Indian costume designer Bhanu Athaiya, who passed away on Thursday at the age of 91 in Mumbai, was perhaps the first scholarly, professional costume designer in Indian cinema. Her creations played a key role in shaping a distinct identity for Indian fashion from the 1950s to the 2000s.
Athaiya, who started out as a fashion illustrator for women's magazines, worked in almost 100 films over a decades-long career, and became the first Indian to win an Academy Award for Costume Design for her work with British collaborator John Mollo in Sir Richard Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi (1982). In her Oscar speech, Athaiya said, “This is too good to be true. Thank you, Sir Richard Attenborough, for focusing world attention on India.”
Having worked with directors like Raj Kapoor, Yash Chopra and Guru Dutt in the beginning of her career, Athaiya continued to work through the late 90s and early noughties with younger filmmakers like Ashutosh Gowariker and Vidhu Vinod Chopra. Her work spanned across films of various genres, including romance, thrillers and period films, where she was able to combine her understanding of Indian as well as global styles and trends.
Lounge lists some memorable films in which her work helped bring iconic characters to life.
In Yash Chopra’s film, based on a family reuniting after a tragic earthquake, Athaiya dressed the film’s actor, Sadhana, in many body-hugging churidar-kameezes that cut right above the knees. The trend became immensely popular among young girls at the time.
Lekh Tandon’s film was based on the legend of a palace dancer who became a Buddhist nun. Lead actor Vyjayanthimala was styled by Athaiya, who had taken inspiration from wall paintings at the Ajanta caves in Aurangabad. The low-cut bustier paired with the dhoti sari came to be known as the Amrapali sari.
Who could possibly forget the bright orange sari that looked as though it was moulded around the film’s actor, Mumtaz? In Bhappi Sonie’s film, Athaiya designed a pre-pleated sari with a diaphanous ankle-length skirt for the actor to be able to dance freely in the song Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyaar Ke Charche.
Sir Richard Attenborough’s film marked a winning streak for Athaiya, who recreated the reality of MK Gandhi, right from a barrister to the father independent India. The transformation was consistent and as accurate as could be. Athaiya also undertook the task of dressing the film’s thousands of 'extras' (character actors) in relevant costumes, accurately recreating pre-Independence era Indian society.
Ashutosh Gowarikar’s film about a wagered cricket match between Indian villagers and British colonisers was another production that was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Athaiya’s work for the entire film translated into several costumes, ranging from those of the villagers in handloom textiles to the pale finery of the British colonialists.
Another one of Gowarikar’s productions marked the last film in which Athaiya was credited as a costume designer. In the story, a successful NRI scientist, played by Shah Rukh Khan, returns to an Indian village rediscovers his roots. For this, Athaiya dressed in smart shirts and jeans as sign of his westernized lifestyle, while his co-star, Gayatri Joshi, who played a schoolteacher, was dressed in bright, Indian prints on saris and many salwar-kameez.
Also read: A rare showcase of Bhanu Athaiya's paintings