The year 1982 was a definitive point in Indian Cinema. The epic film ‘Gandhi’ by Richard Attenborough went on to win eight Oscars. It was India’s finest moment at the Oscars much before ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. Just like ‘Gandhi’, ‘Slumdog’ in 2008 went on to win eight Oscars. In 2008, AR Rehman shook the Indian firmament coveting an Oscar for his musical score, then in 1982, another Indian broke India’s jinx, by becoming the first Indian to win an Oscar. Bhanumati Annasaheb Rajopadhye or Bhanu Athaiya as we know her went on to win for best Costume Design.
Born on 28 April 1929 in Kolhapur, Kolhapur State, British India, Athaiya’s father, Annasaheb, a painter died when Athaiya was nine years old. After completing her studies in JJ School of Arts, Athaiya started her career as a freelance fashion illustrator for various women magazines in Bombay. It was not a usual career option, but she realised her love for designing clothes. Her journey in films started when she designed the costume for Guru Dutt’s 1956 superhit film CID.
The rest is history. Today we have seen her stupendous work in films like Gandhi, Lekin, Guide, Mera Naam Joker, Ganga Jamuna, Lagaan, Jodha Akbar and Swades. With over 50 years associated in Cinema and some 100 films to her credit, Athaiya has a colossal presence in the cinematic community and amidst her admirers. What transformed the life of a girl in Kolhapur and took her to the most coveted hall of cinematic expression is a story of grit, determination and creativity. As per Attenborough himself it took him 17 years to set up the film, and only 15 minutes to make up his mind that Bhanu was the right person to design its costumes.
Growing up in a family of six siblings in a sprawling house she left home to study art at the age of 17 and that she says was her first step towards her individuality. After finishing her course she took up a job at a magazine called ‘Eve’s Weekly’ and later when the magazine opened a fashion boutique, Bhanu became an inhouse designer with clients like Kamini Kaushal, Nargis, B.R.Chopra and Yash Chopra. She was now standing at the crossroads. She knew that cinema had a wider scope with more exciting projects than fashion, so she made a switch over to costume design from fashion design as a career that she would pursue and which would eventually bring her international recognition.
Gandhi was not her first film, but it was a difficult film to shoot costume for since the film covered like a 50-year span of events. But just like the challenge was mammoth she delivered it with equal gusto. This gold medallist became a household name. For her laurels are humbling and in 2012 she returned her Oscar Statuette to the Committee for its safekeeping.
Amongst her body of work she had once confided that Meena Kumari’s clothes in Guru Dutt’s film, Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam, Vaijanthimala’s clothes in Amrapali, Mumtaz’s outfits in Brahmachari, Wahida Rehman in Reshma aur Shera, and Shahrukh Khan in Swades remain her favourite.
Bhanu also went on to win many Lifetime achievement awards and National Film awards for costume design for other movies. Amidst all these she also found time to write a book ‘The Art of Costume Design’ which is an honest portrayal of the highlights of her career and struggles. She strongly believed that one must give everything to one’s vocation to achieve success. With her passing at the age of 91, India and the world lost a woman, who changed the way we saw cinema in its true glory.