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Auction alert: a rare showcase of Bhanu Athaiya's paintings

Early artworks by the Academy Award-winning costume designer are being displayed online by Prinseps.

'Vishwamitra Menaka' by Bhanu Athaiya, Photo: courtesy Prinseps
'Vishwamitra Menaka' by Bhanu Athaiya, Photo: courtesy Prinseps

A series of evocative pencil sketches can be seen on the website of the auction house and gallery Prinseps, the most striking one being a portrait of a girl, flanked by two deer. These constitute some of the early work of Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya, a noted costume designer and the first Indian to win an Academy Award for her costumes in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982). Some of these sketches and paintings, rarely seen, go back to her teenage and time at the Mumbai-based Sir JJ School of Art.

“Bhanu hailed from a Kolhapure family which was well-versed with the arts. Her father, Annasaheb Rajopadhye, was a painter and one of the earliest film-makers. Their home was frequented by the likes of Baburao Painter, who was a film-maker and stage painter. So that was the kind of environment she grew up in," says Indrajit Chatterjee, director and founder of Prinseps, which has been tasked with putting up the Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya estate on view, and, eventually, sale. Of particular interest are the portraits she did as a 14- or 15-year-old, such as a 1944 portrait of a girl. There are also collages and cutouts from an even younger age.

'Prayer', photo: courtesy Prinseps
'Prayer', photo: courtesy Prinseps

The site showcases just eight-nine of the 50 early works at present but all of them will be on view eventually. “She was a gold medallist at the Sir JJ School of Art. And she went on to become the only woman to be part of the last exhibition by the Progressive Artists’ Group in 1953," says Chatterjee.

The 1953 catalogue mentions two works by Bhanu Rajopadhye: Prayer and Bananas. She was mentored by V.S. Gaitonde, who also painted a portrait of her in 1952, titling it Portrait of Bhanu. “Some of her early works from the Sir JJ School of Art carry the influence of Amrita Sher-Gil, but soon her style transformed into the figurative, going into the abstract. One can see that in Lady in Repose, which was done in 1952. It is a very iconic work," says Chatterjee.

The estate has come up for auction for the first time and is of great significance, with Athaiya being the only woman artist in the Progressive Artists’ group and the first Academy Award winner for India. Prinseps may have preferred multiple previews but in a pandemic-stricken world, it’s looking at an online preview of all the works—and an auction later this year. 

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