‘Before My Design, Women Wore Dumpy Salwars’


Bhanu Athaiya, 83, was born Bhanumati Annasaheb Rajopadhye in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, the third of seven children. After graduating from the JJ School of Art, she found her niche as a costume designer in Hindi cinema, and has never looked back, winning India’s first Oscar in 1982 for her costumes in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. She spoke to Trisha Gupta on the eve of launching her memoir, The Art of Costume Design, describing her five decades in the Mumbai film industry. Excerpts:

All dressed up Bhanu Athaiya at home with some of her most famous designs
Photo: Himmat Singh Shekhawat

How did you end up working as a costume designer in Mumbai films?
I had a two-page spread in the popular magazine Eve’s Weekly where my brief was to draw inspiration from Indian heritage. My fashion illustrations were noted by directors and film stars. They asked my editor to set up a boutique, where I started to design dresses. That boutique was visited by everyone from Kamini Kaushal and Nargis to Ramanand Sagar. It was Kamini Kaushal who gave me my first assignment. I started by designing her personal wardrobe, and soon went on to design her costumes in films like Shahenshah and Chalis Baba Aur Ek Chor.

How did you meet Guru Dutt?
Guru Dutt’s sister was studying with me in JJ School. My illustrations had made me famous. I had also presented my paintings at the Kala Ghoda Artists’ Centre alongside MF Husain and Krishen Khanna. Guru Dutt asked me to design costumes for CID.

How did costume design in cinema work when you started?
The director had a clear idea of what he wanted, and the art director and he would brief the tailors. Actors would also join in. I became a bridge between director and actor.

Who were the directors you particularly enjoyed working with?
Guru Dutt had the sensitivity to do what was needed. Like during Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, he felt I should make a trip to Calcutta. So I visited the old mansions, and met people, and shopped. The films I did for Guru Dutt were based on reality. Raj Kapoor, in contrast, demanded something unique. One had to be more creative: Satyam Shivam Sundaram, the Prem Rog dream sequence, which was an Arabian Nights fantasy. Or Henna’s Pakistani gypsy. Hindi cinema makes all kinds of demands. Songs, dream sequences, rain sequences — all these give scope to a costume designer.

My orange stitched sari for mumtaz was wound round her body so every twist revealed something. Everyone copied it

Any clothes or ‘look’ that you created that became particularly popular? 
Waqt (1965) brought in the form-fitting salwar kameez and made it the rage. Before that, women had been wearing broad kurtas and dumpy salwars. Then Mumtaz’s sari in Brahmachari (1968) — the orange stitched sari that was wound round her body so that every twist revealed something — that was copied even by designers. In Nikaah,I gave the nawabi look a contemporary spin, focussing not on embroidery but on Hyderabadi pearl jewellery.

Has Hindi cinema’s approach to costume design changed? 
The costume designer should design the whole look of a film. Like in Lagaan, I created the costumes across the board, from the villagers to the British elite. In the Oscars, that is a rule – that all costumes must have been designed by one person. But in most films here, even to – day, actors’ clothes are taken care of by costume designers and someone else fills the gaps. Stars come and say, ‘Get my dresses designed by so-and-so’. The 1980s brought in a lot of fashion designers into cinema. But designing for a star and designing for a character – that is a different cup of tea.


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