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From the Husain-Raza set to the Oscars: Bhanu Athaiya’s story

Bhanu Athaiya   | Photo Credit: Rajeev Bhatt

The image of Bhanu Athaiya calmly walking up to receive the Oscar in a silver-studded blue chiffon sari with her white handbag clutched firmly under her arm is as iconic as the Ram Dhun the orchestra played to celebrate her win. Sir Richard Attenborough says it took him exactly 15 minutes to know that Athaiya was the right person to create the costumes for Gandhi.

Athaiya, who died aged 91 on October 15, wasn’t a woman given to talking about herself, or her incredible research into provincial and ancient costumes of India, or her relationships with a plethora of directors and stars over a 60-year career and 125-odd movies. Even her 2010 memoir, The Art of Costume Design, contained only 11 sketches and limited personal information. That’s why it’s both educational and disquieting to see that over 100 articles from Athaiya’s estate are coming up for auction between October 2020 and April 2021.

These will not include her Oscar or her Gandhi memorabilia that she returned to the Academy for safekeeping in 2012. The first lot currently on view includes her artworks and handwritten notes from the time she was the only woman in the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), as well as information about her family and early life. These alone make her story worthy of a museum collection.

Still from ‘Gandhi’

Still from ‘Gandhi’  


Father’s legacy

Athaiya’s handwritten notes mention that her father, Ganpatrao ‘Annasaheb’ Rajopadhye, was a rich, self-taught artist from Kolhapur. He encouraged his wife and six daughters to study and even hired an art tutor for Athaiya when she was eight. He served as an associate director on the Telugu film Harischandra (1935) and ventured into independent direction and production a few years later.

He died in September 1940 while his film Mohini (1940, Marathi) was still under production, but it introduced the 10-year-old Athaiya to films; she played the role of the king’s son in it.

Athaiya started working as a part-time illustrator for a woman’s weekly called Fashion and Beauty. Her greatest moment of pride was painting Mahatma Gandhi and Kasturba for the Independence Day issue of August 15, 1947. By 1948, she was winning prizes and her teacher recommended her for a scholarship at the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai — the hub of the European style of painting in India. Simultaneously, she landed a part-time job as fashion illustrator for the newly launched Eve’s Weekly.

Untitled watercolour

Untitled watercolour   | Photo Credit: Courtesy


She also designed for the magazine’s boutique, where film stars like Nargis and Kamini Kaushal shopped. Nargis introduced her to Raj Kapoor, who asked her to design Nadira’s clothes in Shri 420 (1955), which created a fashion sensation.

At J.J. School, V.S. Gaitonde was her teacher and her influence can be seen in his work of this time. He also did a painting of her called Portrait of Bhanu (1952). In her graduating year, she won both a gold medal and a fellowship to study mural painting. Invited to be a part of the PAG exhibition in 1953, she contributed two paintings, Prayers and Banana Sellers. This was an exciting time. “I, along with other upcoming artists such as M.F. Husain, Kishen Khanna, Raza, Ara, Souza, Gade, and others would meet and hear talks and accounts of the changing scene in art from other parts of the world,” writes Athaiya.

The pull of cinema

The PAG officially broke up in 1954, but Athaiya had chosen cinema by then. “The pull to be involved in cinema was far stronger and I finally gave in to it,” she writes. She worked in C.I.D. (1956), followed by Pyaasa (1957), Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). In 1966, she did Teesri Manzil, Mera Saaya and Amrapali, and got a scholarship to study fashion design in France for six months.

“Paris opened up the world for me. I travelled to Spain to absorb the art of Goya and the colours and sights of the gondolas! Another weekend saw me taking in the art and cultural heritage of Rome!! As students, we were given a lot of opportunities to visit fashion houses and see the big names in the couture world at work,” she writes.

Gandhi (1982), of course, was the film that introduced her to the world. She designed all the Indian outfits for the huge cast, including the 3,00,000 extras in the funeral scene. “In my mind, I had told myself that I had done my best, that I had done justice to Gandhiji’s name and the freedom movement,” she writes.

Fashion spread from ‘Eve’s Weekly’.

Fashion spread from ‘Eve’s Weekly’.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy


She continued to be the most iconic costume designer in Indian cinema, designing ensembles that ranged from Simi Garewal’s breathtaking costumes in Siddhartha (1972) and Sridevi’s chiffon sarees in Chandni (1989) to Dimple Kapadia’s evocative Rajasthani ensembles in Lekin (1991) and the huge canvas of Indian and British costumes for Lagaan (2001). Her last film was the Marathi thriller Nagrik (2015).

That Athaiya was clearly aware of the importance of her work in formulating history through her art, design and historical research is evident from her meticulously kept notes. She stood toe to toe with the greatest artists, directors and illustrators and defined post-Independence India, both through her research on regional and ancient costumes and her ability to create contemporary glamour and fashion. “I had an understanding of culture,” she once said to a film critic.

It will be interesting to see if her designs and notes now find a home where they can be enjoyed by the public as her costumes were, or if they disappear into a vault somewhere.

The writer is the author of a fantasy series, and specialises in art and culture of South East Asia.

‘Prayers’, an oil painting.

‘Prayers’, an oil painting.   | Photo Credit: Courtesy


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Printable version | Dec 6, 2020 7:11:46 AM |

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