Referred to as ‘dress designer’ in her early films, Bhanu Athaiya was to not only earn India its first Oscar, but also establish characters through the sheer power of design. For the film Gandhi, Athaiya won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design, along with John Mollo in 1983. She was also nominated for the BAFTA Award for Best Costume Design for Gandhi.
The kurta with churidar donned by Sadhna in Waqt became the ultimate fashion statement. Today, we see the pre-stitched sarees in stores, but it was back in 1969 that Athaiya dressed Mumtaz in orange triple-layered, pre-pleated saree in popular number Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyaar Ke Charche in the film Brahmachari.
The costume designer, with over 100 films to her credit, won the National Award twice — for Lekin in 1991 and Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India in 2002. The film won five National awards, including National Film Award for Best Costume Design for Bhanu Athaiya. Unlike Gandhi, for Lagaan, she designed both Indian ensembles as well as those British colonial officers.
Her very first film, C.I.D., showcased both urban and rural dresses — dapper Dev Anand in his immaculate suits to Shakila in Boojh Mera Kya Naam Re, in a ghaghra and chunky tribal jewellery. Early in her career, she made a winning partnership with Guru Dutt, working in Pyaasa and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. The tragedy queen of the industry, Meena Kumari, in a saree with a pallu on her head along with big bindi is one of the most memorable looks created by Athaiya for celluloid. The glamour and finesse of Waheeda Rehman in Guide, urban look for Asha Parekh in Teesri Manzil, a bold one for Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sundaram (where she worked with Satyawan and Vishnu Vellar), Athaiya’s journey was amazing. Suits for Manisha Koirala in 1942: A Love Story to Swades, where she gave a westernised look to Shah Rukh Khan, her range was extensive.
Phir Kabhi is listed as her last Hindi film in 2008. Nagrik (2015), a Marathi film, is reportedly her last. Her memoir, The Art of Costume Design, charts her significant journey!
RIP Bhanu Athaiya, What an amazing body of work — Oscar winning costume designer for Gandhi, the inventor of the Mumtaz saree… An inspiration to so many young designers…Her legacy will live on forever. My condolences to the family.
Bhanuji was one of those film people who beautifully combined accurate research and cinematic flair to bring to life the director’s vision. You will be missed Bhanuji. My heartfelt condolences to the family.