In Memory of my Guru, Zohra Ji- by Indu Mitha.

How can I recount my myriad relationships with Zohraji’s family! How can I leave out even one of these questions? But I dare not bore a reader to whom I am an unknown from a “different’ country.

On Zohra ji’s last visit to Pakistan in 2004, I journeyed to Lahore to see her act, along with Uzra in “Aik Thi Nani”. This play was written and presented as a tribute to both sisters, by Madeeha Gauhar’s Theatre Company Ajoka.  Kneeling beside Zohra ji’s chair, I put my copy of her biography “STAGES”, in her lap and asking her deferentially, if she would write a line for me in it. I felt like a little girl again in spite of my seventy-four years!

Though Zohra ji never wore the mantle of “Ustad” or kept a distance from her students, my respect for her abilities and achievements in many fields, made me always feel small when near her.

Zohra ji noticed the book’s well-worn condition with a smile, (“required reading” I explained, “For a generation of my adult students.”). She was pleased to see that it had been gifted to me by my brother and “bhabi”, Tiny and Lola Chatterji. She wrote; ” To my lovely and best student, Indu, my first ever in my dance institute, ZORESH 1943 to 1945. May you remain as talented forever. Love and blessings. Zohra.”

I was just a teenage brat at that time. But in spite of my yearnings for a technical and classic style even then, (which came to me much later in my intermittent training), I believe the formative influence for the joy and creativity I have found in dance, stemmed from my brief years with Zohra ji and Kameshwar.

It was their example that gave me the guts to try out my own expression, whenever the least opportunity came my way, with whatever ability my limbs had developed, or whatever crumbs my inquiring mind had picked up, of taal and raag from stray remarks or hints dropped by Ustads.

What a wonderful pair they made as Teachers; Zohraji always methodical, taking new pupils from exercises through simple moves, to co-ordinations and complexities, building up a sequence. Kameshwar, mercurial; exuding energy in new moves and ideas one day, bored next day, and in despair over lack of talent and commitment.

We students had the best of both their worlds.

Sabra, Zohraji’s youngest sister, who passed away about a year ago, was my “shagrid behan” (class mate) in those days. Years later when Sabra retired as Director Women’s Sport, in Punjab, Pakistan, she was snapped up by Lahore Grammar School as Advisor and Teacher Trainer for sports. The group of eight young women who founded this school, boldly decided that DANCE, too, along side sports should be compulsory for Boys and Girls at all levels. I was  proud to find myself as Sabra’s colleague. I learnt much from watching her play game with the littlest children. While having “FUN” they were putting into practice many fundamentals of Modern Movement Theory.

My first meeting with the third sister came about for a sad reason. I received a letter and phone call from my sister Renu’s husband, Krishen Khanna, requesting and urging me to go to condole with Uzra on her husband’s death,” However far you maybe,” he wrote,” You must go.” He was devastated that the border prevented him from coming in person. Relocating to Bombay after the trauma of Partition, for his new job, “Hamid Bhai was for me,” he said,” a real elder brother when I needed one.”

I phoned Uzra to explain who I was and when I expected to reach her town. When I arrived at her in-law’s home, she caught at my hand right at the entry, wound her way urgently through a roomful of praying old ladies, straight into her bedroom and locked the door.  There she poured out her heart to me. Some hours later, I was called by my driver to start the journey home. Uzra hugged me and asked wistfully, ” How long is it since we last met?” I answered, ” This is the first time we have met.” She found it hard to believe. I, too, felt as if I had known her for as long as I had known Zohra ji and Sabra.

We became very close, often doing theatre together, acting and dancing, or devising programs for the Women’s Movement at grass-root level when in the same town or traveling to spend a few days together when we were apart. In some ineffable way, being with Uzra assuaged what I had always felt on being separated by borders and visas from my own elder sisters, Munta, Uma, and Renu. All these three Mumtaz sisters with their husbands has been part of The Chummery at 41 Pali Hill, Bandra Bombay, with Uma, Chetan Anand and others till they could afford to move out.

I was with Sabra the day that Uzra was brought home from hospital in her last illness, trying hard to clam Sabra who was so upset to find her sister visibly weaker, instead of better. It was the last time we three were together.

Relationships had already grown, in those years with the younger generation. I was delighted to help Uzra set up Kiran Segal’s performances in 1981 at Goethe Institute in Lahore, Pakistan, and to take her to see where the Zoresh Institute had been. Kiran, whom once I had childishly resented as her birth disrupted my lessons! Kiran, who always welcomed and made time for me and my daughter, Tehreema, to visit her home and her classes in Delhi. Here in Pakistan, my daughter Yameema’s first professional research job and publication was with Khawar Mumtaz. Her husband, Kamil Mumtaz, Zohra ji’s nephew, who received the Agha Khan Award for revival of indigenous forms in architecture, designed our home on this farm outside Islamabad. His sister Zara Mumtaz and I have worked together, presenting dance with young Kinnairdites, though we, too, are alumni of different decades. When Kamil’s organisation, working with other faiths for Inter Religious Harmony, organized a series of Seminars on the variation of Religion and Arts, he invited me to give a lecture demonstration on ” Religion and Dance, particularly Bharata Natyam” although he certainly knew that my personal orientation in dance is secular!

Recently Khawar and Kamil’s daughter Samia Mumtaz contacted me again regarding an ambitious dance theatre project for next year, in which she is involved with others. She has made her name as a performer in several forms of theatre. Even after leaving L.G.S, where she was my student, she has come to me for refresher courses in dance. But now I am reluctant to commit myself as I am unsure how much physical and mental energy I will be capable of by then.

My Bhabi Lola wrote to me from Delhi last year on her own birthday,  “None of us dare to complain of minor aches and pains for Zohra is a role model for all of us, just as she is for you!”

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