Bhanu Athaiya passed away at the age of 91 on Thursday, October 15, after a prolonged illness. A remarkable success story, she left an indelible mark as a painter and costume designer par excellence for Hindi films. She was the first Indian to win an Oscar — she brought home the trophy for her well-researched work in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. Undoubtedly, Athaiya’s skills contributed to Ben Kingsley’s uncanny resemblance to Gandhiji in the titular role.
But, there was much more to Bhanu Athaiya than this coveted award — her illustrious career spanned five decades (from 1950 to 1990) and she spearheaded several sartorial innovations onscreen that are a credit to her highly regarded creativity.
In the mid-1950s, Athaiya would present two pages of fashion inspired by Indian heritage for the magazine, Fashion & Beauty. Actress Kamini Kaushal, then in the prime of her youth, requested her to design her costumes for two GP Sippy productions. Later, Nargis introduced Athaiya to Raj Kapoor, who was on the hunt for someone to design western costumes for Nadira in Shree 420. Her work caught the eye of B R Chopra and he roped her in to design costumes for Chandani Chowk.
Besides being a costume designer Bhanu Athaiya was a part of the ‘Progressive Artists Group’ and exhibited her paintings at the Artist’s Centre at Kala Ghoda, Mumbai. Designing for films was an extension of her artistic proclivities.
She was fated to design costumes for Guru Dutt’s classic films, made when he was at his creative acme as a director. Guru Dutt’s sister Lalitha and Athaiya had both studied at Sir JJ school of Arts, Mumbai; and he pencilled her to design costumes for his films. The soft-spoken Guru Dutt, expressed his appreciation for her work by entrusting her with the costumes of all the female characters in his productions such as Kaagaz Ke Phool, Chaudhvin Ka Chand and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam.
I interviewed the designer at her immense Breach Candy office for my three screenplay books on Guru Dutt’s films. I recall Bhanu telling me, “Guru Dutt and I communicated very well. He was aware of my art background and understanding of Indian culture. The fact that he repeated me for all his films shows his trust in my abilities to do justice to his requirements.”
Athaiya deployed her expertise in painting and drawing illustrations in black and white to good use while designing costume for Dutt’s films, all of them shot in black and white. For Waheeda Rehman’s character in Kaagaz Ke Phool, Athaiya used handloom sarees — white sarees with black woven borders, and black or grey sarees with white borders.
Athaiya’s creative choices intelligently mirrored Waheeda’s character graph in the film. As Waheeda metamorphosed from a simple girl to an actress, her white cotton sarees with plain borders changed to a black saree with a bold border when she portrays the character of Paro in the film within the film, and subsequently to a synthetic fabric styled in a suitable manner with jewellery and an elaborate hairstyle for her party look. When she returns to films to play the character of a jogan, Athaiya draped her in a simple white saree.
For Chaudhvin Ka Chand, a Muslim social film set in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, Bhanu met well-informed people from UP to research the fabrics, styles and jewellery of Lucknow of yore. Since Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam was a period film based on Bengali culture and had a Bengali background. Guru Dutt flew her down to Kolkata to imbibe the feel of the local culture and to shop for sarees and jewellery.
Her association with Waheeda Rehman continued in several other films and she was particularly proud of the outfits she designed for her in Guide. She designed outfits for the who’s who of the industry from the ’50s (Meena Kumari. Waheeda Rehman, Nargis), the ’60s (Vyjayanthimala, Sadhana, Shashi Kapoor, Simi Garewal) the ’70s (Amitabh Bachchan, Dimple Kapadia), the ’80s (Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit) and even the ’90s (Anil Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Manisha Koirala). Sadhana once told me, “I loved Bhanu’s work so much that even for my personal appearances I would request her to design for me.”
Athaiya’s last project as a costume designer was the TV series Mahabharat produced by Swastik Pictures. Though she had retired from the film industry, Athaiya and her daughter Radhika decided to collate her research work, sketches, costumes to facilitate future scholars and researchers. Athaiya donated a small collection of her work to The Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences in Los Angeles along with her Oscar statuette. The best of her costume sketches was exhibited at the East West Gallery in Honolulu as part of an exhibition on Indian cinema.
Bhanu Athaiya has left to meet the ultimate designer, God, but she has left behind a rich tapestry of work that will inspire generations of fashion designers and painters.
(The writer is an author, columnist, TV scriptwriter, and film historian. In 2017, he initiated The Dinesh Raheja Workshop in which he teaches Bollywood aspirants everything related to the media.)