Bhanu Athaiya, the legendary costume designer whose creations shaped the look of Hindi cinema between the 1950s and the 2000s, died on Thursday at the age of 91 in Mumbai. She had been ailing for several years. Athaiya is survived by her daughter, Radhika Gupta.
Gupta told the news agency PTI, “Eight years ago, she was diagnosed with a tumour in her brain. For the last three years, she was bedridden because one side [of her body] was paralysed.”
Athiya worked in close to a hundred Indian films. She was the first Indian to win an Oscar, for Richard Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi (1982). Athaiya shared the honour with her British collaborator John Mollo.
“This is too good to be true,” Athaiya said in her acceptance speech. “Thank you, Sir Richard Attenborough, for focusing world attention on India.”
Athaiya dressed a long list of movie stars. Her most well-regarded films, which sent thousands of women viewers scurrying to their tailors for knock-offs of the clothes the stars had worn on screen, included Amrapali, Waqt, Brahmachari, Teesri Manzil, Guide, Reshma Aur Shera, 1942: A Love Story, Lagaan and Swades.
Many fans don’t remember screen icons only for their performances. They can also recall precisely what they were wearing in a song or a scene – and that extra layer of memory is provided by the costume designer.
Athaiya worked across genres, including romance, period and thriller. Her outfits combined Indian and Western styles and were worn by urban as well as rural characters. Among the historical figures she dressed up in biopics were MK Gandhi and BR Ambedkar.
The directors with whom Athaiya worked reads like a Who’s Who of Indian cinema – Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, BR Chopra, Yash Chopra, Vijay Anand, Raj Khosla, Ashutosh Gowariker, Jabbar Patel and Vidhu Vinod Chopra.
She worked at a time when the chief requirement was to make heroines look glamorous and desirable. In early films, she was credited as the “dress designer”.
“Before I entered the scene, things worked very differently,” she explained in an interview with Rediff.com in 2010. “What one saw in the film industry was that the director and set designer would put their heads together and call in a tailor. Or go shopping. My stepping in relieved them of this tension. I would listen to the director, make a sketch, meet the actor and finalise the outfit.”
The nuances that Athaiya wove into the costumes enhanced characterisation. In Yash Chopra’s Aadmi Aur Insaan (1969), Athaiya threw in a scarf for the heroine Mumtaz that served as “a prop with which to exude the aura of a femme fatale”, observed Sujata Assomull in 100 Iconic Bollywood Costumes (Roli Books, 2019). For the movie’s popular song Zindagi Ittefaq Hain, Mumtaz was squeezed into figure-hugging dresses with slits that conveyed her character’s sensuality.
Athaiya also created one of Mumtaz’s best-known costumes – a candy-orange, pre-pleated sari that resembled an ankle-length skirt. Mumtaz wore the ensemble in the song Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyaar Ke Charche from Bhappi Sonie’s Brahmachari (1969). The design is an example of both imagination and expediency – Mumtaz needed to freely wriggle her hips and match steps with co-star Shammi Kapoor for the vigorously choreographed track.
“I wanted to do full justice to Mumtaz’s attractive and free spirit,” Athaiya wrote in her memoir The Art of Costume Design (HarperCollins India, 2010). “The lyrics of the song, the mischief in Mumtaz’s eyes and the spirit of the dress all came together to create a legend in Hindi commercial cinema.” The garment, which had a zip on the side to permit easy movement, came to be known as the Mumtaz sari.
Another costume that was closely associated with its wearer was Sadhana’s fitting churidar and knee-length tunic in Yash Chopra’s Waqt (1965). “The salwar kameez was starting to grow in popularity in movies as the college girl’s choice of clothing,” Assomull observes in 100 Iconic Bollywood Costumes. “In Waqt, this loose salwar was traded in for the tighter churidar, whilst the kameez boasted a tight cut and was above the knee in length – almost like a form-fitting dress…. The Lycra-legging-style churidar, which you now find in department stores such as Westside and Lifestyle, can be traced back to this look.”
The costumes were the result of creativity as well as research. Athaiya created some of her most alluring clothes for Lekh Tandon’s Amrapali (1966), based on the fourth-century legend of the palace dancer who became a Buddhist nun. The movie gave pop culture the Amrapali sari – a low-cut bustier paired with a dhoti drape.
If the film’s heroine, Vyjayanthimala, looked as though she had stepped out of a fresco, the effect was intended. Athaiya based her costumes on the wall paintings at the Ajanta caves in Aurangabad. She used a shade of pale orange associated with Buddhist monks who used locally grown parijat flowers to dye their robes, she said in her autobiography. The film’s hero, Sunil Dutt, who played the ruler of Magadh, was given a “classical dhoti drape” in “plain and pleated silk” with a silver belt around his waist to convey his royal status.
“The way I was made to look, it was meant to be an all-illusion; so all the costumes were in very thin fabric in skin colour,” Vyjayanthimala wrote in her autobiography Bonding... A Memoir (Stellar Publishers, 2007). “The costume looked somewhat bare, but it was skin-fitted, and Bhanu lent that authenticity.”
Athaiya could recreate mundane reality as deftly as she could conjure up oopmh. In Search of Gandhi, Richard Attenborough’s account of the making of the Mahatma Gandhi biopic, attributed “…the veracity of the period clothes worn both by the huge crowds and the principal actors” to Athaiya’s “eagle eye”.
Athaiya was initially intimidated by the production: “The stark look of Gandhi’s dhoti was frightening in comparison to the razzle-dazzle of Hindi cinema,” she wrote in her memoir. She ended up splitting responsibilities with John Mollo, and handled all the Indian costumes.
“The looks of the principal characters had to undergo constant change with age, as the story progressed,” Athaiya recalled. “I worked day and night, like a person possessed, to meet the deadline. I would comb the museums and libraries in Delhi to gather all my reference material.” The costumes for Gandhi, played by Ben Kingsley, mirror his transformation from urbane barrister into political fakir and mesh seamlessly with the production design and cinematography.
She was born Bhanumati Rajopadhye on April 28, 1929, in Kolhapur. She was one of seven children. Her father was a self-taught artist and photographer who also worked in the productions of pioneering Indian filmmaker Baburao Painter. Annasaheb Rajopadhye even co-directed a mythological, Mohini, in 1940. Bhanu had a small role in the film as a prince. He died when Bhanu Athaiya was 10.
Athaiya credited her father with being “her guiding light”. She praised her mother, Shantabai, for giving her the “freedom to move to a big city in pursuit of my studies at a time when women did not have such opportunities…”
Athaiya travelled to Mumbai as a teenager to learn painting at the JJ School of Art. Since admissions were closed that year, she enrolled at a private art school and started working as an illustrator at the magazine Fashion and Beauty. When a new women’s magazine called Eve’s Weekly was launched, Athaiya switched jobs.
She finally managed to join JJ School of Art, and graduated in 1952. Her life may have been different if she had pursued her talent for painting. The Progressive Artists’ Group had been formed around the time. Its founding members included some of India’s future canvas kings – MF Husain, FN Souza, KH Ara, SH Raza. Athaiya, who was then working under her maiden name Bhanu Rajopadhye, contributed three works to the third PAG show in Mumbai in 1953 – she was the only woman to have this honour.
Athaiya’s contribution to Indian modernist art was commemorated by the show The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India at the Asia Society Museum in New York City in 2018. Co-curator Zehra Jumabhoy wrote in an essay titled A Progressive Revolution? The Modern and the Secular in Indian Art that although “Rajopadhye’s career as an artist did not last long –she was quickly seduced by the movie industry – two of her paintings from the 1953 exhibition suggest that she shared stylistic commonalities with Husain and Gaitonde early in their careers, being similarly inspired by seventeenth-century Pahari miniatures”.
Athaiya’s teachers at JJ School of Art included VS Gaitonde, a member of the Progressive Artists’ Group. Gaitonde marked the association in the 1952 painting Portrait of Bhanu.
In July 2020, a selection of Athaiya’s pencil sketches and paintings, which were made before and during her years at the JJ School of Art, were auctioned by Prinseps Auction House and Gallery.
“I was advised by my senior artist friends to continue painting, as I definitely had the talent to make it in the world of art,” Athaiya wrote. “I was faced with a big decision, but to me it was clear I needed to stand on my own feet, and fashion designing was the more practical option.”
Athaiya had little time to regret her choice. Apart from doing illustrations for Eve’s Weekly, she was designing clothes at a boutique, and her clients included movie stars such as Kamini Kaushal and Nargis. Athaiya began designing individual pieces for films in 1953, including an outfit for Nargis for a song in Ek Tha Raja Ek Thi Rani, which began production in the late 1950s. The movie wasn’t completed, but a photograph of Nargis’s piscine-themed gown survives.
The big league beckoned when Nargis introduced Athaiya to Raj Kapoor. For his Shree 420 (1955), Athaiya worked on the costumes worn by second lead Nadira. “She was to do a few cabaret numbers,” Athaiya wrote. “I gave Nadira an unconventional look, with just the right touch.” Shree 420 has one of Hindi cinema’s most seductive dance numbers, Mud Mud Ke Na Dekh, in which Nadira wears a “costume with a snake-like border coiling from hemline to neck” to communicate her crooked intentions.
Athaiya forged a long connection with Raj Kapoor, designing the costumes for Sangam (1964), Mera Naam Joker (1970), Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), Prem Rog (1982) and Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985). Athaiya also worked with Kapoor’s contemporary Guru Dutt on his productions Pyaasa (1957), Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) and Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962).
When colour replaced black and white in Hindi cinema, Athaiya began tapping into her sensitivity to the distinctive Indian palette and her knowledge of local craft and weaving traditions. Gunga Jumna (1961), directed by Nitin Bose and ghost-directed by lead actor Dilip Kumar, was set in rural Uttar Pradesh. This was the first time that “actual Indian handlooms and handicrafts were used” in a movie, Athaiya said in her memoir. “The Handloom House had opened a huge showroom on Mahatma Gandhi Road in Mumbai… I came across a range of village prints and saris here, which were extremely authentic.”
For Reshma Aur Shera (1971), Athaiya visited Pochina in Rajasthan, the location of the story about star-crossed lovers, and “collected detailed information on every aspect of life in that village in order to conceive the look of the costumes”, she wrote. Directed by Sunil Dutt and starring him and Waheeda Rehman, Reshma Aur Shera was a career high for Athaiya on account of the freedom she was given to implement her vision. She attended a wedding to make notes on how the local women dressed and bedecked themselves, and closely studied turban tying styles.
For Gulzar’s Lekin (1990), also set in Rajasthan, Dimple Kapadia, who played a ghost, wore clothes that were “in shades and tones that had to blend with the background, so that she could emerge suddenly from the backdrop like a shadow”, Athaiya wrote. She won a National Film Award for her costumes.
While Athaiya was the first Indian to get an Oscar, she was associated with another production that made it to the shortlist of entries in the Foreign Language category. Ashutosh Gowariker’s period drama Lagaan (2001), about a cricket match waged between Indian villagers and British colonisers, is among Athaiya’s most significant projects.
“I conceived and executed the entire look for this film, from the villagers of Champaner, to the British regiment and the group of English civilians,” she wrote. “There were a number of interesting requirements ranging from the cricket costumes and gear, the British military uniforms and dashing red jackets for the ball, to the ladies’ graceful evening gowns, as well as the village dresses.”
Once again, Athaiya visited the location, in Bhuj in Gujarat, for inspiration. She used only khadi and handloom fabrics and dressed the Indian women in bright colours and their British counterparts in pale pastels.
She fell seriously ill during the shoot but persevered: “Two months before the shooting began, on 28 December, I woke up one morning and found my face paralysed on one side!” she wrote. “I carried on with my work, but confined myself to the wardrobe department and covered my face with dupattas for the entire shoot.”
Athaiya’s credits in the 2000s included Jabbar Patel’s Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Swades (2004). For Swades, Athaiya dressed up Shah Rukh Khan in casual and yet dapper shirts and jeans, a mark of his Westernised ways. Her last major project was the television series Mahabharat in 2013.
In 2012, Athaiya returned her Oscar statuette to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for safekeeping. “I have no regrets at all. I am very happy that my Oscar has gone to the right place,” she told the news agency PTI at the time. She had previously donated several documents, photographs, production notes and letters about the making of Gandhi to the Academy.
Athaiya’s legacy survives beyond these pieces of paper and her pictorial autobiography in the movies that she helped shape with her unique eye and firm hand.