Continuing our special series to commemorate International Women's Day on 8 March, we bring you Azurie who dedicated her life to dance and became a beacon for many others to follow.
Brilliant, dazzling Azurie, Indian cinema's first dancing star
New Delhi - 10 Mar 2020 14:05 IST
Updated : 31 Mar 2020 0:15 IST
'Azure' refers to a dazzling blue light. Actress-dancer Azurie was indeed that in the world of film dance. When we think of cabaret and dance in Hindi cinema, the name that springs to mind today is of the amazing Helen. But there were many others, notably Azurie and Cuckoo, who were her predecessors but are sadly forgotten.
Azurie, or Madame Azurie as she was also known, was the first star dancer of Indian cinema who left audiences spellbound with her moves and was a pioneer in promoting dance in the newly created Pakistan as well.
According to several sources, Azurie’s father was a German surgeon who fell in love with a Brahmin nurse, Manorama, while working in Bangalore. Azurie was born in Cochin in 1907 though her date of birth is disputed. According to some sources, she was born later, around 1915. Her father hoped she would become a doctor and detested even the mention of films.
Somehow, young Azurie managed to watch the film Gamdeni Gori or Village Girl (1927) starring Sulochana aka Ruby Myers and fell in love with the movies. Starting off as a dancing extra to the female leads, she made her entry into the world of cinema.
One of her earliest films was Nadira (1934). She went on to feature in several films, including Pardesi Saiyaan (1935), Qatl-e-Aam (1935), the Bombay Talkies film Naya Sansar (1941), Jhankar (1942), Kaljug (1942), Tasveer (1943), Nai Duniya (1944), AR Kardar’s Shahjehan (1946) and JK Nanda’s Parwana (1947).
In V Shantaram’s Chandrasena (1935), she is believed to be the dancer in the famous drum dance done in silhouette and, according to the film journalist Ali Peter John, Shantaram said, “Give me a girl with a figure like Azurie’s and I’ll give you anything.”
Known for her good looks and dance moves, Azurie would send fans into a tizzy and movies would sell on her name. Such was her popularity that when an irate producer cut her dance from a film, distributors refused to buy the film, saying that if it did not have a dance by Azurie, they were not interested in it!
She appeared in more than 700 films with her dances, even performing small roles in many of them. She was also the first Indian film dancer to be invited to London's Buckingham Palace for a performance, where George Bernard Shaw was reportedly in the audience.
In an article, Sampat Lal Purohit wrote how the audience was mesmerized as she performed the dance of Radha and Krishna. One of her best remembered songs is 'O Janewale Balamwa' from the blockbuster Rattan (1944).
Being a beautiful young woman with an enviable figure came with its own pitfalls, but Azurie navigated the space with a feistiness all her own. In an interview, she recalled, “There were men who tried to take me for granted. They tried to play tricks with me, but I always put them in their place.
"I distinctly remember how I slapped a big producer at the risk of losing a very important role. Then again, I remember how I almost stabbed a very big actor whom I shall not name because he is dead... I had to do these things to survive, to dance with respect, more than to survive. I never surrendered my self-respect at any time.”
Azurie’s life is entwined with the history of dance and the attitudes towards it in India and the newly created Pakistan after Independence. She had married a Muslim, Mahmood, and they moved to Rawalpindi, where she was determined to carry on her dance and opened the country's first academy of classical dance.
This was quite unconventional at the time and she faced a lot of opposition from the Muslim clergy. In an interview in Memories of a Dancing Queen, she said of the time, “When I first opened a dance school in Rawal Pindi in 1948, all the maulvis of the town stood up against me. They were after my blood. They delivered sermons in mosques and spread as much venom against me as they could. There was a big agitation. I was nervous. But Mrs Mani [the late owner of Pindi’s premier bookshop who wielded considerable influence in official and social circles in the city], she calmed down all, including me. I love this country. I will serve this country and die in this country.”
From the writing available about Azurie, we come to know of an artiste who loved dance and dedicated her life to the art form. Her students continue to remember her commitment to dance though cinema largely forgot her pioneering work and the indelible imprint that she made in our history.
Azurie died in Pakistan in 1998.
Film historian Iqbal Rizvi contributed to this article with research material and insights.