In 1983, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, as she cradled her golden statuette and walked to the dais to make an acceptance speech, 57-year-old Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya became the first Indian to receive an Academy Award of Merit. From the rows of gowns and tuxedos below, an ecstatic Lord Richard Attenborough blew her kisses. This was one of the eight Oscars his epic film, Gandhi, won.
But Athaiya’s Oscar juggernaut only punctuates half a century of playing couturier to the doyens of the Hindi film industry. Starting with Aas in 1953, right up to Swades in 2004, her 130-film career spans an entire gamut of evolutionary styles in India’s cinematic landscape. Think of any iconic film image and chances are Athaiya has dressed the figures in the frame: Meena Kumari’s jewelled finery in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), Helen’s risqué cabaret skirts in Teesri Manzil (1966) and Zeenat Aman’s dream sequences in Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978).
The Art of Costume Design: Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya, Collins, 188 pages, Rs2,500.
And now these histories are part of a new coffee-table book, The Art of Costume Design, published by Collins. Athaiya founded fashion landmarks. Considering how deeply cinema shapes Indian popular culture, her silver-screen creations seeped from their film avatars to the high street.
It was Athaiya who stitched the sari and made it into an outfit that could be slipped on, allowing heroines to run around trees with abandon. In the Technicolor era, when directors wanted their lead women to portray a certain degree of Western sophistication, it was Athaiya who eschewed the baggy salwar for the form-fitting churidar, working in conical brassieres and tight kurtas into their wardrobes as well.
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An artist by training, Athaiya was part of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group and before her entry into films, she had exhibited in group shows with her contemporaries F.N. Souza and M.F. Husain. The detailed fashion sketches included in the book bear witness to her days as a fashion illustrator with Eve’s Weekly, a stint that introduced her to the world of fashion.
Reacting to praise for the immaculately produced photo treatise that captures her vision as a designer, Athaiya calls herself a “visualizer”. “Being a costume designer doesn’t mean holding a needle and thread. I’m an artist and I know human proportions—that’s what one needs to design wardrobes.”
In his foreword for the book, while commenting on Athaiya’s many attributes, Attenborough writes: “Costume design is about giving an actor absolute confidence in the character he or she is to inhabit.” Athaiya takes this role seriously, believing there’s more to costuming than appeasing the vanity of actors. For instance, in Lekin (1990), she dressed Dimple Kapadia, who was playing a ghost, in faded dual-toned colours, “so she could emerge and disappear into the darkness”.
Oscar winner: Athaiya with Ben Kingsley on the sets of Gandhi, Delhi, circa 1980.
There are semiotic undertones to her choice of colour and cut. In Henna (1991), Zeba Bakhtiar, who is otherwise dressed in bright colours through the film, is wearing black when she receives bad news about her lover.
Athaiya won her first National Award for Lekin and another one for Lagaan in 2002. She was also conferred with Filmfare’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
Image courtesy: The Art of Costume Design (Collins)