Bhanu Athaiya: In Memoriam | Verve Magazine
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October 16, 2020

Bhanu Athaiya: In Memoriam 

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Verve pays tribute to India’s legendary costume designer – with inputs from peers, colleagues and fans…. 

The Oscar-winning costume designer Bhanu Athaiya passed away yesterday at the age of 91. When she bagged the Academy Award for Best Costume Design for Gandhi (1982), Athaiya, while accepting the statuette at the ceremony in 1983, said “It is too good to believe. Thank you, Academy and thank you, Sir Richard Attenborough, for focusing world attention on India.”  

Her almost five-decade-long career in the movies has been well-chronicled and inspired several talents who came later. The iconic designer outfitted a host of actors in a long list of movies that include names like C.I.D (1956), Waqt and Guide (1965), Teesri Manzil and Amrapali (1966), Brahmachari (1968), Lekin and Henna (1991), 1942: A Love Story (1994), Lagaan (2001), and Swades (2004). 

She was born Bhanumati Annasaheb Rajopadhye in Kolhapur, Maharashtra. Her father was a painter and passed away when she was nine years old, and Athaiya herself studied art, going on to become a gold medallist at the Sir JJ School of Art. A member of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), she had been its only woman associate and contributed three artworks to the Progressive Artists’ Group exhibition at the Bombay Art Society’s salon on Rampart Row, Mumbai, in 1953.  

While still an art student, she had begun to express her creativity through fashion illustrations. And soon, her passion for costume design catapulted her into the world of cinema. The art world’s loss was the film industry’s gain. And the rest, as they say, is history….  

Producer and Director  

I worked with Bhanu on Gandhi [he was one of the producers]. There was an intensity about her. She loved her profession and had the passion that is necessary to excel in what you do. Though a very quiet person, she was very friendly and everyone liked her. She was a very dignified lady. She saw success at an early age with all the great film-makers. For Gandhi, we had taken the whole convention hall of the hotel where the crew was put up for the shoot for our costumes, and she would spend a lot of time there with the tailors. She did her job very professionally.  

Dr Zehra Jumabhoy
Art Historian and Curator 

I first came across Bhanu Athaiya’s work when I was researching the Progressive Artists’ Group for the show that I co-curated at the Asia Society and Museum in New York in 2018 – The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India. There were many “facts” about the Progressives that I wanted to unpack and test the truth of: I wanted to ascertain things like when their first show was held, when they were founded and analyse the accusation that has often been levelled at the PAG: that they problematically symbolised an “all-male”, macho Modernism. 

I don’t think there is such a thing as a “female sensibility” – but she was certainly dynamic and independent. She left the PAG and gave up painting because she wanted to be financially independent, and so she went into fashion and finally costume design for the movies. Rumour has it that both VS Gaitonde [one of her mentors at the Sir JJ School of Art] and K. H. Ara [a founding member of the PAG] were outraged at her choice, as they felt she had great potential as an artist and should never have given it up! I think it is significant that her early work was so inspired by Amrita Sher-Gil; she, too, was a woman striking out to make her name. However, unlike the male members of the PAG, Athaiya decided not to play the starving artist. She chose another path, and I think we must respect that. She isn’t “lesser” because she chose to be a designer. After all, she was the first Indian to win an Oscar. So she was proved right; it brought creative success quicker than being an artist would have done. 

Bhanu was indeed ahead of her time – in terms of her contribution to cinema. And also in showing how the different aspects of the Modern fed off each other in Nehruvian India: film, design, fashion and painting. But it is difficult to draw this conclusion just from her art. After all, she did not practice for very long, so we don’t know what her mature style would have looked like. It also seems a bit wrong-headed to try and stuff her contribution to culture back into the category which she made a conscious choice to move away from: painting. 

Perhaps, our attempts to look at her only through this fineart frame are a misunderstanding of her contribution and the times she lived in. Remember, M. F. Husain started off by painting cinema hoardings, designing furniture for Fantasy and sets for Alkazi’s theatre productions – the Moderns were more plural aesthetically than we allow them to be in retrospect. 

I met her just before the New York show – her daughter introduced us when I went to their home to look at Bhanu’s paintings. It was too late by the time I tracked them down to borrow them for the New York show. But, I wanted so much to see the works that had been in the 1953 show, to include them in the book for The Progressive Revolution, as well as to meet Bhanu. Her wonderful daughter, Radhika Gupta, kindly gave me a tour of the paintings (which were hanging in her home in Mumbai) and took me in to Bhanu’s room for a brief visit. Bhanu was unwell, but she looked so regal, and I was so in awe that I could hardly get a word out.  

National Award-winning Costume Designer  

By winning the Oscar, what Bhanu Athaiya has given to us costume designers is respectability and recognition. Her award was a real landmark moment.

We all know her as a costume designer, but she was primarily a gifted artist who was influenced by Amrita Sher-Gil and trained by VS Gaitonde. She chose to be a costume designer probably at a period when she did not even know what being a costume designer would mean.  

Her journey has been that of an artist who became a costume designer. She was so meticulous in her detailing, which is evident in a film like Gandhi. She gave a lot of importance to the ageing of costumes, which everyone was not aware of at that time. She went into the soul of a character and her costumes are an integral part of each character. That is why, for me, she is an inspiration. With single-minded devotion, she made a mark not just for herself but also for the rest of us who came after her. We are indebted to her for that, and it is really sad that India’s first technician to be awarded with an Oscar has not been given a Padma award by the Government of India. She did not believe in networking. Her work was her calling card. It speaks for itself even today. 

I met her just after the shooting of The Deceivers was completed and before she started work on Ajooba. There was a lot of fabric left over from the set of The Deceivers, and Shashi Kapoor wanted to take that for Ajooba. Since she was the costume designer for his film, it was the first time that I met her, even though I had started my career with Heat and Dust, in the same year she won the Oscar. I spent one day with her – unfortunately I never worked with her on a film – and I realised that she knew exactly what she wanted. She was focused and precise. She came across as a professional, warm human being.  

It was a great honour for me to share the stage with Bhanu Athaiya at the August Kranti Maidan, Mumbai in August 1997 at the function that celebrated 50 years of India’s Independence. Both of us were part of that project. We designed the costumes and had our separate areas of work. She knew exactly which dress man she wanted to tie the turban! I have learnt from her meticulous detailing, sense of design and colour. She epitomised all that is creative, disciplined and beautiful in the world of costume design.  

Producer and Director  

I had the pleasure of working with Bhanu Athaiya in 1942: A Love Story. She is absolutely fabulous. She designed Anil Kapoor’s look, who, at that time, had long hair and was very different looking. But it was she who designed that look with the cap. For that film, Anil cut his hair short, and it was unheard of at that time because there was continuity of various other films that went into a mess. But it was her vision that came to life. And also in the look of Jackie [Shroff] – he wore only one overcoat throughout the film. She was a fabulous collaborator, and it was great to work with someone who understood the cinematic language of costume.  

Fashion and Creative Consultant   

Bhanu Athaiya’s legacy in costume design is unparalleled. The authenticity in her creative process, the attention to detail, her passion and vast body of work are truly inspirational. She used to be one of our mentors and jury members at NIFT, Mumbai in ’99. 

I remember in college I’d once created these heart-shaped, embroidered spectacles with crystal teardrops for a fun character, a lovesick lady, as part of a collection, which excited and amused her so much!  

She always looked at the students’ work carefully, pointing out subtle details and giving highly valuable feedback. Her legacy will live on.  

Costume Designer and Stylist 

Back in 2011, when I was interning, I’d bought Bhanu Athaiya’s book [The Art of Costume Design], and since then it has travelled with me to the many cities that I have moved to. I was rereading some of the chapters this morning; holding the book again felt special, she has inspired my research process immensely. Her unparalleled knowledge in textiles and creativity at a time when there was no social media or internet – is something one can only imagine. Her disciplined hard work and the detailed depth she went into when creating her characters is inspiring. Her costume work has so many textures, and I try to adapt that in my aesthetic too.  

She silently worked at a time when nobody truly appreciated or credited the work of costume designers and stylists. She has laid the foundation for us all and we still have a long way to go to come close to her body of work. As she said, ‘the learning never stops’. She’s made me realise that this is an art that we grow old with, it’s not a two-year career plan.  

Fashion Communication Student, NIFT

Over the years, I’ve learnt that detail could be obtained in even the simplicity of an outfit once you have understood the essence of a character. That’s what I felt Bhanu Athaiya has discreetly embedded into my brain; that’s why her work stood out and made it so memorable. 

Accessory Design Student, NIFT

She characterised her work with deep research, delicacy, and finesse. Bhanu Athaiya has taught me to tie the knots among these three qualities, to come up with the essence of the fulfilment and simplicity in everything. Her never-stopping and ever-changing career paths, from a freelance illustrator to a renowned costume designer in showbiz, imbibed the notion of always believing in my work. 

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