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A sartorial saga

Pramod Kumar KG | Updated on October 23, 2020 Published on October 23, 2020

Early signs: Athaiya’s creative journey began from her childhood in Kolhapur   -  RAJEEV BHATT

Artist and costume designer Bhanu Athaiya’s imprint on Indian films and fashion is indelible

* Athaiya’s passion for costume design, sparked at a relatively young age observing theatre productions and film shoots in Kolhapur, took shape and purpose in Mumbai

* From her first films, Athaiya created both Western and Indian costumes for the big screen, establishing herself as a versatile designer

* Amidst a timeline of costumes for films, one celebrated group that Athaiya will forever be remembered for are period dramas and fantasy sequences

A call sheet to dress 3 lakh people for a funeral cortège is not for the faint-hearted. But 25 years of sheer hard work and experience paid off as Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya (1929-2020) dressed thousands of extras for the climax of Richard Attenborough’s magnum opus Gandhi (1982). The film got her an Oscar the same year for Best Costume Design and India, its first Academy Award. However, by the early ’80s, Athaiya, who died on October 15, was already a well-known designer in the Hindi film industry, having designed costumes for path-breaking celluloid productions. Attenborough himself confessed to being astounded by her single-handed detailing of the sartorial journey of his script’s main characters through 50 years.

Athaiya’s creative journey began from her childhood in Kolhapur. A major centre for the arts in Princely India, the city’s creative environment greatly influenced her work. Subsequent study of fine arts at the JJ School of Art, Bombay, culminated with a rare invitation — she was the only woman in the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG). Athaiya participated in the third PAG exhibition in 1952; a reminder of this phase of her life is a remarkable portrait by the modernist master VS Gaitonde.

In 2008, when I had a brief interaction with her, she credited her art teachers with instilling in her a zeal for research, sparked by study trips, observing art, architecture, costumes and India’s lived culture.

A deepening interest in costume history meant that by 1953, her filmography began with three movies (Shahenshah, Aas and Chalis Baba Ek Chor). Her stint of over six decades, peppered with classics and superhits across a wide genre of films, ended with Nagrik in 2015.

Athaiya’s passion for costume design, sparked at a relatively young age observing theatre productions and film shoots in Kolhapur, took shape and purpose in Mumbai — first as a fashion illustrator at the Fashion & Beauty magazine and subsequently at Eve’s Weekly, where she illustrated a cover for the August 15, 1947, issue, featuring MK Gandhi and Kasturba Gandhi.

Designing for a private boutique soon brought her to the notice of the film industry’s leading ladies, starting with the then reigning star Kamini Kaushal. From her first films, Athaiya created both Western and Indian costumes for the big screen, establishing herself as a versatile designer who could work towards any given ‘situation’, a popular aphorism for scenes in the Hindi film industry.

Today as we recall movies of yesteryear, an image that crops up is of actors in starring, character and cameos role, often memorialised by the lilting tunes of their hit songs. Common to almost all these memories are the costumes that adorn the female stars.

From Nadira in a gown dancing to the famous Mud mud ke na dekh in Shri 420 (1955) to Helen dressed as a Spanish flamenco dancer in O Haseena Zulfonwali for Teesri Manzil (1966), Athaiya dressed both vamps and stars. From Sadhana and Sharmila Tagore in grand social dramas such as Waqt (1965) to Mumtaz in her scintillating body-hugging pre-stitched sari dancing to Aaj kal tere mere pyar ke charche in Brahmachari (1968), her work embodied a new heroine — a free-spirited Indian woman dancing away with abandon in a costume that accentuated her figure yet appearing to be fully clothed in a contemporised sari. Her heroines were people in distinct clothes in the choicest of colours, daring patterns and newer silhouettes accessorised with contemporary jewellery that found great favour amidst both film-makers and cine-goers. In an India then devoid of glossy fashion magazines, Athaiya’s jewel-toned saris and costumes, balanced by ethereal white outfits, were soon imitated. It marked the beginning of the film world’s lasting impact on Indian fashion — an affair that still continues.

Time frame: Athaiya’s creations in Amrapali (1966) marked a watershed moment in period cinema

 

Amidst a timeline of costumes for films, one celebrated group that Athaiya will forever be remembered for are period dramas and fantasy sequences. Her meticulousness and attention to detail was seen from her work with Guru Dutt in his classics Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) that recalled the heights of Awadhi glory, followed by the decadence of zamindari Bengal in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). Costumes and jewellery for Vyjayanthimala as the courtesan Amrapali and for Sunil Dutt as King Ajatshatru in Amrapali (1966) marked a watershed moment in period cinema. Her inspirations for the forms and elaborate drapes were a result of study trips to the Ajanta caves. This ability to evoke moods and worlds was universally acknowledged as Athaiya created costumes of rural Rajasthan in Reshma Aur Shera (1971), Nikaah (1982), showcasing Hyderabad’s sartorial splendour, and much later for the large-scale colonial classicLagaan (2001).

No overview of Athaiya’s career is complete without the mention of Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), where Zeenat Aman, the daughter of a village priest, is dually dressed in the barest of ethnic clothing, subsequently transforming into a dazzling apparition in skimpy bejewelled clothes in the Technicolor dreams of the city-bred hero. Never vulgar, one of Athaiya’s great triumphs was dressing a pantheon of stars while shaping the sartorial aspirations of millions. Her strength lay in adapting, innovating and transforming the myriad possibilities that traditional costumes and textiles across the subcontinent provided.

Costume drama: No overview of Athaiya’s work in films is complete without a mention of Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978)

As our fashion history gets written, a glorious chapter would be dedicated to the work of Athaiya.

Pramod Kumar KG is managing director of Eka Archiving Services, a museum consulting and cultural resource company

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Published on October 23, 2020
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