Bhanu Athaiya: An unparalleled talent
The costume designer, who was India’s first Oscar winner, passed away in Mumbai on Thursday
It unfortunately needed recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Bhanu Athaiya (1929-2020) to become a household name in the country of her birth; she shared the Academy Award for Best Costume Designing with John Mollo for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) in 1983. But, she was already a popular name in the closed world of Hindi cinema before that, responsible for some of the most iconic costumes that stars of yesteryears are still remembered by. Her introduction to Raj Kapoor by Nargis paved the way for a successful career that saw her work with some of the most important directors in the industry over the decades – from Guru Dutt, Raj Khoshla, Lekh Tandon, Vijay Anand, BR Chopra, Yash Chopra, and Jabbar Patel to contemporaries like Ashutosh Gowariker and Vidhu Vinod Chopra.
In a synthetic world of loud Hindi cinema where art direction and costume designing were often known for their gaudy representations, she brought an element of class that stood out for its varying combinations of allure and authenticity, depending on the situation. The figure-hugging, ankle-length orange half saree that she created for Mumtaz for the song Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyaar Ke Charche in Bhappi Sonie’s Brahmachari (1969), which became a rage, had hardly anything authentic about it, but it went perfectly with the tone of the film and exaggerated the earthy sensuality that Mumtaz was famous for; the costume made her an instant icon. Her creations for Zeenat Aman in Raj Kapoor’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) or Mandakini in Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985) were not rooted in any identifiable Indian reality but managed to tease the pan-Indian male imagination.
These are some of the creations that sprang from her imagination and her interpretations of the commercial parameters of the films. But there were films where it was important that they be faithful to the source, no matter how much creative liberty the directors took under the pressure of box office. For her costumes for Vyjanthimala in Amrapali (1966), in which the actor played a courtesan who decides to give up her profession to follow Buddha, Athaiya delved into history and referred to the wall paintings of the Ajanta Caves in Aurangabad for inspiration. For Sunil Dutt’s Reshma Aur Shera (1971) and Gulzar’s Lekin (1990) – both set in the deserts of Rajasthan – she visited the locales, observed the behaviour of the local people, studied their clothes, and then set about designing the costumes of the characters; but took great care that they went with the theme of the scenes and the characterisations, and were not just imitations. Attenborough’s Gandhi was a phenomenal challenge: she divided the work with her colleague John Mollo, who did the costumes for the Britishers, while she concentrated on the Indian characters.
Perhaps this kind of devotion to details and authenticity could be traced to her grooming in JJ School of Arts in Bombay, which she joined in 1952. Hailing from Kolhapur, she wanted to be a painter and in the years immediately after passing out of the art school, she did engage in her passion, apart from illustrating women’s magazines; but she soon gravitated towards fashion designing – and from there, to films, thanks to clients that included movie stars. There was no looking back after that – and the world of Hindi cinema has been richer for it.