Bhanu Athaiya, a name etched in the annals of Indian cinema, stands as an iconic figure who brilliantly combined the worlds of art and film through her exceptional work as a costume designer. She was not only the first Indian to win an Academy Award but also a prominent artist and a key member of the Progressive Artists' Group.
Bhanu Athaiya, born Bhanumati Rajopadhye, on April 28, 1929, hailed from a Marathi Brahmin family in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, during British India. Her artistic journey began early, influenced by her father, Annasaheb, who was a self-taught artist and photographer involved in the world of cinema. Tragically, he passed away when Bhanu was only 11 years old.
Her academic journey led her to the prestigious Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, where her talent blossomed. She earned the Usha Deshmukh Gold Medal in 1951 for her artwork titled 'Lady in Repose,' a testament to her early prowess as an artist.
Bhanu Athaiya embarked on her artistic career while still studying at JJ School of Art, becoming a member of the illustrious Progressive Artists' Group and showcasing her works alongside artists like M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, and Vasudeo S. Gaitonde. Her contributions to the group and her inclusion in the 1953 Progressive Artists' Group exhibition in Bombay displayed her prowess as a painter.
However, her career took an unexpected turn when she delved into the world of fashion. Initially, Athaiya worked as a freelance fashion illustrator for women's magazines, including "Eve's Weekly" and "Fashion & Beauty." Her knack for designing clothes became evident, leading her to shift her focus from painting to costume designing.
Her journey as a costume designer began with Guru Dutt's films, notably starting with "C.I.D." in 1956. She quickly became a valued part of the Guru Dutt team. Over her illustrious career spanning 50 years, she worked on over 100 films, collaborating with renowned Indian filmmakers such as Yash Chopra, B.R. Chopra, Raj Kapoor, Vijay Anand, Raj Khosla, and Ashutosh Gowariker.
Bhanu Athaiya's crowning achievement came with her work on the epic film "Gandhi" in 1982. Her exceptional costume designs for the film not only won her the Academy Award for Best Costume Design but also etched her name in history as the first Indian to achieve this prestigious accolade. Furthermore, she earned a BAFTA Award nomination for her outstanding contributions to costume design.
Her impressive list of accolades also includes two National Film Awards, received in 1991 and 2002.
Bhanu Athaiya's talents reached beyond the silver screen. In March 2010, she authored the book "The Art of Costume Design," a testament to her expertise and a gift to the world of cinema and fashion. Her remarkable journey as an artist and costume designer will forever be celebrated.
Bhanu Athaiya married lyricist and poet Satyendra Athaiya in the 1950s, adopting her new name in 1959. Tragically, Satyendra passed away in 2004. In 2012, Bhanu was diagnosed with a brain tumour, leading to paralysis on one side of her body. She spent the last three years of her life bedridden. On October 15, 2020, at the age of 91, she left this world, leaving behind her legacy in the world of cinema.
Bhanu Athaiya's extraordinary journey, from the canvas of art to the silver screen of cinema, reflects a life dedicated to creativity, innovation, and the pursuit of excellence. Her contributions to both art and costume design continue to inspire generations of artists and filmmakers worldwide.