First auction of Bhanu Athaiya's artworks promises to reveal a side of the costume designer few knew
'One part of her work can be called fine art, and one can be called fashion art – but it’s all art in the end,' the curator of Bhanu Athaiya's auction says.
Most Indians know her as the woman who walked up to the stage at the Academy Awards in a powder blue sari, to receive the gold statuette for her creative genius as a costume designer, while the notes of the theme song of Gandhi (1982) played in the background almost four decades ago.
But Bhanu Athaiya holds more fame to her name than being – although prestigious in its own right – India’s first Oscar winner. Mumbai-based Prinseps Auction House & Gallery’s latest sale aims to showcase this relatively unknown fame to audiences.
The Bhanu Athaiya Estate Auction, that will go live on their website in the first week of December, presents to viewers a rare glimpse into the creator’s lesser-known life – that of a fine artist. Going under the hammer will be 32 lots of artworks, ranging from canvas paintings to pencil drawings, watercolours on paper and even fashion sketches from Eve’s Weekly magazine, where Athaiya worked in her early days. “Since we also auction books, we were called to evaluate her collection, and noticed one of her artworks on the wall. I realised that this is something that has never been highlighted or spoken about before. We thought that people should know of these works that we stumbled upon by chance. I thought this auction would be a great way to showcase her legacy,” says Indrajit Chatterjee, the Founder and Director of Curation at Prinseps.
Athaiya’s artworks will be on auction for the first time in history – so although they may have been published earlier, none have been on sale before except one canvas, Prayer, at a 1950s exhibition.
That show, organised by the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) in 1952, featured creations by the most notable names from the world of Indian art, from MF Husain and KH Ara to Krishen Khanna, SH Raza and VS Gaitonde. And Athaiya – then Bhanu Rajopadhye – who was a gold medalist from the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai, was the only woman to participate in the show. “I got a call from a student of JJ once, saying that since art can sometimes be such a male-dominated bastion, it’s nice to know that a woman was part of the PAG. Her accomplishments were not at all trivial,” Chatterjee explains over the phone.
While her striking oil on canvas from the 1952 PAG exhibition will be one of the coveted items that will go under the hammer, it’s not the only one to be excited about. Apart from Prayer and Lady in Repose (1952) – the only two canvas paintings that are part of the auction – creations from her life before art school are also up for sale. “Lady in Repose is quite avant garde for its time, because a lot of the experiments with expressionism and abstraction that the work showcases were seen much later in the works of the Progressives, maybe from the ’60s onwards,” Chatterjee explains. “Some of her more important works are the ones she created before entering JJ, like Coming to Bombay that portrays a woman sitting with two deer. It’s significant because it shows Athaiya’s development as an artist.”
A heavily detailed catalogue that includes a 6000-word essay by poet, cultural theorist and independent curator Ranjit Hoskote, accompanies the auction. The essay takes us through Athaiya’s artistic milestones, and places them in the context of the times that she started out with her brush. “Had Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya continued to practise as a painter, she would certainly have been a major presence in her pioneering generation of cultural practitioners in newly independent India,” Hoskote writes.
Kolhapur-born Athaiya – who sadly passed away last month at the age of 91 – was shaped as an artist both by her painter father and the city she grew up in. Kolhapur, as a centre for the arts, contributed a great deal to her creative sensibilities. The city saw cultural renaissance and developed a vibrant art scene due to the patronage of Kolhapur’s royals. It was also the location for some of the earliest film production studios. And while she may have left the art world behind for greener pastures in the universe of costume designing for films in the mid-1950s, Chatterjee believes that Athaiya’s passion for art truly never left her. “One part of her work can be called fine art, and one can be called fashion art – but it’s all art in the end.”
Acquiring and curating pieces for the upcoming auction did not come without its challenges, especially in a year that included a pandemic-induced lockdown two months into its start. The photographer who was needed to professionally work on the images of the artworks for the gallery tested positive for coronavirus and was admitted to hospital for a while. Chatterjee too was rife with “COVID-anxiety”, and took all precautions while coordinating the acquisition, inspection and measuring of each artwork, and the photography and making of the vast catalogue. The entire process came to fruition after around seven months – with the final line-up comprising 27 artworks and over 70 prints of Athaiya’s sketches for Eve’s Weekly.
There will surely be takers for the creations, and the hope is that each work is as coveted as the other. “Of course it’s difficult to say ‘This is the most important work and that one is less significant.' It all depends on a collector’s interests, and the history of the art – some people like works on paper, some like canvas works, some collect portraits,” says Chatterjee, who launched Prinseps three years ago with a showcase of works by Rathindranath Tagore.
So as her artworks, lesser-known to the wider world, could find a home on walls across the country – and maybe even around the globe – we wonder aloud what Athaiya’s true legacy should be. “She was a gold medallist at JJ. She was the only woman artist in the PAG and then ventured upon a slightly different career path – she transformed the dresswalla into a ‘costume designer’, and won an Oscar for it. She was both thorough and successful at what she did. Even in her fashion sketches, there is a deep understanding of the cultural context in each one, along with immaculate technical execution. Her true legacy is simply ‘art’,” believes Chatterjee.
As Hoskote’s essay aptly concludes – “It is no surprise that Bhanumati Rajopadhye Athaiya, nourished by a lively and multidisciplinary stream of stimuli, would seek larger horizons for her creativity. That she chose cinema over the visual arts for the expression of her creativity does not, in any way, diminish her aura or her place in India’s cultural history.”
The Bhanu Athaiya Estate Sale will go live at 7 PM on 2 December, 2o20. Visit Prinseps' website for details about the auction and to view the collection.