  "Dance in Indian Cinema." Rasa: The Indian Performing Arts in the Last Twenty-five Years, Volume I, Music and Dance.  Eds Bimal Mukherjee and Sunil Kothari. 1995.
5. Segal, Kiran. Fatty (as excerpted in Meet the Charming Zohra Segal, Rediff.com).
6. Segal, Zohra. Close-Up: Memoirs of a Life on Stage and Screen. 2010

Further reading:


  1. The dancers in the second dance of Neecha Nagar seem different. One of them is Kamini Kaushal. I guess one of the others may be Uma Anand but do not know.

  2. One see the full movie here, and also in some scenes Zohra Sehgal's acting.
    For eg: Timestamps 1:00:14.

    1. Oops forgot the link: https://indiancine.ma/ELC/player/00:59:56.665

  3. Interesting trivia from Dustedoff review of Neecha Nagar "After watching this film a boy from kolkatta wrote a letter to chetan anand, appreciating the film and expressed his desire to become his assistant director….. Satyajit Ray"http://dustedoff.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/neecha-nagar-1946/

  4. Is she the same Zohra Sehgal who acted in the TV Serial 'Tandoori Nights'?

  5. gaddeswarup - The background dancers in the second dance look the same to me, but the additional third dancer (in the middle) is different and new--is she the one that looks like Kamini Kaushal to you? Ah, yes just googled her and the third dancer looks like her! Very interesting trivia about Satyajit! Sounds like the film was very influential for him?
    ragothaman - Nice, I didn't realize indiancine.ma had archived the movie too. It's interesting that Zohra looks older in live video than she does in photographs from that period.
    The Gardener - Yes, she was in Tandoori Nights and a lot of other TV series apparently mostly in the UK where she had moved to.

  6. Yes, her debut film. Also for Ravi Shankar and Uma Anand. It seems Kamini Kaushal learnt Bharata Natyam too.
    About the others, you may be right. I should learn to use some face recognition technology.

  7. Please, I can't recall the name of this movie I saw in the late 1980s or early 1990s of this dancer who in the final scene of the movie, dances on a mountain top with her guru singing, all i rememebr is the song is a shiva song, she is in full bharatha natayam costumes, and the dancer is very good. I really want to watch this scene again but had no luck finding the movie nor dance scene. Please help. My email is selviarasupdn@gmail,.com.

  8. Hello Selvi, I sent you an email--I think you are thinking of Andela Ravamidi in Swarna Kamalam!

  9. Minai,
    The Neecha Nagar dances in this version (around 3 and 14:40) look slightly clearer to me. You may want to check https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zi4vJQC-QJU

    1. You might be right, though the one in the post is comparable if the quality is set to 480p. I wish YouTube channel uploaders would educate themselves on the best way to encode video for quality online viewing! Thanks for sharing.

  10. The dancer Ruma Ghosh from Neecha Nagar is Kishore Kumar's first wife Ruma (later Guhathakurata) mother of Amit Kumar.

    1. Thanks for the info--transliteration can be hard to navigate sometimes, such as Roma/Ruma.


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