The renowned costume designer Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya, who died on October 15, was also a trained and skilled artist. Athaiya graduated from Mumbai’s JJ School of Art in 1952. She was the only woman to have three paintings at a show by the Progressive Artists’ Group in Mumbai in 1953. In 1982, she became the first Indian to win an Oscar, for Richard Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi.
Athaiya’s paintings and drawings were made between 1945 and 1952, before she set out to design costumes for Hindi films. A selection of her works will be auctioned by Prinseps Auction House & Gallery on December 2. The auction comprises 32 lots, which includes Athaiya’s drawings for the magazine Eve’s Weekly in the 1950s.
“Whilst we sadly lost Bhanu in October after a prolonged illness, we are determined to share her incredible legacy with the world,” Prinseps said in a foreword to the auction catalogue. “For those of us moved to do what we do for the sake of art and art historical discovery, to chance upon an estate such as that of Bhanu Athaiya is an extraordinary moment of serendipity.”
In her autobiography The Art of Costume Design (HarperCollins India, 2010), Athaiya wrote, “Noticing my interest in art, my father engaged a person to teach me paper craft when I was eight years old.”
In a commemorative exhibition of the Progressive Artists’ Group in 2018, titled The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India, co-curator Zehra Jumabhoy wrote in her essay 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 [MF] Husain and [VS] Gaitonde early in their careers, being similarly inspired by seventeenth-century Pahari miniatures”.
Athaiya explained her decision to switch to costume design in her memoir: “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. 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’s early influences included the artworks she encountered during her formative years in Kolhapur, where she was born on April 28, 1929. “Artist Dhurandhar’s paintings were displayed at the Kolhapur Palace,” she wrote in her memoir. “It was a common sight to see artists with their easels propped up and painting at scenic spots like the Mahalakshmi Temple, around Rankala Lake, and on the banks of the Panchganga River. All this caused a deep impression on me and I took to drawing at a young age.”
“Had Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya continued to practise as a painter, she would certainly have been a major presence in her pioneering generation of cultural practitioners in newly independent India,” art curator Ranjit Hoskote said in his essay for the auction catalogue.
Commenting on her painting Prayer (1952), Hoskote wrote, “‘Prayer’ is dominated by the figure of a female supplicant kneeling before an altar, her body stylised into a quasi-Cubist arrangement of angles and curves, yet with the texture and drape of fabric, the pulse of breath, the living human subject made palpable to us.”
After Athaiya moved from Kolhapur to Mumbai, she stayed at the residence of theatre director Hima Devi Kesarkodi, she wrote in her autobiography. Kesarkodi’s mother, Meera Devi, was an assistant editor at the Fashion & Beauty magazine. Meera Devi showed Athaiya’s sketches to her editor, who then hired Athaiya as an illustrator. “The brief was simple: I had to draw inspiration from India’s heritage and showcase it in my fashion designs,” Athaiya wrote.
Athaiya later moved to the newly established magazine Eve’s Weekly. “Every Saturday, my large-sized fashion illustrations would cover two pages of the magazine and soon they became the talk of the town,” she wrote.
The illustrations became so popular that her editor started a boutique that displayed Athaiya’s designs. “Apart from the elegant society ladies who would drop in, film personalities also started calling on me,” Athaiya wrote in The Art of Costume Design.
Her clients included the movie stars Kamini Kaushal and Nargis. Soon, filmmakers started dropping in too, including Yash Chopra and Ramanand Sagar. “There was a pressing demand to work full time at costume designing, and I had to make yet another choice – either pursue fashion design or move to costume designing for films,” Athaiya recalled. “I chose to move to the world of films as it promised a wider scope, and a more exciting and fulfilling experience.”