Born on 28 April 1929, Bhanu Athaiya was a trailblazer Indian costume designer and set decorator with a body of over 100 films in six decades, with Indian filmmakers such as Guru Dutt, Yash Chopra, B.R. Chopra, Raj Kapoor, Vijay Anand, Raj Khosla, and Ashutosh Gowariker; and international directors such as Conrad Rooks and Richard Attenborough.
The Maharashtrian Brahmin was among the then few designers properly trained and holding a certificate. Across genres, including romance, period and thrillers, she could contour, draw and show her designs, even when films were sans scripts. She adapted beautifully, understanding the requirements, bringing authenticity and style, taking meticulous, detailed and ever inspiring film costumes to the global platform, making it a classical art.
A time management advocate, she keenly observed life. Hard work, dedication, obsession, passion, and positivity were traits she possessed. To her, “Creativity knows no age. I have the frame of mind of a 16-year-old and I am always ready to fall in love with life”.
Born Bhanumati Annasaheb Rajopadhye in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, one of seven children, she lost her father, a self-taught artist and photographer, when just nine. His books on Leonardo Da Vinci, and other European painters were comic books to her. She earned her degree, a gold medal and fellowship from the J.J School of Arts, Mumbai in 1953.
Though a talented painter, she recognised that fashion designing was a “way to express myself and let my imagination soar”. In the 1940s, she joined ‘Fashion & Beauty’ and ‘Eves Weekly’ as a fashion designer and illustrator. Her sketches became popular and led to requests by actors and producers to design costumes for their films. Her costume design career encapsulated the classic look of the B&W (black and white) era to the age of Technicolor.
Her first break came with Guru Dutt’s superhit film C.I.D. in 1956 and then Pyaasa, Chaudhvin Ka Chand and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. Others included Sangam, Ganga Jumna and Waqt, Ek Duuje Ke Liye, Nikaah, Lagaan, Karz, 1942 – A Love Story and Swades, Gandhi, etc. She also produced costumes for the 1972 film Siddartha, an adaptation of the famed Hermann Hesse novel.
Bhanu’s work reflected her ability to authenticate any period or people. She visited Calcutta’s old mansions for Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam, travelled to desert Rajasthan for Sunil Dutt’s Reshma aur Shera and Samark and Bukhara and Tashkent to research for Ajooba and Ali Baba Aur 40 Chor. For Lagaan, she framed the 19th century colonial India’s look. For Gandhi, she had total control of designing the entire wardrobe, right from covering 50 years life span of Gandhiji’s character, other principal characters and the huge crowds.
She was the first Indian to win an Oscar in 1983 at the 55th Academy Awards, sharing it with acclaimed British designer John Mollofor the Best Costume Design, for Mahatma Gandhi’s biopic. She also won two National Awards, one for Lekin and the other for Lagaan, and a Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
Bhanu Athaiya died from complications of brain cancer in Mumbai, aged 91, survived by her daughter, Radhika Gupta.