In Memoriam: Bhanu Athaiya

In Memoriam: Bhanu Athaiya

The costumer of ‘Gandhi’, the half-clad fakir of India is dead. Long live her styles and interpretation of Indian dressing 

The collage of images on the cover of Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya’s book The Art of Costume Design (HarperCollins 2010), says a lot if not all. There is actor Raakhee in the garb of a traditional Rajasthani bride from the film Reshma aur Shera (1971), with ivory bangles up to her upper arms, tonnes of silver and a deeply eye-lined gaze. There is a sketch of a seductive. flamenco dancer’s red costume for Helen in Teesri Manzil (1966). There is a photograph of once upon a time “top heroine” Mumtaz in an orange sari in the film Brahmachari (1968) draped in a tiered fashion long before it became trendy to experiment with the sari drape. And there is a cropped image of Ben Kingsley as Gandhi from Richard Attenborough’s unforgettable 1982 film.

The cover reflects the costuming oeuvre of Bhanu Athaiya who died in her Mumbai home at the age of 91, on October 15 after battling a brain tumour for many years. The Kolhapur-born Athaiya’s talent for curating and pairing jewellery, her understanding of ethnic costumes; a clingy, item girl gown-dress long before the word “item” arrived in Bollywood; her skill at sketching; a modernistic sari drape and a photograph from the film that would win Athaiya an Oscar (she shared it with John Mallo).


The cover of Bhanu Athaiya’s book The Art of Costume Design.

For all those from Indian film fraternities who argue that their work and talent is not validated by an Oscar award, it may be important to note that almost all the obituaries that have been pouring out since yesterday after Athaiya breathed her last, start with the words “Gandhi” and “Oscars”. Even though she returned the award in 2012 for fear of it being stolen.

By inviting Athaiya to costume Gandhi the film that took 17 years to complete, Attenborough who would go on to write the foreword for Athaiya’s The Art of Costume Design gave her a once in a millennium opportunity to depict the idea of India during the Freedom National Movement. A defining moment in colonial and Indian history. When khadi was being spun as a spiritual and economic institution, when Indian identity is what people wore on their sleeves. Actor Rohini Hattangadi’s (she played Kasturba in Gandhi) obituary of Athaiya in today’s Hindustan Times (October 16) draws attention to many an attentive detail of Athaiya’s work for that unforgettable film.


Photo: Twitter/cinestaan

A still from ‘Gandhi’ featuring Ben Kingsley and Rohini Hattangadi.


Not only did Athaiya find saris with Parsi gara borders for Hattangadi’s Kasturba but she imagined and executed the look of large patriotic crowds as well as exemplary individuals at a time when India was not about conspicuousness. In ways so memorable that made Attenborough write, “Single-handedly through the costumes they would wear, she had pieced together and brought alive the historic journey to be undertaken by the script’s main characters.”


Photo: Twitter/Muvi

Waheeda Rehman in a still from Chaudhvin Ka Chand.


Gandhi and Oscar remain two memorable facets of Athaiya’s career. But they are not all. Her artistic sketches that expressed her costume designs, the way she imagined the bodies and personas of Indian heroes and heroines through sex appeal, history, romance, grief and tales of buffoonery made her who she was. She styled Bollywood before styling could be attributed to what she did. From Saira Banu’s figure-hugging churidar and sleeveless kurta in Jhuk Gaya Aasman (1968) to Waheeda Rehman’s stunning bridal looks in Chaudvi Ka Chand (1960). From Nargis’s mermaid gown for Ek Tha Raja Ek Thi Rani made in the mid-1950s to costumes for the British regiment in Lagaan (2001). From Nadira’s bare shouldered dress worn with a knotted, chain necklace in Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 (1955) to the high-on-steroids and turbans Rajasthani male cast of Sunil Dutt, Amrish Puri and Amitabh Bachchan in Reshma aur Shera (1971).

Not everything Athaiya created was gob smacking. Films like Ajooba or Abdullah, Sultanat, Pukar or Tarang among many others were never spoken about for their styling. But then there were many iconic looks. Mera Naam Joker (1970) depicting stages of life; Vyjanthimala’s saris worn with sleeveless blouses and armlets in Sangam (1964), Zeenat Aman and Vijay Arora’s bell bottoms in Yaadon Ki Baarat (1973), Rekha’s ethnic ensembles for Mr Natwarlal (1979), Dev Anand’s cap worn lopsided and his scarves in Guide (1965)…


Photo: Twitter/@NFAIOfficial

Sadhana and Raaj Kumar in a still from the movie Waqt.


Many looks, many films, many fabrics, silks, tulles, cottons, prints, diaphanous chiffons, princes and paupers, she sketched them, dressed them all. In the ways that Athaiya’s heroines would tie saris, the way they carried their salwar kameez, flick hair, straighten jackets, look coy or cute told us about the socio-economic phase India was going through. Rishi Kapoor’s dance costumes in Karz (1980) are remembered till today. If Satyam Shivam Sundaram’s (1978) short, white tribal drapes that made Zeenat Aman smoulder as a village girl revealed Athaiya’s interpretative boldness, the Islamic costumes for a demure Salma Agha fighting for her rights as a woman in Nikaah (1982) showed skill with modest attire.

With Athaiya’s passing after more than a 100 films in 60 years, multiple awards including a Lifetime Achievement Award from Filmfare in 2009, a chapter of Bollywood style and costuming comes to an end.


Banner: (L-R) Mumtaz in a still from ‘Brahmachari’; Bhanu Athaiya holding her Oscars trophy for Best Costume Design at the Academy Awards, 1983.  Courtesy: Twitter/DDIndialive