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A Woman of Many Firsts: The Life of Costume Designer Bhanu Athaiya

If you are in the film and television industry, we can already understand the yearning for an Oscar. The Academy Award is the highest honour for anyone working in the industry. Whether for the best international feature or costume design, the Oscar is the benchmark. While India has always submitted nominees for the awards, only a handful of Indians have won. The first person to have brought the glorious golden statue was Bhanu Athaiya, who won big at the 55th Academy Awards (1983) for the film Gandhi for ‘Best Costume Design.’

Bhanu Athaiya Biography

Words fail if we start talking about Bhanu Athaiya. Bhanu Athaiya costume designer was a relic and a masterpiece when it came to reflecting the National identity: a strong front. She was born in 1929 in Kohlapur, Maharashtra to amateur artist Annasaheb Rajopadhye. Bhanu was introduced to well-known members of Kolhapur’s artistic community, including Abalal Rahiman, MV Dhurandhar, and Baburao Painter. When she received an award for her artwork in high school, her path into the arts took a dramatic turn. She first met Hima Devi, a theatre director and dancer, around this time. Afterwards, Bhanu Athaiya fashion designer zeal led her to design theatrical costumes for Hima Devi’s shows, like ‘Hamlet,’ ‘The Importance of Being Earnest,’ and ‘Taming of the Shrew.’

Courtesy – Prinseps

Athaiya Bhanu enrolled at JJ School of Art. At JJ School, she was awarded the esteemed Usha Deshmukh Gold Medal for her final year project, ‘Lady in Repose.’ In 1950, she engendered one of her famous paintings, ‘Prayers.’ Bhanu Athaiya, a woman no less, became a member of the Progressive Artists’ Group in 1951, a group of avant-garde artists that included notables like Tyeb Mehta and VS Gaitonde

Prayers (1950)
Courtesy – The Voice of Fashion

It was during this time that she switched to costume designing, making a debut with CID (1956). Richard Attenborough, the film director, made a movie on Mahatma Gandhi and recruited her as the costume designer. The film, ‘Gandhi’ (1983) was the Bhanu Athaiya Oscar premiere. She solidified her position with her win; the first Indian woman to do so. 

Bhanu Athaiya Costumes

Bhanu Athaiya was a true Gandhian in so many ways. Throughout her childhood, she was surrounded by Gandhi’s paraphernalia. People at the time wore Gandhi caps and khadi clothes — a fact that Gandhi preached to unionise the Indian consciousness. This reflects volumes in Bhanu Athaiya movies, which she has done costume designing for.


Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ starred Ben Kingsley played Gandhi in the movie, Rohini Hattanngadi played Kasturba, and Amrish Puri played a supporting part. The other department heads were from England, with Bhanu Athaiya costume designer being the only Indian. John Mollo, the Oscar-winning costume designer of the beloved Star Wars film, was her colleague. Bhanu had three months to cover fifty years’ worth of events. 

Courtesy – Prinseps

In Bhanu Athaiya book, titled ‘The Art of Costume Design,’ she remarks,

“This is the first time we see Gandhi in Indian attire. He chose to wear the Kathiawadi garb from his birthplace. He is stepping onto Indian soil from the ship at Ballard Pier, Bombay. I made Kasturba wear a handloom sari with a border – a departure from her previous European-inspired outfits.”

Courtesy – Prinseps

She found relevant reading material in Delhi’s libraries and museums. Bhanu Athaiya collection of Gandhi’s framed photographs was set up as a wall to inspire the players involved. She introduced the fundamental ideas behind Gandhi’s chosen attire — a modest ‘dhoti’ and ‘shawl’. Bhanu went to the most remote parts of India to gather their culture and reflect it in the movie, giving Gandhi the necessary authenticity and inventiveness in spades. 

Other Costumes for Movies

Not only a costume designer, but Bhanu Athaiya fashion designer is a title she carries well. Upon an invitation by Ebrahim Alkazi, she became the designer of the first Calico Fashion Show. She draped Zeenat Aman in tribal clothing for ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram‘ (1978). For the 1968 flick ‘Brahmachari,’ she dressed Mumtaz in a pre-pleated dress with flares at the bottom, reminiscent of the saree’s folds. She was also popular with men’s fashion as well. Bhanu Athaiya dressed Shahrukh Khan for ‘Swades‘ (2004) in check shirts, depicting him as an NRI scientist, while under the constraints of the film’s muted colour palette. She also decided on a flamenco costume for Helen in ‘Teesri Manzil‘ (1966).

Courtesy – The Voice of Fashion

At present, Bhanu Athaiya costumes’ sketches and sketchbook drawings are preserved at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. Bhanu Athaiya awards are numerous. She was an exhilarating woman who perfected the nuance of costume and fashion design. In a recent interview with Sonam Kapoor and Ashutosh Gowariker, he attributed 70% of Indian costume designing to Bhanu Athaiya. Such was her legacy. She died in 2020 aged 91, and was honored in the 93rd Academy Award segment.

Courtesy – Prinseps

Image Courtesy – Asiana.tv

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