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A Tribute To Bhanu Athaiya, The Oscar-winning Costume Designer Who Crafted Iconic Costumes


Bhanu Athaiya, the costume designer of the major films and the only Indian designer, who won an Oscar for the costumes, passed away in Mumbai at the age of 91. She won an Oscar in 1983 for Richard Attenborough's Gandhi. Apart from Oscars, Bhanu Athaiya also won two National Film Awards in 1991 and 2002. Bhanu Athaiya was among the prime and most sought-after costume designers of Hindi cinema. She designed costumes for a number of superhit and critically-acclaimed films such as Kagaz Ke Phool, Waqt, Guide, Teesri Manzil, Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Razia Sultan, Agneepath, Karz, Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Brahmachari, and Ajooba among others. She also did costumes for the present-day cinema. Bhanu also designed costumes for movies like Swades and Lagaan.

Aamir Khan, who was the protagonist in Lagaan, took to his Twitter feed to share a condolence message for the veteran costume designer, '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.' With her meticulous detailing in costumes and accuracy like Aamir Khan mentioned, Bhanu Athiya inspired leading costume designers of the present times. Fashion and costume designer, Neeta Lulla also offered condolence to Bhanu Athaiya via her Instagram story. Actress Priyanka Chopra Jonas also wrote on her Instagram story, '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.'

Courtesy: Aamir Khan Productions

Bhanu Athaiya, also released her book, The Art of Costume Design [1], which was published by Harper Collins in March 2010. Her book has some interesting facts and experiences penned by late Bhanu Athaiya. For instance, she wrote about Guru Dutt, the cult figure in the Indian cinema between the 1950s-60s, that how he was a sensitive and artistic person, who made thought-provoking films. Elaborating on her experience of working with him, the late designer mentioned that she translated his thinking into evocative costumes for his leading ladies. With her autobiographical book which had a foreword written by Richard Attenborough, Bhanu Athaiya also highlighted on some of the unforgettable scenes of the Indian cinema that she had worked on. She mentioned a scene where the groom sees the bride's face for the first time and is taken by her beauty. In this scene, she crafted Waheeda Rehman's net dupatta, which helped keep her face covered but was seen by the camera. This added to the 'mysterious anticipation,' the late costume designer mentioned in her book.

Bhanu Athaiya's costume designing journey in the world of cinema has been illustrious and here are some of the famous costumes that she designed.

Courtesy: R. K. Films

Zeenat Aman's Half-Saree

Bhanu Athaiya was a trendsetter and made some very bold outfits in those times too when leading actresses dressed conservatively on-screen. In Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Zeenat Aman played one of the most de-glam roles, the actress who with Parveen Babi were the glamorous ladies of the 70s cinema. Zeenat Aman's wardrobe for this film was dipped in understated hues but her outfits were definitely risqué for those times. One such ensemble that raised many eyebrows was her half or mini saree. The costume designer inspired Zeenat Aman to wear a transparent white saree sans the blouse. The saree featured a red piping border and it was a revealing saree that was short in length too. Zeenat Aman's saree got viewed in a provocative light but Raj Kapoor, the producer, defended his choice by stating that the saree suited her character in the movie, which was about a poverty-stricken girl.

Courtesy: Saregama Music

Helen's Spanish Costume

Helen's dance moves were versatile and energetic and she infused a lot of vivaciousness to the songs. And late Bhanu Athaiya has been behind her many iconic costumes. In an interview to IANS [2], Bhanu Athaiya revealed that she (Helen) would wear fitting bodices to show off her slim waistline and her long limbs would be draped in stockings, and her arms were covered with long gloves. Speaking about Helen, she also told IANS that the Spanish costume for the song, O Haseena Zulfonwali was her favourite. The costume was mermaid-cut and accentuated by black-hued tulle ruffles and glittering pink fitted bodice that was kept flared at the hem. The statement rose adorned on her net black-toned veil enhanced the effect and with this the legendary costume designer redefined glamour.

Courtesy: Red Chillies Entertainment

Vyjayanthimala's Amrapali Costume

In the period-drama film Amrapali, Vyjayanthimala's dance numbers mesmerised the film audience. Her costumes were designed by none other than Bhanu Athaiya. And with Vyjayanthimala's bikini top and draped bottoms, Bhanu Athaiya provided a signature period-drama costume, which has been incorporated in a number of period drama movies by different actresses in different hues. For example, Deepika Padukone also donned an Amrapali-inspired costume for a song, Dhoom Taana in her debut film, Om Shanti Om. Coming back to Vyjayanthimala's costume (the original one), her outfits signified sensuality and vulnerability. It is among the costumes that defined the Indian cinema.

Courtesy: Everett Collection

The Gandhi Movie Costumes

As aforementioned, with Richard Attenborough's movie Gandhi, Bhanu Athaiya won an Oscar. Simi Garewal (a prolific actress) scheduled a meeting of Bhanu Athaiya with Richard Attenborough for the costume designing project for his major, Gandhi. Bhanu Athaiya handled the Indian costumes for the film and this movie involved intensive research for the costume designer. She had to visit museums and libraries in Delhi to learn more about Gandhi and the sensibility of Indian citizens from a costume perspective. Apart from designing Gandhi's costume, the costume designer's job was also to design the costumes for other characters and crowd shown in the film [3]. She had assistants to help her out. This Ben Kingsley-starrer film was not only lauded by the critics and won eight Oscars but also created a market for the Nehru Jacket and khadi handspun outfits, the fabric that symbolised freedom movement.

Courtesy: Shemaroo Filmi Gaane

Mumtaz's Dress Saree

Mumtaz's dress-saree in the movie, Brahmachari was iconic, modern, and is used as a template by designers even today, who want to create something between a dress and saree. This fusion outfit was created by Bhanu Athaiya back in 1968 and popularised by Mumtaz. If you YouTube a bit, you will find dozens of tutorial videos on how to ace this saree look. This memorable costume was designed for the song, Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyaar Ke Charche and this saree was created to provide ease of movement while dancing. This orange-hued dress saree could be zipped. It was a stitched and draped saree and in her book, Bhanu Athaiya mentioned [4], 'It was a departure from the typical Indian sari.' Bhanu Athaiya crafted this saree with a layered effect to give Mumtaz, freedom of movement.

Bhanu Athaiya also went de-glam whilst designing for Shah Rukh Khan in Swades and Aamir Khan in Lagaan. The designer, who was born in Kolhapur, Maharashtra and worked in over 100 films, will be missed. RIP, Bhanu Athaiya!