Bhanu Athaiya passes away: Indian cinema's pioneering costume designer brought authenticity, style to films
Those who came into Bhanu Athaiya's orbit remember a wildly creative yet methodic professional, who brought an impressive formal expertise to the still nascent field of costume design in Indian films.
From Mumtaz’s tightly draped, flaming orange sari in Brahmachari to Sridevi’s styling in Chandni, Bhanu Athaiya crafted some of Indian cinema’s most iconic looks. India’s first-ever Oscar honoree — she won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design for Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982), along with John Mollo — Athaiya would leave her indelible and distinctive imprint on over 100 films, until 2004’s Swades, her last credited movie. She passed away of a prolonged illness on 16 October 2020, aged 91, at her Mumbai home.
Athaiya’s collaborators and those who came into her orbit remember a wildly creative yet methodic professional, who brought an impressive formal expertise to a still nascent field.
Fashion doyenne Ritu Kumar, for instance, credits Athaiya with being the first to “really get into the whole business of research and making costumes for a film that were convincing and authentic; the first in her era to do such a great job”. Kumar notes the widespread assumption that costume design is about glamour and larger-than-life designs, and while this may be true for certain types of films, one need only see Athaiya’s work on Gandhi to comprehend how much more there is to it.
“You can see the design in Gandhi at three levels — [for] the British presence in India, the freedom movement, and thirdly the abject poverty. The depiction of each required a lot of research; the logistics were mind boggling. Many of the fabrics she used were from far-flung places in Andhra Pradesh or Dhaka. She got the costumes right down to the smallest detail,” Kumar says, pointing out that Athaiya was working in a time when means of communication, retail spaces, resources etc were nowhere close to being as easily accessible as they are now. “Bhanu well deserved that Oscar,” adds Kumar. “A lot of people ask me, ‘What was in the costumes?’ That is the whole point — the authenticity and research.”
The Oscar marked a professional peak, but others were soon to follow. Athaiya won the National Film Award twice — the first time in 1990 for Gulzar’s Lekin, followed by Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan in 2002 — recognition of a rewarding career that began in the ‘40s when she was a fashion designer for Fashion & Beauty and Eve's Weekly, before transitioning to film work with Guru Dutt’s CID in 1956.
The actors Athaiya dressed would swear by her skills. It is said that Simi Garewal, who Athaiya worked with on Siddhartha (1972), recommended her name to Richard Attenborough.
Part of the Gandhi cast, Supriya Pathak recollects how Athaiya understood each character and actor in the project. The designer was tasked with making thousands of costumes within a period of three months. Pathak would later be associated with a couple of other projects that Athaiya was part of, although these never took off. “She was a wonderful person… so creative,” Pathak says. “By the time I joined films she had reduced her workload and was doing very few projects, only those that touched her heart. She understood how important comfortable costumes were, so actors could perform with ease. I always tell people around me it’s important to realise an actor has to be comfortable with performing, which is something Bhanuji taught me.”
Anu Aggarwal recounts meeting Athaiya while on a modelling assignment in 1989, and being struck by how particular the designer was during fittings, how focused on every detail. When Aggarwal was signed on for Aashiqui a mere six months later, director Mahesh Bhatt gave the go-ahead for her to have a designer of her choice for the film. Athaiya happily consented to styling Aggarwal for her debut role.
“I learnt so much from Bhanu,” says Aggarwal, of the experience. “She explained how a quarter of an inch on the shoulder would make a difference to the entire look. I have broad shoulders so she created my looks in great detail to make me look the part in Aashiqui…nobody else could have done that. She was a master craftswoman. I’ve worked with designers all over the world but no one comes close to her. Later in life, when I went into seclusion at an ashram, I kept a woolen scarf that she had gifted me.”
Athaiya’s work spanned generations. For instance, she designed for Sharmila Tagore — and for her son Saif Ali Khan. With Tagore, Athaiya had a very symbiotic relationship; she was the actress’ primary designer during her initial years in films, creating her costumes for Waqt (1965) and Dastaan (1972). Later, Tagore would team up with designers like Mani J Rabadi and Shalini. “But Bhanu, I think, liked to dress me because I could carry off her clothes,” says Tagore.
“I loved chatting with her because she was so well informed about fashion and trends. The film industry then had a hierarchy — not democratic, like it is now — but Bhanu certainly held her own,” Tagore adds. “Bhanu was among the few designers of that time who was properly trained and held a certificate; she could contour and would draw and show us her designs, giving us options for our looks. In those days, films did not even have scripts but she would try her best according to what the director and producer had told her.”
Nearly three decades after Waqt, Athaiya would design for Saif Ali Khan, for Yash Chopra’s 1993 film Parampara. Khan narrates meeting with Athaiya in Chopra’s office, as she showed him the outfits he was meant to wear in the film:
“The first item was a normal blue sleeveless, V-necked sweater. Rather boring really... I looked at her, and she laughed and said, ‘Not everything I do is going to win an Oscar! This is what your role requires!’ She had a great sense of humour…”
Khan details how Athaiya styled Parampara, matching colour schemes and styles to sets. “I saw a cohesive approach to costume design years and years before it became the norm,” he says, before dwelling on what he feels is Athaiya’s most important legacy. “It’s a wonderful thing when an Indian achieves international recognition of such high order. Certain projects bring talent from across the world together and to win an Oscar from among [Attenborough’s] crew must have given her great satisfaction. Her legacy is to encourage us all to work hard to make our country proud.”
Not just actors, Athaiya was a “repeat favourite” of many filmmakers as well. Yash Chopra, for one, but also Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor. With Kapoor, Athaiya worked on Shree 420 (1955), Sangam (1964), Mera Naam Joker (1970), Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), Prem Rog (1982) and Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985).
“Bhanu was unique in her style and approach and understood the film’s requirements; whether period or modern, she adapted so beautifully,” says Randhir Kapoor of the designer’s association with his family’s RK Studios banner. “She did such wonderful work for my father’s films and went on to design for my films as well.”
Athaiya made headlines again in December 2012 when she returned her Oscar statuette to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for safekeeping. In an interview at the time, she said, “I have no regrets at all. I am very happy that my Oscar has gone to the right place. I have wanted this for some time. I want to thank the Academy for helping me. Many Oscar winners in the past have returned their Oscars for safe keeping. It is a tradition with the Academy.”
During the same interview, she also outlined what she had been working on in the time since Swades: a Marathi film by Jayprasad Desai, a mythological TV serial, and — “I am trying to put together a book on Kolhapur, my home town and trace my family roots. There is also an effort to find some good and worthy institutes and organisations that will acquire sketches and illustrations that I have made over the years [Athaiya was an alumna of the Sir JJ School of Arts].”
Athaiya’s passing marks the end of an era for costume design in Indian cinema, but her influence lives on. Actor Raveena Tandon points to the incredibly high standards Athaiya set for the design and styling world, while designer Vikram Phadnis speaks of how much she epitomised ‘fashion design’ for him growing up.
“Bhanu Athaiya gave credibility to [Indian] costume design on an international platform. It’s not about winning a National Award or an Oscar; it’s about taking Indian fashion to a global stage,” Phadnis says. “Bhanu Athaiya made the fashion business credible.”
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