Bhanu Athaiya (1929-2020) - India's first Oscar-winning costume designer no more

Updated: 16 October, 2020 08:26 IST | Upala KBR | Mumbai

Redefining the way fashion was consumed by the most elegant in Bollywood, late costume designer Bhanu Athaiya, who brought home the Academy Award for Gandhi, is remembered by contemporaries as a maverick.

Bhanu Athaiya with Ben Kinsgely on the sets of Gandhi. Pics /Instagram
Bhanu Athaiya with Ben Kinsgely on the sets of Gandhi. Pics /Instagram

In her memoir, The Art Of Costume Design, Bhanu Athaiya recalled being the only Indian on the sets of Richard Attenborough's 1982 film, Gandhi. Her job, as costume designer for the film's Indian characters, earned India its first Academy Award (and the only one bagged by an Indian woman).

Athaiya designed the costumes of Swades; (right) the designer with Ben Kinsgely on the sets of Gandhi. PICS/Instagram
Athaiya designed the costumes of Swades

While most pertinent, it was only one among an array of accolades earned by Athaiya, who passed away yesterday in her sleep at the age of 91. The veteran costume designer had apparently been bedridden for three years, and battling a tumour for eight, only years after she released her memoir, chronicling some of the most fascinating aspects of being part of the industry.

Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan earned her a National Film Award
Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan earned her a National Film Award 

Credited for both, replicating attires (in a bid to authentically depict eras, and the society's castes and class), and redefining them (having invented the 'Mumtaz sari', complete with ready-made pleats), Athaiya is often aptly described as a "genius". "She was magical. I haven't had a better 'look' in any film," says Dimple Kapadia, whose character Reva was brought to life by Athaiya's apparels. "She was flawless. Lekin is set in the desert state of Rajasthan, but it wasn't a typical Rajasthani fabric that she used. It was a gorgeous cotton fabric. The character had to be established by using only one colour and without prints. But she still created the look beautifully, making sketches, and doing a lot of research. Apart from listening to the brief, she always interpreted characters and created costumes accordingly," says the actor of Lekin, which earned Athaiya a National Film Award for Best Costume Design.

Athaiya devised a saree with ready-made pleats and a zipper on the side for Mumtaz, who was apparently too uncomfortable to dance in a six yard. The piece made a frequent appearance in successive Bollywood films frontlined by top stars.

The fact that Athaiya was a trendsetter finds credence in the testimony of her contemporary, designer Xerxes Bhathena, who draws our attention to the ubiquitous Amrapali outfit, first made popular by Athaiya in Vyjayanthimala's Amrapali (1966). "After that, it was in every film, including those of Sridevi and Hema ji [Malini].

Dimple Kapadia
Dimple Kapadia

Nobody knew what Amrapali was until Bhanu defined it. She was such an exquisite perfectionist! Apart from costumes, she would carry jewellery in one bag, and sketches in another. We worked together in Sultanat [1986]. I was designing Sridevi's costumes, and she, for the rest of the cast. She came to me and said, 'Xerxes, thodi toh history ko daad [respect] diya karo.' I said kaun dekhta hai? I have to make the actress look glamorous. But, she was a perfectionist who would research immensely. She has dressed almost all the leading ladies of the 60s, 70s, and 80s," he says, adding that the diamond-studded costume designed by Athaiya for Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sundaram is preserved at RK Studios.

Xerxes Bhathena

Guru Dutt's CID (1956) was the former fashion illustrator's stepping stone to Bollywood. In a career spanning nearly five decades and over 100 films, she worked with filmmakers like Raj Kapoor, Kamal Amrohi, Yash Chopra, and BR Chopra.

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First Published: 16 October, 2020 07:10 IST

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