Before Costume Designing Bhanu Athaiya Was A Painter: Cinema’s Gain Was Painting’s Loss

The late Bhanu Athaiya presented with painters like MF Husain before she took to costume designing, which got her fame and an Oscar
Before Costume Designing Bhanu Athaiya Was A Painter: Cinema’s Gain Was Painting’s Loss

Art flows, so it isn't surprising to see director Anurag Basu become cinematographer for his film Ludo, or Bhansali composing music for his own films, or even to know that Stanley Kubrick, before becoming a renowned film-maker was a photographer from where he imbibed his impeccable eye for composition and lighting.

In the same vein, Bhanu Athaiya may be remembered for being the first Indian to win an Oscar, for the costume design of Gandhi (1982). After all, she has worked with directors like Raj Kapoor, Kamal Amrohi, Guru Dutt, Yash Chopra, BR Chopra, Vijay Anand, Raj Khosla, Gulzar, Ketan Mehta, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Subhash Ghai, and Ashutosh Gowariker. 

But before textile, it was the easel that called out- Athaiya was a painter. Art historian Ranjit Hoskote, in a zoom webinar 'Bhanu Athaiya & Modernism' organized by the Prinseps auction house outlined this often overlooked history of the costume design titan. 

Kolhapur, where Athaiya was born, was considered the Paris of India, also an early center of Indian cinema- the silent cinema and the talkies. It was a thriving center of patronage for visual arts; theater and Tamasha were in rich ferment. Athaiya's father, Annasaheb Rajopadhye, was a self-taught artist, film-maker and photographer. In her autobiography, she writes about how "[h]e would make frequent visits to Bombay and bring back books on European painters like Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Turner, among others." 

Her cutworks of Gandhi and Subhash Chandra Bose were made when she was barely 10 years old. This milieu left a rich imprint on her work. She has mentioned how the unique rust colours in her palette much come from the colours she had seen growing up in Kolhapur. 

Later, when she would study at the Sir JJ School Of Art in Bombay, another influence could be seen. The JJ School Of Art had only begun Life Studies, where artists paint models- nude and otherwise- in 1918. Athaiya's work here shows the European influences, from her nudist to her cubist ones. The clear impression of these masters can be seen in Athaiya's work at the college. 

She exhibited along the Progressive Artists Group (PAG), in 1953, the only woman in this group of artists that included the late MF Husain among others. 

She began as an illustrator at Fashion & Beauty magazine, and later Eve's Weekly, where she sketched cholis and chiffon saris. Eve Weekly opened their own boutique frequented by Nargis and Raj Kapoor, But her fame in cinema took when she designed Nadira's gowns in Raj Kapoor's Shree 420 (1955) and from thereon to Guru Dutt and beyond. Athaiya recalled. "I chose to move to the world of films as it promised a wider scope, and a more exciting and fulfilling experience."

From Mumtaz's saffron pre-pleated sari with a zip on the side for easy movement in Brahmachari (1968) to Sadhana's tight knee-length churidar in Waqt (1970) to Vyjayanthimala's Amrapali sari from the namesake film, her imprint on cinema endures. But as Hoskote notes in his essay The Legacy Of A Long Hidden Sun, "Cinema's gain was painting's loss".

Athaiya passed away on October 15, 2020, at the age of 91. The Bhanu Athaiya Estate, from where photos for these articles were sourced, will auction 32 of her works at the Mumbai-based Prinseps Auction House & Gallery on December 2.  

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