With Bhanu Athaiya breathing her last, the industry lost yet another stalwart. The costume designer, won the first Academy Award for India. She was honoured with an Oscar, along with John Mollo, for the Best Costume Design for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1983). Over the years, Athaiya had spun her magic in a number of Bollywood films such as Teesri Manzil (1966), Pyaasa (1957), Kagaz Ke Phool (1959), Guide (1965), Karz (1980) , 1942 – A Love Story (1943), Henna (1991), Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) and Swades (2004), and have left an indelible mark with her vision and creations.
Athaiya’s colleagues remember her soft spoken nature, down-to-earth demeanour and say there would be no one like her, ever. Actors Sushma Seth, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Suhasini Mulay and Zeba Bakhtiar, who have collaborated with Athaiya in various films, go down memory lane and share their memories of knowing the legend:
She had a wonderful life, realised a lot of her dreams and aspirations and I want to remember Bhanu for her love for her art, creations, efficiency and most importantly for the kind of human being she was. She was well-read, knew about all the periods, eras and had a wonderful aesthetic vision, which would get transformed into her creations. She’d know what would go well with the story, setting and time period of a particular film and weave in her magic into everything she did. I have many memories of working with her in films such as Prem Rog (1982), Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985), Chandni (1989), Faasle (1985) and 1942: A Love Story (1993)… I met her a few years back at an event at Siri Fort when she gifted me her book (The Art Of Costume Design). There would be many other costume designers, but she was the original.
Bhanu will always be remembered for the great work that she has done. She has lived a full life, has been an inspiration to many. I wish she has not suffered so much. Among the work I’ve done with her, I remember during Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001) she’d visit my house often to discuss my costume and look in the film. She was soft spoken and knew her art well, she’d know where she’d get a certain costume stitched and by whom or where she could buy a particular fabric from. I was amazed at her knowledge and can’t think of anyone like her.
She was amazing especially the way she would go about doing her work. She had so much knowledge; I was in complete awe of her. On the sets of Henna (1991), I’d just follow her and the way she’d work on the costumes. I remember one of the days, she got a bouquet of beautiful natural flowers and asked me to choose the colours I liked, and said that accordingly she’d decide the colour palette of my costumes in the film. I’ve never seen anyone working like that — from colours, fittings, to even what kind of stitched required, she was particular about every little details. She was an unworldly artiste, who was attached to the soil. Even after achieving so much she was so grounded. Every time I think of her, I remember how beautiful she looked in her hand-woven salwaar and kurta, with those two pony tails every time she’d come on the sets.
We were set up to shoot Lagaan and Bhanu was there on the set and of course one had heard of her because of the kind of work she has done and also because she has won an Oscar. She was very unassuming. Ashutosh Gowarikar (director) had a very clear idea about what he wanted to dom, especially with my costume because I was the only woman wearing white, and Bhanu agreed that I need to have an identity of my own. Rachel Shelley (who played Elizabeth in the film) thought her costumes looked colourless but what Bhanu had done was she chose styles, stitches and colours that were English and basically in that rustic set up, her clothes really stood out not because they were overstated but they were English, understated and sophisticated. We didn’t realise till we saw it on screen how every character was given a different colour palette by Bhanu and how beautifully she gave everyone an identity of their own and it looked amazing. She also gave borders in my saree so I stood out in the crowd. Her sense of aesthetic, style and eye for detailing was praiseworthy. That’s Bhanu Athaiya for you. Wish I had done more work with her.
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Author tweets @Shreya_MJ