Award-Winning Costume Designer Bhanu Athaiya Turns 85

Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya won India’s first Oscar 31 years ago for her work in Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi.”

India’s first Oscar winner and costume whizkid Bhanu Athaiya celebrated her 85th birthday Apr. 28. Athaiya planned to ring in her birthday with her family and close friends. While her last project was the television series “Mahabharat,” produced by Swastik Pictures, she has decided to stop taking on work. But she has not retired — with daughter Radhika Gupta, she will now work on a plan to make her work available for researchers and future generations to come.

Athaiya has created a substantial body of work in a career spanning over 60 years. According to Gupta, the idea is to eventually make available Athaiya’s sketches, costumes, photographs and other materials that have been part of her research to future scholars and researchers. Already, the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences in Los Angeles possesses a small collection of her works that was donated to them by Athaiya in 2012 along with her Oscar statuette. In fact, a selection of her costume sketches was showcased at the East West Gallery in Honolulu as recently as January 2014 as part of an exhibition on Indian cinema.

Athaiya won India’s first Oscar in a competitive category 31 years ago for her costumes in Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi.” The award was shared with British counterpart John Mollo.

By the time Hollywood came knocking on her door, Athaiya had worked with greats such as Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, B.R. Chopra, Yash Chopra, Ramanand Sagar, Raj Khosla, L.V. Prasad, Ashutosh Gowariker, Jabbar Patel and Vidhu Vinod Chopra.

Film stars she has dressed include Sunil Dutt, Ben Kingsley, Waheeda Rehman, Meena Kumari, Shashi Kapoor, Simi Garewal, Sadhana, Amitabh Bachchan, Nargis, Nadira, Sharmila Tagore, Pran, Vyjayanthimala, Sridevi, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Madhuri Dixit, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Prem Chopra, Dimple Kapadia, Anil Kapoor, Manisha Koirala and many others.

She is the only Indian woman to have won an Oscar and says that she has been married to her profession for over six decades!

Athaiya was born to a progressive Maharashtrian family in Kolhapur Apr. 28, 1929 as the third of seven children to Annasaheb and Shantabai Rajopadhye. “My father was a great artist, and he encouraged both my mother and me towards artistic pursuits,” says Athaiya when we meet up at her downtown Mumbai studio. “I had an art teacher come home to teach me, but my father had a major role in this. He said that any student of art and craft must have a steady hand, so he made me do portraits in paper-cutting with scissors. The first portrait I made was of Mahatma Gandhi. It seemed pre-destined that when I was to win an Oscar, it was for a film on his life!”

Athaiya’s father was an artist in every sense of the word. He died when she was just nine but by then had already produced and directed a few films in Marathi and Hindi, and exposed his wife and daughter to plays staged in Kolhapur in English, like “Red Oleander.” The lady behind the plays was Hima Devi and she suggested that Athaiya come down to Mumbai and study fine arts.

After graduation from school, Athaiya began staying with Hima’s mother Meera Devi in Mumbai. She was late for admission to that academic year at the J.J. School of Art and so began to do a short course during the waiting period. With her natural flair and imagination, she simultaneously became a fashion illustrator in Fashion & Design magazine and later moved to the newly-launched Eve’s Weekly, getting her first cover on the auspicious occasion of Aug. 15, 1947.

“My designs were fast noticed by celebrities and film stars,” says Athaiya. “Kamini Kaushal was the first to approach me for her personal wardrobe. She then put me on to her filmmakers. My first three movies came in 1953 — her films ‘Aas’ and ‘Chalis Baba Ek Chor’ and Amiya Chakravorty’s ‘Shahenshah.’”

Athaiya did not need anything else artistic after she began doing work for cinema. “For me, it became a way to express myself and let my imagination soar beyond imagination. It was so fulfilling that I did not feel the need to do anything else, like opening a boutique. Top stars started approaching me on their own and recommending me to filmmakers,” says the lady. 

Nargis insisted that she go and meet Raj Kapoor during “Shree 420” (1955). The association continued till Kapoor’s swan song “Ram Teri Ganga Maili” (1985) to include landmark films like “Sangam,” “Mera Naam Joker,” “Bobby,” “Satyam Shivam Sundaram” and “Prem Rog.” 

An understanding of Indian culture, strong research and extensive traveling (even as a student) to different parts of the country and making innumerable sketches of people, monuments and costumes, helped Athaiya. “The earlier designers in films did not have my kind of background. For example, though for me there was not all that great a difference in my approach when color came into Hindi cinema, I knew that it was not necessary to wear dull costumes and bore an actor in the black and white days. I knew that red dresses for example would appear the same way as a gray costume, so I would make them wear red and feel bright!”

Her Kolhapur background helped her in a big way, too, as it was a princely state and Athaiya was always exposed to its grandeur. “That helped me give additional free reign to my imagination, along with my preference for directors who were very creative, like Raj Kapoor or Guru Dutt. I was never a factory that churned out multiple films a year. It was never money for me, only expression and research. I did anything to exercise my imagination and skills.”

Of course, Athaiya did complete films in all cases. “That included accessories from jewelry to shoes, turbans and scarves. It was not only about actresses but also men and junior artists.”

A select filmography of Athaiya’s work also includes “C.I.D,” “Pyaasa,” “Waqt,” “Amrapali,” “Suraj,” “Anita,”  “Milan,” “Guide,” “Abhinetri,” “Johny Mera Naam,” “Karz,” “Ek Duuje Ke Liye,” “Razia Sultan,” “Nikaah,” and “1942 - A Love Story” from over 150 films in almost 60 years. 

The technical side always received scant attention in Indian cinema, so for Athaiya, work was its own reward till “Gandhi” changed everything. How did she get the film? “Sir Richard Attenborough was visiting India for almost 17 years to get into the subject of his project,” she recalls.

“He asked his coordinator to get India’s best designer. The coordinator thought of me. India was a complex country, and Gandhi's life in turn was also so varied, from the chapters in Africa to Delhi, Gujarat and more spread across 50 years. I knew India in and out because of my travels and Sir Richard liked me. In 15 minutes, in that first meeting, he told me that he had found his designer. We set base in Delhi’s Ashok Hotel for two months, and Ben Kingsley (who played Gandhi) and I would go visit museums, art galleries and markets and brought everything from a drape to a shawl for everyone. In the funeral sequence, there were thousands who had to be attired suitably.”

Athaiya’s nomination for the Oscars was an event. “All the other nominees told me that I would win! When I did, I thanked Sir Richard onstage for focusing world attention on India.”

Shortly after, Athaiya was nominated as a Voting Member of the Academy, which she continues to be till date. And yes, Sir Richard still sends her a Christmas card.

Athaiya’s work with filmmakers outside India is not restricted to “Gandhi.” She has done Conrad Rook’s “Siddhartha,” in which Simi Garewal had her much-publicized nude scene, and Krishna Shah’s Indian American production “Shalimar,” both in the ‘70s. There was also the German short film, “The Cloud Door.” Why did she not do Marathi films? “Oh, if they approached me, I did even Marathi plays. Amol Palekar worked with me on ‘Dhyasparva.’”

Athaiya won the National Award twice — for “Lekin” (1991) and “Lagaan” (2001). She has also written the book “The Art of Costume Design,” published in 2000. Athaiya does not like to talk about her broken marriage. “I love traveling around the world, which is also my continuing education,” she declares. “One has to keep one’s eyes, heart and mind open. Nothing else matters. I barely notice what I have for my meals. Thanks to my profession, there is not a dull moment in my life.”

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