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Bhanu Athaiya: The OG fashion influencer of Indian cinema

A new show tracks 60 years of work by Bhanu Athaiya, the late costume designer who continues to define fashion

Bhanu Athaiya at the 55th Oscar Awards (1983).

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Bhanu Athaiya was always super busy. If she wasn’t sketching costumes for a film, or telling karigars on the first floor of her Colaba house in Mumbai to ensure the embroidery on a dress was properly spaced out, she would be in the lanes of Mumbai’s Zaveri Bazaar, shopping for fabric, or in a museum, reading about a traditional embroidery that might come to life in her next film project.

Being a costume designer in an era when Indian film stories were served in black and white required a different kind of modus operandi. There was no internet to tell you who wore what and when. Very few fashion history books occupied space on library shelves. You were a one-person army who did their own research to figure out what each of the 100-something film characters—from the protagonist to the crowd behind her or him—should wear to bring their role alive.

It was a process Athaiya, who died at age 91 in 2020, relished. She worked in over 100 Indian films, from 1953’s Aas to 2014’s Nagrik. She was the first Indian to win an Oscar for the country, for costumes in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982).

Now her work will be showcased in The Prinseps Exhibition: Legacy Of Bhanu Athaiya. Starting 28 January at Delhi’s Bikaner House, the show will feature over 50 works, including oil and water paintings, sketches and costumes designed for films like Lagaan (2001) and Gandhi.

Among the exhibits on display will be the dress Athaiya made for Helen in Teesri Manzil.
Among the exhibits on display will be the dress Athaiya made for Helen in Teesri Manzil.

“My mother could work for days at a stretch,” recalls Radhika Gupta, who has spent most of her life researching crafts. “My father used to say to me: ‘Your birth was held up because your mother was busy sketching and meeting a deadline.’ She was in labour but continued to work. They reached the hospital at 4am and I came at 9.30am.”

Gupta became part of her mother’s work life from the age of five. She would come home, sit with the tailors and help separate sequins on the basis of their colours. These would eventually become part of a dress Waheeda Rahman wore in Piya Tose Naina Lage Re (Guide, 1965). Some days, she would be the courier, delivering clothes for Aadmi Aur Insaan (1969) to Mumtaz. And on other occasions, she would accompany her to the bazaars of Mumbai to pick up a material that would give Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna the perfect flare in the pants for Namak Haraam (1973).

It’s this length and breadth of Athaiya’s work that Gupta wants to preserve and showcase. The first step is the four-day exhibition. The show, which took three years to put together, is meant to introduce the viewer to an individual who “influenced fashion of Indian cinema for over six decades”, says Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil, vice-president of the auction house Prinseps. “A village woman wearing a ghaghra with a embroidery to indicate she’s from Rajasthan, soft colours for the actress’ chiffon sari and a flamboyant gown for the 1970s ‘vamp’ to reflect their personalities, Athaiya was all about the details.”

Take Lagaan, for instance. Most of the characters in the film, set in warm, humid parts of central India, wore cooling cotton and Khadi, none of which matched. “While I was putting together the collection for the show, I was looking for matching ghaghra cholis and kurtas, dhotis and then Radhika (Gupta) pointed out that Bhanuji didn’t make matching clothes because it would have been a luxury for someone living in a village at the time,” recalls Gohil.

Born in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, Athaiya’s parents always encouraged her to engage with the arts. She went on to become part of the Progressive Artists’ Group, the only woman in the company of artists such as M.F. Husain and F.N. Souza, creating oil and watercolour paintings that depicted life and fantasy.

In 1952, she graduated from the Sir JJ School of Art. In between, she worked for the women’s magazine Eve’s Weekly as an illustrator. This is when she was exposed to the world of fashion and realised the joy of bringing art and fashion together.

A sketch by Bhanu Athaiya.
A sketch by Bhanu Athaiya.

This love was on full display in Amrapali (1966). Athaiya spent days in Aurangabad’s Ajanta and Ellora caves to create skin-fitted outfits for Vyjayanthimala, who played the role of a palace dancer-turned-Buddhist nun, and classic dhotis in plain and pleated silk to bring out Sunil Dutt’s role of a Magadh ruler. “Those costumes were inspired by the wall paintings at the caves,” says Gohil. “The shade of pale orange in that iconic Amrapali sari was linked to Buddhist monks.”

Her influence went beyond fashion in Indian cinema. After the release of Amrapali, the pale orange, pre-stitched sari became so popular that women would take its newspaper cuttings to tailors to own a similar design. Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai and Juhi Chawla wore versions of the pre-stitched sari on the big screen in the 1990s and 2000s. And it continues to trend till today. Even Sadhana’s skin-fit churidar with knee-length kurta-meets-tunic in Waqt (1965), which became the go-to choice for college-goers then, continues to be part of fashion in the shape of leggings worn with long tops or shirts.

“I saw this one note she wrote when she was in New York…after Gandhi was released…it said that she had seen young designers make Westernised versions of the Nehru jacket she had created while working on the film with John Mollo (who was also the costume designer for Star Wars),” recalls Gohil. “If such things happened today, they would be all over social media. Athaiya just worked quietly, without any noise.”

That’s how actor Tanuja also remembers Athaiya. “Her clothes were essentially her vision for artworks,” the actor, who worked with the costume designer in films like Jeene Ki Raah (1969) and Prem Rog (1982), told Prinseps in a recent interview. “She would learn about the story from the director and then come to us, asking how we picturise our character. I would just say to her, ‘Tumhe jo bhi theek lage wohi kar do (whatever you feel works, please do that)’,” she says. “Everyone trusted her. Even the directors gave her the freedom to do what she did. She was one of a kind.”

Gupta’s endeavour eventually is to find a space for her mother’s 1,500-plus costume creations, sketches and letters in a museum. “I want the world to see cinema from the lens of clothes. My mother did five-six films a year. She brought films alive through her designs for 60 years; it’s no small feat. I want the world to see that.”

A costume Athaiya made for an Onida ad will be on display at The Prinseps Exhibition: Legacy Of Bhanu Athaiya.
A costume Athaiya made for an Onida ad will be on display at The Prinseps Exhibition: Legacy Of Bhanu Athaiya.

The Prinseps Exhibition: Legacy Of Bhanu Athaiya will be on from 28-31 January, 10am-6pm, at Bikaner House, Delhi.

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