In 1936, the Bengali film periodical Chitrapanji carried a series of articles on whether middle- class women should dance or not. One reader responded, “If a woman moves her arms and legs at her will in her bedroom, that is not a problem since no one sees this. But, if the same woman dresses up and performs on stage before a group of men, then can’t we men say a word [ . . . ] The ultimate aim of a woman’s life is to be a wife and a mother; it would be a lie to suggest that she wants to be a dancer or an actor.”
Earlier that year, the magazine published an article by a dancer-actress who had recently been featured in the Bengali film Sonar Sansar (Debaki Bose, 1936), Srimati Ajoorie. The article titled, “Why Is Dance Neglected,” avers, “Dance is India’s own treasure. . . . But alas, there is hardly any respect for dance in the heart of Indian citizens at present.”
Making her debut the previous year in the Bombay film industry as a dancer in multiple films – Bhen ka Prem (JK Nanda)), Katl-e-Aam (Arolkar, Rele), Judgment of Allah (Mehboob), Chandrasena (V Shantaram), and Bal Hatiya (Ram Daryani) – this columnist, variously named Miss Azoorie, Azurie, Srimati Ajoorie, and Madam Azoorie, takes us on a rather different but intersecting journey through dance in Indian cinema in the 1930s and 1940s. Anna Marie Gueizelor (1907/1916-1998), later named Azurie, was born in 1907 or 1916 (there is some debate about this) in Bangalore to a German-Jewish father and a Hindu Brahmin mother (her caste status was foregrounded in Azurie’s accounts).
Surgeon General Gueizelor, a strict disciplinarian, disapproved of “Eastern dancing.” Anna was encouraged instead to learn ballet and play the piano. But her heart lay in the “Eastern” dances she watched on secret trips to the movies. Upon their move to Bombay, the famous Muslim reformer and litterateur Atiya Fyzee-Rahamin encouraged the teenage Anna to learn Indian classical dance (the dance forms Bharatanatyam, Manipuri and Kathak are mentioned in some accounts).
‘The name should be Butan-e-Auzrie’
Anna’s identity as a dancer was fashioned further by a visitor to Fyzee- Rahamin’s Three Arts Circle, the Turkish writer and political activist Khalida Adeeb Khanum, who renamed Anna as Azurie. Reportedly, when Khanum heard that Anna was known by the prefix of “some ‘Devi’”, she scowled and announced, “the name should be Butan-e-Auzrie rather than Devi!” referencing Amir Khusrau’s allusion to the divine beauty of statues of goddesses carved by Azar, a mythical sculptor.
After being spotted on a film set and asked to “carry a pot and swing [her] hips for a scene,” Azurie began to feature regularly as a dancing girl in the movies from 1935 to 1947. Her filmography on IMDb and The Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema registers a fraction of the fifty-odd films she is reported to have danced in. Some promotional materials and newspaper articles report a number as high as 200-300 films.
In booklet after booklet, Azurie is listed as a generic dancer with no character name, and no mention in the film synopses, but she bursts into spectacular hypervisibility in the images. Even as most of her films from this period are lost, these song booklets make evident that the presence of the German-Indian, Jewish-Hindu Anna Marie Gueizelor resides in the spectacular imagination of the film, in its musical numbers, rather than its textual articulation of plot and character.
Azurie is quite literally a shadow figure in one of her rare surviving song-and- dance sequences, from Chandrasena (V Shantaram, 1935), featuring her silhouetted form dancing on a drum. This musical number alternates between medium close- ups of the singer-actress Rajani’s face to capture her vocal performance and long shots of Azurie and four backup dancers dancing on drums to the song.
Azurie’s silhouetted form emblematizes the simultaneously fetishized and invisibilized form of the dancing girl. The acclaimed director of the film, V. Shantaram, who employed a female silhouette as the emblem of his famed Prabhat Film Company, is reported to have said, “Give me a girl with a figure like Azurie’s and I’ll give you anything.”
Parallel to journalists’ breathless reports on her body, clothing, and dance are Azurie’s own newspaper and magazine columns, which articulate a feisty resistance on multiple fronts. Indeed, what makes Azurie particularly fascinating is that through the 1930s, she writes columns on dance, actively mediating what it means to be a female public performer in the fields of dance and film, and adroitly producing different personas through her dance, writing, and later stage career. In her 1935 column, “Dance, A Sacred Art,” she makes a case for Indians to bestow upon dance the respect it deserves, echoing cultural revivalists like E Krishna Iyer, Rukmini Devi Arundale, and others engaged in the effort to lend “respectability” to Indian dance.
Following her entry into the Calcutta film industry in 1936 (she works on a film each with the highly regarded Debaki Bose and PC Barua), she writes a column in Bengali in Chitrapanji, as mentioned earlier. Azurie’s negotiation of a new industry and cultural context is evident in her adoption of the honorific title of a married woman, “Srimati,” for added respectability, the relatively anodyne images accompanying the article, and her disavowal of her own figuration as a Westernized screen dancer.
She notes in the article, “These days many film producers are compromising on dance by importing western dances and often vulgarity to give cheap thrills. This insults our indigenous dance forms and results in loss of respect for the art of dance.”
There is a telling disjuncture between Azurie’s own columns, which reflect her self- fashioning as a respectable oriental dancer, and writings by others who construct a risque dancing girl persona. In a 1943 article in FilmIndia, titled “Baburao Patel Kicks Indian Dancers About!” the irascible, opinion- making editor describes Bose as an ideal, technically accomplished film dancer: “Sadhona is perhaps the only one who is so near my ideal. She knows enough technique to impress the average dance- lover, she has more than enough natural grace, she has sweet womanly looks, a suitably pleasant expression and in addition to all this just that little something which puts kick into her work and satisfies the spectator.”
He goes on to exclaim about the more audacious Azurie:
“Oh, that girl! She is a League of Nations in whom every dance of the world is found with all the labels wrongly stuck. She can hardly be called a classical dancer representing any cultural school of the country. She specializes in mass entertainment and I wouldn’t be surprised if she starts dancing on her head one day because people like it.”
Around 1947, she is reported to have married a Muslim naval officer and moved to Pakistan shortly after Partition. Inaugurating the debate about the place of dance in the newly formed Islamic state of Pakistan, she opened the first “Academy of Classical Dance” in Rawalpindi, despite violent opposition from the maulvis of the town.
Soon Azurie became a founding member of the Pakistan- American Cultural Centre in Karachi, and a board member of the National Council of the Arts in Islamabad. The poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz is reported to have said to her, “Your mourners will find even your grave empty as you’ll come out of it to dance.” Her mobility calls attention to the relative porosity of new borders as she travels to Bombay and back in 1958 to dance in the Hindi film Bahaana (M Kumar, 1960).
Disappointed with the nascent Pakistani film industry, berating films of having “no storyline, no scenario, poor direction,” she quit the movies and started touring internationally with her dance troupe, with well- received tours to Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Africa, and the United Kingdom.
After General Zia- ul- Haq imposed martial law in 1977, disbanding the Arts Councils, banning dancing by women on stage as “un- Islamic,” Azurie spent the last two decades of her life teaching dance at home and at the Station School in Rawalpindi.
Excerpted with permission from Dancing Women: Choreographing Corporeal Histories of Hindi Cinema, Usha Iyer, Oxford University Press.