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Bhanu Athaiya: The Visionary Costume Designer Who Transformed Indian Cinema


Bhanu Athaiya, a name synonymous with the golden era of Indian cinema, stands as an iconic figure who seamlessly bridged the realms of art and film through her extraordinary work as a costume designer. She not only made history as the first Indian to win an Academy Award but also held a significant role as a prominent artist and a vital member of the Progressive Artists’ Group.

Early Life and Artistic Beginnings

Born Bhanumati Rajopadhye on April 28, 1929, in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, Bhanu Athaiya hailed from a Marathi Brahmin family in British India. Her artistic journey commenced at a young age, influenced by her father, Annasaheb, a self-taught artist and photographer immersed in the cinematic world. Tragically, her father’s passing at the tender age of 11 marked a pivotal moment in her life.

Her academic pursuits led her to the prestigious Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, where her artistic talents flourished. In 1951, she earned the Usha Deshmukh Gold Medal for her painting titled ‘Lady in Repose,’ showcasing her early prowess as an artist.

Transition to Costume Design

Bhanu Athaiya’s artistic journey took an unexpected turn when she delved into the world of fashion. While still a student at JJ School of Art, she joined the esteemed Progressive Artists’ Group, showcasing her works alongside luminaries such as M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, and Vasudeo S. Gaitonde. Her contributions to the group and inclusion in the 1953 Progressive Artists’ Group exhibition in Bombay highlighted her skill as a painter.

However, her trajectory shifted as she explored the realm of fashion. Initially working as a freelance fashion illustrator for women’s magazines like “Eve’s Weekly” and “Fashion & Beauty,” Athaiya’s flair for designing garments became evident. This led her to transition from painting to costume designing.

Her journey as a costume designer commenced with Guru Dutt’s films, starting notably with “C.I.D.” in 1956. Quickly becoming an integral part of the Guru Dutt team, she went on to collaborate with eminent Indian filmmakers such as Yash Chopra, B.R. Chopra, Raj Kapoor, Vijay Anand, Raj Khosla, and Ashutosh Gowariker over her illustrious 50-year career.

Pinnacle: Winning an Academy Award

Bhanu Athaiya’s pinnacle moment arrived with her exceptional costume designs for the epic film “Gandhi” in 1982. Her remarkable work not only earned her the Academy Award for Best Costume Design but also secured her place in history as the first Indian to receive this prestigious accolade. Additionally, she garnered a BAFTA Award nomination for her outstanding contributions to costume design. Her illustrious career was further adorned with two National Film Awards in 1991 and 2002.

Legacy of Creativity

Beyond the silver screen, Bhanu Athaiya’s talents extended to literature. In March 2010, she penned “The Art of Costume Design,” a book showcasing her expertise, enriching the worlds of cinema and fashion. Her remarkable journey as an artist and costume designer remains an everlasting celebration.

Personal Life and Enduring Legacy

Married to lyricist and poet Satyendra Athaiya in the 1950s, she adopted her new name in 1959. Tragically, Satyendra passed away in 2004. In 2012, Bhanu Athaiya was diagnosed with a brain tumour, leading to paralysis on one side of her body. The last three years of her life were spent bedridden. On October 15, 2020, at the age of 91, she bid farewell to the world, leaving behind an indelible legacy in the realms of cinema and art.

Bhanu Athaiya’s extraordinary journey from the canvas of art to the cinematic stage mirrors a life dedicated to creativity, innovation, and the relentless pursuit of excellence. Her contributions to both art and costume design continue to inspire and resonate with generations of artists and filmmakers globally.



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