We sketch the course of Bhanu Athaiya, India’s first Oscar winner and the Hindi film industry’s most renowned costume designer whose work spans over five decades. Athaiya’s moment of international fame came with the acclaimed 1982 film Gandhi, for which she won an Oscar for the Best Costume Design.

In Bhanu Athaiya’s 2010 coffee table book, ‘The Art of Costume Design’, Attenborough wrote his foreword saying: ‘It took me 17 long years to set up Gandhi, my dream film, and just 15 minutes to make up my mind that Bhanu Athaiya was the right person to create the many hundreds of Indian costumes that would be required to bring it to the screen.’
Bhanu Athaiya, India’s first Oscar winner and the Hindi film industry’s most renowned costume designer whose work spans over five decades, was born as Bhanumati Annasaheb Rajopadhye on April 28, 1929 in Kolhapur (in present day Maharashtra). She wanted to be a painter, drawing inspiration from her father, Anna Saheb. “Even though I was only nine when he passed away, I have fond and vivid memories of him cleaning his brushes and palette after he finished work,” recalls Athaiya, now 86. It is his command that influenced and defined her signature style. “We were encouraged to see the bioscope that the travelling artist brought along every Sunday with images of the Raj, miniature paintings around palaces in India and even European women dancing in their ballroom finery. I am sure these images were imprinted somewhere in my subconscious mind,” says Athaiya.
Athaiya eventually joined Mumbai’s Sir J J School of Art, graduating in fine arts. “I made the journey with my art teacher from Kolhapur, who had convinced my mother to send me,” remembers the doyenne, who has even held exhibitions alongside the likes of M F Hussain and Krishen Khanna.

Athaiya started her career as an illustrator with the popular magazine Eve’s Weekly, where she would make fashion illustrations inspired by India’s heritage. Her fashion illustrations in each issue, made her quite popular. So when the magazine opened a fashion boutique, Gulshan Ewing, the then editor of Eve’s Weekly, got Athaiya to design a lot of his creations. “That boutique was visited by everyone, from Kamini Kaushal and Nargis to Ramanand Sagar. It was Kamini Kaushal who gave me my first assignment. I started by designing her personal wardrobe, and soon went on to design her costumes in films like Shahenshah and Chalis Baba Ek Chor,” Athaiya recalls.
Guru Dutt spotted her talent at a painting exhibition and that’s how she bagged her first film as full-fledged costume designer for CID, starring Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman. Soon, filmmakers like B R Chopra and Yash Chopra started frequenting the store, and Athaiya found herself at a fork in the road. She could choose to continue fashion design or move to costume design. The lure of a wider scope and more exciting work made the choice for her, and she became a full-time costume designer. Candid enough to admit that it was a smooth sailing, Athaiya says, “Before I entered the scene, things worked very differently. What one saw in the film industry was that the director and set designer would put their heads together and call in a tailor or go shopping. My stepping in relieved them of this tension. I would listen to the director, make a sketch, meet the actor and finalise the outfits. In that era, the director was king and the actors didn’t present any problem at all.”
She worked with Guru Dutt in memorable films such as Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Kaagaz Ke Phool and Pyaasa. In the 1960s, she worked in films such as Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Teesri Manzil, Guide, Janwar, Waqt and Mere Sanam.
Waqt, directed by Yash Chopra, was a watershed moment for the manner in which clothes worn by the heroine influenced public tastes. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, stars such as Asha Parekh, Vyajanthimala and Mumtaz became style icons due to Athaiya’s creations that they sported on screen.

Athaiya’s moment of international fame came with the acclaimed 1982 film Gandhi, for which she won an Oscar for the Best Costume Design. Recalling the challenges of working in such a major production, Athaiya said in an interview, “We had to capture 50 years of Mahatma’s life in various locations and we could not go wrong because he was an international figure, well known to the world audiences.”
Her work in theatre prompted Dolly Thakore, who was working on the casting of the film, to refer her name to Sir Richard Attenborough for designing the costumes for the magnum opus. “It was my close friends Simi Garewal and Dolly Thakore who literally pushed me to go meet Richard Attenborough when he visited India. If it wasn’t for them, I probably would not have even gone for the auditions,” reminisces Athaiya, adding, “Within 15 minutes, the director told his crew that he had found his designer! As for the Oscar…it was not something that had crossed my mind. I mean, I was in Bombay, Los Angeles was so far away. Why dream of such unlikely things? And I had won awards here. But when I returned after winning the award, people here would ask me, “Madam, why did you win the award? Everything in the film looks so normal.” The clothes for Gandhi couldn’t have been picked out of a store or off the rack. At the Oscar award ceremony, the other designers who had been nominated—my competitors told me that they felt like they didn’t even stand a chance, because my canvas was so large.”
In 2012, she decided to return her Oscar statuette to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles, for safekeeping. She was afraid that it could meet the same fate as poet Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize medal.
Athaiya continued to work in films after her Gandhi triumph. She bagged the National Film Award for Best Costume Design in 1991 for Lekin, and in 2002 for Lagaan. From Guide to Gandhi to Lagaan – if it is a trendsetting film, chances are that the costumes have been done by Bhanu Athaiya. She is one costume designer who has worked steadily from the black and white films through to historicals and period dramas right to the modern age. Despite being diagnosed with a brain tumour, Athaiya was roped in as design consultant for the TV show Mahabharat in 2013.

Athaiya, who has worked in more than 100 films, has had a significant influence on the look of both post-independence Hindi cinema and its actors and actresses. Rather insistent that costume design not be mixed with fashion, Athaiya reiterates, “It’s not the same as fashion design where the clothes have to be beautiful and glossy. Costume design is the art of creating a character and look. That depends on the film and its story. This is why research is important to create the clothes you think characters should wear! Any costume designer needs to remember that they are not creating clothes for the market, but for the character. Stars come and say, ‘Get my dresses designed by so- and-so’. The 1980s brought in a lot of fashion designers into cinema. But designing for a star and designing for a character – that is a different cup of tea.”
This is a working philosophy that has reflected in all of Athaiya’s work. While she picks Meena Kumari’s costumes in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam and the elaborate period costumes worn by Vyjayanthimala in Amrapali as her favourite work, her attention to detail is visible in films such as Pyaasa, Guide, Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Mera Saaya, Reshma Aur Shera, Ghar, Abdullah, Nikah, Razia Sultan and many others. Her garments have also had a trendsetting appeal. Who can forget Mumtaz’s saree in Brahmachari or Sridevi’s image- changing clothes from Chandni.


“I still continue to read a lot. That is the only way I can be true to my work. This is what helped me create the British regiment uniforms in Lagaan or more recently, my work in the TV Mahabharat,” says Athaiya.

The grand old dame credited with the revival of ethnic fashion and craftsmanship through cinema is in the midst of putting together her second coffee- table book that will also be a story of her sartorial adventures in the world of cinema.

<< Previous Women drive online lifestyle shopping in India
Next >>The Unclaimed Silhouette: The Women’s Shirt Market – Untapped Opportunities