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Bhanu Athaiya: A Trailblazing Costume Designer Who Revolutionised Indian Cinema


Bhanu Athaiya, an emblem of the golden age of Indian cinema, stands tall as a visionary figure who seamlessly merged the worlds of art and film through her remarkable contributions as a costume designer. Not only did she etch her name in history as the first Indian to clinch an Academy Award, but she also played a pivotal role as a distinguished artist and an integral member of the Progressive Artists’ Group.

Early Life and Artistic Genesis

Bhanu Athaiya, born Bhanumati Rajopadhye on April 28, 1929, in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, hailed from a Marathi Brahmin family in British India. Her artistic journey commenced at a tender age, influenced profoundly by her father, Annasaheb, a self-taught artist and photographer deeply entrenched in the cinematic universe. Sadly, her father’s demise when she was just 11 marked a significant turning point in her life.

Her academic pursuits led her to the esteemed Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, where her artistic talents blossomed. In 1951, she clinched the Usha Deshmukh Gold Medal for her painting titled ‘Lady in Repose,’ showcasing her early prowess as an artist.

Transition to Costume Design

Bhanu Athaiya’s artistic voyage took an unforeseen trajectory when she ventured into the realm of fashion. While still a student at the JJ School of Art, she joined the esteemed Progressive Artists’ Group, exhibiting her works alongside luminaries such as M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, and Vasudeo S. Gaitonde. Her contributions to the group and her inclusion in the 1953 Progressive Artists’ Group exhibition in Bombay underscored her skill as a painter.

However, her path diverged as she explored the domain of fashion. Initially serving as a freelance fashion illustrator for women’s magazines like “Eve’s Weekly” and “Fashion & Beauty,” Athaiya’s penchant for designing garments became unmistakable. This transitioned her from painting to costume designing.

Her journey as a costume designer commenced with Guru Dutt’s films, notably beginning with “C.I.D.” in 1956. Swiftly becoming an integral part of the Guru Dutt team, she collaborated with eminent Indian filmmakers such as Yash Chopra, B.R. Chopra, Raj Kapoor, Vijay Anand, Raj Khosla, and Ashutosh Gowariker over her illustrious 50-year career.

Zenith: Securing an Academy Award

Bhanu Athaiya reached the pinnacle of her career with her exceptional costume designs for the epic film “Gandhi” in 1982. Her remarkable work not only earned her the Academy Award for Best Costume Design but also etched her name in history as the first Indian to receive this prestigious accolade. Additionally, she garnered a BAFTA Award nomination for her outstanding contributions to costume design. Her illustrious career was further adorned with two National Film Awards in 1991 and 2002.

Legacy of Creativity

Beyond the silver screen, Bhanu Athaiya’s talents extended to literature. In March 2010, she authored “The Art of Costume Design,” a book showcasing her expertise, and enriching the realms of cinema and fashion. Her remarkable journey as an artist and costume designer remains an eternal celebration.

Personal Life and Lasting Legacy

Married to lyricist and poet Satyendra Athaiya in the 1950s, she embraced her new name in 1959. Sadly, Satyendra passed away in 2004. In 2012, Bhanu Athaiya was diagnosed with a brain tumour, leading to paralysis on one side of her body. The last three years of her life were spent bedridden. On October 15, 2020, at the age of 91, she bid farewell to the world, leaving behind an indelible legacy in the realms of cinema and art.

Bhanu Athaiya’s extraordinary journey, from the canvas of art to the cinematic stage, mirrors a life dedicated to creativity, innovation, and the unwavering pursuit of excellence. Her contributions to both art and costume design continue to inspire and resonate with generations of artists and filmmakers worldwide.

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