Article Hindi

Bhanu Athaiya (1929-2020): A titan among costume designers


The doyenne of design, who made history by becoming India's first Oscar-winner, also played a role in cultivating the country's fashion sensibilities with her work.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Who can forget Nadira’s figure-hugging dress as she seductively crooned 'Mudh Mudh Ke Na Dekh' in Shree 420 (1955)? Or Meena Kumari’s languidly draped saree in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) as she beseeches Bhootnath (Guru Dutt) to do her bidding? Or Helen’s electric flamenco gown in  Teesri Manzil (1966) or Mumtaz’s double-draped orange saree in Brahmachari (1968)? All these legendary costumes had something in common: Bhanu Athaiya.

From creating some of the most iconic looks in Hindi cinema to shaping fashion trends avidly copied by eager young women, Bhanu Athaiya’s career as costume designer has been truly remarkable.

Growing up in Kolhapur, Bhanumati Rajopadhye was exposed to culture and the arts thanks to her father, Annasaheb, who was a painter. He also made a film in which Athaiya essayed the role of young princeling. This was her first brush with cinema.

The young woman went on to study at the prestigious Sir Jamsetjee Jeejebhoy School of Art in Bombay and her exposure to the world of art gave her a keen insight into costume design, allowing her to work with traditional and modern designs with equal ease. She began by doing illustrations for the popular woman’s magazine, Eve's Weekly, and her designs began to be noticed by actresses.

Her entry into cinema was facilitated by none other than Guru Dutt, whose sister was also studying at the art institute and noticed Athaiya’s work. Dutt asked her to design costumes for Waheeda Rehman in C.I.D. (1956) and she went on to work on five films with the auteur.

While Waheeda's work captivated the young designer, she was also mesmerized by Meena Kumari. “Her mannerism, her voice, her gestures, are deeply imprinted in my mind,” Athaiya once said in an interview. “She inspired me to do my best work for her in Sahib, Bibi Aur Ghulam.” The actress only gave the designer one instruction: to ensure that the Bengali sarees she was required to wear in the film did not look fluffy on her.

Meena Kumari in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962)

The relationship between cinema and fashion seems quite intertwined in current times, with celebrity designers and their high-profile muses. But in the 1950s, the Hindi film industry had tailors and dressmen who would make or supply clothes for certain stars. Athaiya broke into this male bastion of dresswalas and masterjis, and defined her craft as being much more than merely measuring and stitching clothes.

Besides Guru Dutt, Athaiya also started working with actor-filmmaker Raj Kapoor. She was introduced to Kapoor by his co-star Nargis and her first assignment was to design the costumes for Nadira in Shree 420.

The association with Kapoor continued and Athaiya went on to hone her craft and design costumes in line with the filmmaker’s vision. Every film of Kapoor’s gave her the opportunity to do something different and excited her. Sangam (1964), Bobby (1973), Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) and Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985) are just some of the films on which they worked together. The association continued till Henna (1991), completed by Kapoor's son Randhir.

Dimple Kapadia in Bobby (1973)

While most designers today rely on widely circulated visual assumptions about traditional dresses, Athaiya relied on extensive research to make her costumes look authentic. She visited the Ajanta caves to dress Vyjayanthimala as a royal courtesan from 500 BC in Amrapali (1966), stayed at Pochina village in Rajasthan to design costumes for Sunil Dutt's dacoit drama Reshma Aur Shera (1971) and, if rumours are to be believed, even persuaded Indira Gandhi to give her access to her father's wardrobe while researching for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), the film that won her an Academy award in 1983 (shared with John Mollo).

In Athaiya's book The Art of Costume Design, Attenborough wrote in his foreword, “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.” 

Gandhi was Bhanu Athaiya's biggest achievement, as the film offered a wide canvas for her craft. By this time, she had been working for more than 20 years in Indian cinema. Talking about the film in an interview, she said, “It was not a simple film... the film covered a 50-year life span of Gandhi. It required a huge understanding not only of one character, but of all the characters and the people around in those 50 years. This was not an easy task at all.”

While Athaiya was naturally filled with trepidation at the enormity of the task at hand, she threw herself at it nevertheless, making her an obvious choice for the prestigious Oscar. Sadly, she returned the award to the Academy in 2012 as she felt there were no institutions that would preserve it in India and her family would not care for it either.

Ben Kingsley and Rohini Hattangady in Gandhi (1982)

With her attention to detail, Athaiya’s clothes were crucial in cultivating the fashion sensibilities of a modern, urban India. The figure-hugging kameezes with churidars worn by Sadhana in Waqt (1965) inspired an entire generation of young women and bridged the traditional and the modern with sexiness and ease. Similarly, Bobby had a fisherman’s daughter, the nubile Dimple Kapadia, dressed in bikinis and Ellie May blouses that spoke of a confident young sexuality.

Throughout her illustrious career, Bhanu Athaiya worked with the more notable directors of the time from Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor through Dev Anand and BR Chopra to Ashutosh Gowariker. She won the National award for Lagaan (2001), for which she conceptualized the costumes of each of the principal characters based on their profession, and used a diverse colour palette to distinguish between the tastes of British and Indian women.

Aamir Khan and Gracy Singh in Lagaan (2001)

Bhanu Athaiya’s pioneering creations for more than 100 films set numerous fashion trends over the decades, some of which still resonate in popular culture. She will remain the titan among costume designers in the country, the one who broke the glass ceiling through sheer grit and talent.

Yesterday, aged 91, Bhanu Athaiya passed into the ages after a long battle with a brain tumour that was diagnosed eight years ago and which had left her paralysed. The last rites were conducted at the Chandanwadi crematorium in South Mumbai.