The magician of needle and thread 

(Original Caption) Hollywood, California: Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya stands backstage, holding her Oscar, after winning the 1982 Academy Award for "Best Costume Designer" for her role in Gandhi.

Bhanu Athaiya, who created iconic dresses for various characters in countless films since the 1950s, passed away at the age of 91 last week. NT BUZZ pays tribute to this well-known costume designer, who incidentally became the first Indian to win an Academy Award for her work in the 1982 film, ‘Gandhi’


A lady born during the early part of the 20th century in Kolhapur – then a princely state of British India – subsequently leaving her mark as one of the topmost costume designers in the global film industry is almost as wonderful as the discovery of clothing itself. Her journey from being an art student to becoming the country’s first Academy Award winner is astounding! 

Bhanumati ‘Bhanu’ Athaiya, born in the orthodox Brahmin family of Rajopadhye was drawn to creative art right from her childhood. The roots of this attraction could very well be traced to the fact that her father was a painter and a photographer by profession. The permission to join the prestigious Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai in 1945 opened up a sky of creativity before her. She also had the privilege of being the first and only woman to be invited to join the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, an association of Mumbai-based modern artists, which was set up just a couple of years earlier. Bhanu also got an opportunity to be a part of the group’s 1953 seminal exhibition at the Bombay Art Society’s Salon.

Bhanu’s heart was, however, not exactly in developing an artistic career. She branched out as a freelance fashion illustrator to provide graphic inputs for fashion magazines such as ‘Fashion & Beauty’ and ‘Eve’s Weekly’. One thing led to another and soon when the editor of one of these fashion magazines opened a boutique, she asked Bhanu to try designing dresses. Once she discovered her flair for designing clothes, it led her to switch her path completely. Bhanu quit art altogether and joined the Hindi film industry as a costume designer ignoring the accusations by her peers of turning commercial.

It all happened when the boutique Bhanu was working with was frequented by top film actresses of the time like Kamini Kaushal and Nargis, and impressed with her talent Kamini Kaushal signed her on as a personal designer. She designed costumes for the actresses in films like ‘Shahenshah’ (1953) and ‘Chalis Baba ek Chor’ (1954). In ‘Shahenshah’, Bhanu created a bodice with a transparent net yoke and sleeves embroidered with white lace for Kamini Kaushal, which attracted Nargis to her work. She conceptualised a gown in a piscine theme for Nargis to wear in the film, ‘Ek Tha Raja Ek Thi Rani’; unfortunately, the film was shelved. 

It didn’t take much time for the legendary director, Guru Dutt to invite Bhanu to design clothes for his heroines namely Shakila and Waheeda Rehman in the 1955 film noir, ‘CID’. From here there was no stopping for her. She remained associated with Guru Dutt for his subsequent acclaimed works like ‘Pyaasa’ (1957), ‘Kaagaz ke Phool’ (1959), ‘Chaudhvin Ka Chand’ (1960) and ‘Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam’ (1962). She also had a successful collaboration with Raj Kapoor starting with creating Nadira’s dresses in ‘Shree 420’ (1955). Some other films that they worked together in were ‘Mera Naam Joker’ (1970), ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’ (1978) and ‘Ram Teri Ganga Maili’ (1985). 

Bhanu worked on some of the most successful films of the 1960s such as ‘Janwar’ (1965), ‘Guide’ (1965), ‘Waqt’ (1965) and ‘Teesri Manzil’ (1966). The costumes she designed for these films were considered path-breaking for their times. She started designing costumes for male actors from the 1966 period film, ‘Amrapali’. In this film, the costumes she designed for actress, Vyjayanthimala enacting the role of the palace dancer who turns a Buddhist nun, were the result of ingeniousness as well as research. Bhanu travelled to the Ajanta caves to study Buddhist frescoes of the era. In fact, so authentic were the costumes she designed for Amrapali that they became a template for women’s costumes in all subsequent Indian period films. The movie also gave pop culture the Amrapali saree – a low-cut bustier paired with a dhoti drape. Subsequently, Bhanu reworked her costumes designed for Amrapali, and came out with the dress for Zeenat Aman in ‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram’, while costume designers, Jayoo and Nachiket Patwardhan used this template for designing the costumes of Rekha, Anuradha Patel and other actresses in ‘Utsav’ (1984), a film based on the fifth century AD Sanskrit play, ‘Mrichhakatika’.

From form-fitting gowns to lovingly wound sarees, and furthermore innovative embellishments such as Vyjayanthimala’s armband in ‘Sangam’ (1964) and Padmini Kolhapure’s knotted scarf in ‘Prem Rog’ (1982), Bhanu brought out one creation after another from her

drawing board. Actresses, in fact, had placed all their faith in her thread and needle. Vyjayanthimala, who insisted on wearing black tights under risqué outfits, and Hema Malini, who always wore a nude body liner, had complete confidence in her and used to say, “Aapke upar chhod diya, Bhanuji.” (We leave it to you, Bhanuji). 

Many of the costumes designed by Bhanu went on to set fashion trends. The tight-fitting churidars with knee-length kurtas, which showed off the slim figure of Sadhana in ‘Waqt’, or the tangerine saree – which westernised the idea of the draped saree through zip and pre-plating – worn by Mumtaz during the song, “Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyar ke Charche” in ‘Brahmachari’ (1969) were frantically followed by teenagers, long after these hit films exited the theatres. In the 1969 film, ‘Aadmi aur Insaan’ Bhanu squeezed Mumtaz into a figure-hugging dress during the song “Zindagi Ittefaq Hai”, thus bringing out the sensual nature of the character.   

The online auction of the 32 sketches/illustrations made by Bhanu between the 1930s and 1950s, as scheduled on December 2, 2020, will witness her creations going under the hammer. These creations include fashion illustrations made by her for the ‘Eve’s Weekly’ magazine. 

From the khadi sarees for Kasturba in ‘Gandhi’ to the silk dhotis of Emperor Ajatashatru in ‘Amrapali’, from the British India backdrop of ‘Lagaan’ (2001) to the Mughal setting in ‘Jodhaa Akbar’ (2008), and from the gypsy camps in ‘Reshma Aur Shera’ (1971) to the Arabian Nights fantasy in ‘Ajooba’ (1991), Bhanu Athaiya transcended all boundaries of attire, period and lifestyle to come out with innovative apparels that went on to achieve cult status in the public psyche. And all her lovely creations will come alive whenever the silver screen illuminates to narrate the celluloid stories!   

And ‘Gandhi’ happened!

The honour of being the first Indian to win an Academy Award – The Oscar – was no less than being the first person to set foot on the moon. The achievement was exemplary, more so because many classic Indian films had missed it before, for no fault of their makers. 

Bhanu Athaiya, therefore, was the chosen one, to become the first Indian to win an Academy Award for Best Costume Design – sharing it with John Mollo – in ‘Gandhi’ (1982), for designing historically accurate British military uniforms as well as Ben Kingsley’s loincloth for the title role. 

During the late 1970s, the maker of ‘Gandhi’, Richard Attenborough asked his production office to arrange for interviews with the best costume designers in India. By this time, Bhanu had been working in Hindi cinema for around 25 years. The Bombay-based casting director of ‘Gandhi’, Dolly Thakore contacted her through a mutual friend, Simi Garewal. 

The audition was held at the Sea Rock Hotel at Bandra, in Mumbai where Attenborough’s production office was located. The filmmaker looked at Bhanu’s bio-data and chatted with her for around 15 minutes so that he could get an idea about Bhanu’s understanding of India. At the end of it, he informed his team that he had found his costume designer for ‘Gandhi’. He then handed over the script to the costume designer and asked her to meet him the following day to discuss the same.

‘Gandhi’ went on to receive eleven nominations at the 55th Academy Awards, including in the Best Costume Design category. Recalling the moment her name was announced, the costume designer had said that fellow nominees told her she was a frontrunner for the best costume award. “I was sitting in the audiences with the other nominees in my category. They all told me that they did not stand a chance to win the Oscar. They told me my canvas was huge, so I would definitely win the award. In my mind, I had told myself that I had done my best, that I had done justice to Gandhiji’s name and the freedom movement,” she had later stated.

“When they called my name, I did not allow myself to get carried away. I calmly went on the stage and thanked Sir Richard and the Academy. When I went backstage, I was surprised, as there were so many photographers taking pictures. But it was a great feeling. I was happy,” she recounted.

“This is too good to be true,” Bhanu said in her acceptance speech. “Thank you, Sir Richard Attenborough, for focusing world attention on India.”

In 2012, Athaiya, fearing the safety of the statuette, returned her Oscar to the custody of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. She was apprehensive of the award’s security in India, considering the theft of Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel Prize medal from Shantiniketan some years previously.

Sadly, after bringing such a rare honour to the country, Bhanu was never recognised in her own country. Till the time of her demise, the Indian government did not announce any of the Padma Awards to her.