A Peek Into The Fascinating World Of Bhanu Athaiya, India’s First Oscar Winner

Legacy of Bhanu Athaiya by Prinseps is a first-of-its-kind exhibition to dwell on the life, career and oeuvre of India’s first costume designer.

Published On Jan 25, 2023 | Updated On Feb 28, 2024

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If purveyors of interesting art were to visit the Instagram handle of Prinseps, the avant-garde auction house that celebrates discerning luxury, anecdotes on the life and works of legendary costume designer and painter Bhanu Athaiya would regale them. The content is nothing but a walk down memory lane of the years the Academy Award winner spent crafting breathtaking and iconic costumes for well-known movies. Through her work and fascinating design journey, one senses the doyen’s tribute to not just the rich weaves and crafts of India but also her penchant to create the marvellous, the timeless and something ethereal for women who we loved to adore on stage and the silver screen. 

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These montages are but a run-up to the first-ever exhibition presented by Prinseps called ‘Legacy of Bhanu Athaiya’ to explore her complete career and creative genius, from January 28 to February 1, 2023, at the Bikaner House in New Delhi. On display will be fifty exhibits of works by the legend, including personal heirloom textile pieces, oil and water paintings, and beautiful sketches and costumes designed for iconic films such as Amrapali, Lagaan and Gandhi

Curated by Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil, vice president of Prinseps, the presentation will focus on the legacy and contribution of Athaiya over six decades to the world of art and cinema. It will narrate this story by exploring her childhood, her time as a fashion illustrator and eventually her mastery of costume design. 

For instance, visitors will understand how the designer entered the world of cinema through her association with theatre actor Hima Devi. During her first year in Mumbai (then Bombay), Athaiya was attending art classes every afternoon in Nutan Kala Mandir before joining the JJ School of Art. After a few meetings, the theatre artist introduced her to Meera Devi, her mother who was the Assistant Editor at a woman’s magazine called Fashion & Beauty

Sensing her intricate understanding of the contours of the human body, editor Kishan Jhangiani asked Athaiya to illustrate for the publication. The brief was simple: She had to draw inspiration from India’s heritage and showcase it in her fashion designs. Her initiation into the world of costume design had begun.

While Athaiya was catapulted to the global stage after her Oscar win for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, the exhibition will bring back memories of her designing for Nargis, Mumtaz, Mala Sinha, Nadira, Waheeda Rehman, Sadhana, Dimple Kapadia and Helen when they wore her creations in their movies. 

Some of the marvellous designs include Nargis’s goldfish-inspired gown worn for a dream sequence in Ek Tha Raja Ek Thi Rani, Nadira’s costume with a snake-like border coiling from hemline to neck in the song Mud Mud ke na Dekh in Shri 420, Helen’s sizzling red and black lace number she danced in O Haseena zulfon wali for Teesri Manzil, Waheeda Rehman being a transcendental beauty donning Athaiya’s Lucknawi creations in Chaudhvin ka Chand and Sadhana being the stylish sweetheart wearing gemstone shades in Waqt

In Athaiya’s own words, “Waqt became a sensation on its release, and according to Yash Chopra, girls in Delhi bought movie tickets for their tailors to see designs and replicate them.” With such beautiful stories waiting to be unravelled through this exhibition, ‘Legacy of Bhanu Athaiya’ would also bear testimony to how the designer’s works brought about a complete revolution in film fashion and couture. 

An artist, illustrator, film and theatre costume designer, art advertisement conceptualist and India’s first-ever Oscar winner, Athaiya’s life was a creative journey consisting of a cornucopia of contributions to Indian art and cinema. With glimpses into her illustrious career spanning six decades, the showcase, in a broadly chronological manner, will open with a section devoted to the artist’s early years in Kolhapur and what led her to eventually move to Mumbai and join the JJ College of Arts. 

Along with this, the treasure trove of her personal heirloom textile pieces will also be displayed. These include beautiful, handwoven sarees with real gold Zari, passed down to the designer from her mother and grandmother. Descending from a family heritage of Rajopadhayas (royal priests) in Kolhapur, Athaiya inherited and treasured these ornate sarees. They were not only adorned by her and her family members but it was also this exposure that inspired her many costumes during her path-breaking career. 

These ornate textiles have, in recent years, been documented and photographed by the Lakshmi Vilas Palace and Museum in Vadodara. Perhaps it was her attachment to these exquisite heirloom weaves that honed her senses for incorporating Indian crafts and textiles into her costume design for the films she was working on. 

For instance, Athaiya took advantage of the cool climate of Kashmir and teamed raw silks, shawls, pullovers and other winter wear with fashionable kurtas and dresses for Rajendra Kumar and Sadhana in Arzoo. “I chose fabrics in colours that complemented the valley’s flowers and embellished them with subtle hand embroidery. I also travelled to Delhi to buy the woollens that would go with the winter dresses,” the doyen wrote later in her memoirs. Photographs that document these anecdotes will be on display. 

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The exhibition will also focus on her time as the only woman artist at the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) with artworks ranging from technical sketches to brilliant oil and water paintings. A section will be devoted to Athaiya’s life as a fashion illustrator at Eve’s Weekly, sketching glamorous sarees and silhouettes, which eventually led her to design costumes for Indian cinema’s leading actors and actresses. 

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Vaijanthimala's costume from the film, Amrapali (1966)

The discerning will witness how Athaiya’s love for classical Indian art forms came into its own with the film Amrapali, for which the designer had sketched and studied the work of the period in detail. Inspiration also stemmed from her JJ Art School days with tours to the Ajanta Ellora Caves. Vyjayanthimala’s vibrant costumes were inspired by classical sculptures and complemented by ornate jewellery. Athaiya’s vision combined with the actress’s beauty was chronicled in the history of Indian cinema. Similarly, while we all have seen Mumtaz’s scintillating orange saree in the song Aajkal Tere Mere Pyar from Brahmachari, in ‘Legacy of Bhanu Athaiya’ visitors will see the seductive side of the actress in chic costumes by the designer for Aadmi Aur Insaan

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There will be a special overview of Athaiya’s work as an art advertisement designer for Air India (original miniature paintings were recreated through costumes by Athaiya for a 1983 Air India Calendar) and Onida (the designer created costumes for their campaign bordering along the lines of science, fantasy and mythology). 

The final section of the exhibition, which took two years to collate and document, will be dedicated to videography, thus bringing to the fore the versatility and oeuvre of the legendary artist, many facets of which have not always been in public glare.


Photo: Prinseps

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