Bhanu Athaiya, India’s first Oscar winner and the Hindi film industry’s most renowned costume designer whose work spans over five decades, was born on 28 April 1929 in Kolhapur (in present day Maharashtra), which was then a princely state.
Her father, Anna Saheb, an artist, died when she was nine years old.
Recalling her childhood, she told The Telegraph in May 2008: “Though I was born into an orthodox Brahmin family, where everybody studied the ancient sciences, it was my father, Anna Saheb, who broke the rules by taking up fine arts. . . . He painted portraits in oil in the academic style. When he would finish painting, he would call me to clean his brushes and palette. I loved the job and did it sincerely. Even now it is one of my fondest memories.”
On Sunday afternoons she and her six siblings would excitedly peep into the magic box that a travelling artiste brought, and see pictures of the various aspects of the Raj. Among these were pictures of European women dancing in their beautiful ballroom dresses.
Athaiya showed an early talent for art and drawing, and joined Mumbai’s Sir J.J. School of Art, graduating in fine arts.
The switch to films
She initially worked in the popular magazine Eve’s Weekly, where she would make fashion illustrations inspired by India’s heritage.
She later switched to working in a boutique where she designed dresses. “That boutique was visited by everyone, from Kamini Kaushal and Nargis to Ramanand Sagar. It was Kamini Kaushal who gave me my first assignment. I started by designing her personal wardrobe, and soon went on to design her costumes in films like Shahenshah and Chalis Baba Aur Ek Chor,” Athaiya told the art and film critic Trisha Gupta in February 2010.
Eventually, she bagged her first film as costume designer — Guru Dutt’s CID.
She worked with Guru Dutt in memorable films such as Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Kaagaz Ke Phool, and Pyaasa. In the 1960s she worked in films such as Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Teesri Manzil, Guide, Janwar, Waqt and Mere Sanam.
Waqt, directed by Yash Chopra, was a watershed moment for the manner in which clothes worn by the heroine influenced public tastes. As the Time Out Bengaluru puts it: “The tightly fitted churidar and kurta that clung to Sadhana’s body caused young girls all over India to leave everything and rush to their tailors. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, stars such as Asha Parekh, Vyajanthimala and Mumtaz showed off their plump hips and full bosoms in Athaiya’s snug creation.”
Gandhi and after
However, Athaiya’s moment of international fame came with the acclaimed 1982 film Gandhi, for which she won an Oscar for the Best Costume Design.
In his foreword to Athaiya’s 2010 book The Art of Costume Design, Gandhi’s director Richard Attenborough wrote: “It took me 17 long years to set up Gandhi, my dream film, and just 15 minutes to make up my mind that Bhanu Athaiya was the right person to create the many hundreds of Indian costumes that would be required to bring it to the screen.”
Recalling the challenges of working in such a major production, Athaiya said in an interview: “We had to capture 50 years of the Mahatma’s life in various locations and we could not go wrong because he was an international figure, well known to the world audiences.”
In 2012, she decided to return her Oscar statuette to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles, for safekeeping. She was afraid that it could meet the same fate as poet Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize medal. In a scathing press release she said: “I do not trust anyone in India to keep it. If Tagore’s Nobel medal could be stolen, what is the guarantee my trophy would be safe? In India, no one values such things and we lack a tradition of maintaining our heritage and things pertaining to our culture.”
Athaiya continued to work in films after her Gandhi triumph. She bagged the National Film Award for Best Costume Design in 1991 for Lekin... and in 2002 for Lagaan.
Remarkably active well into her eighties, she was roped in as design consultant for the TV show Mahabharat in 2013.
Athaiya, who has worked in more than 100 films, has had a significant influence on the look of both post-independence Hindi cinema and its actors and actresses.
Also on this day:
28 April 1971: Nikhil Advani, Hindi film director and screenwriter, was born