Overlooked No More: Bhanu Athaiya, Who Won India Its First Oscar

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

In 1983, when Bhanu Athaiya won an Oscar for costume design for her work on “Gandhi,” not everyone in Hollywood was thrilled.

“For what? Wrinkled sheets, burlap sacks and loincloths?” the film critic and author Rex Reed wrote.

Not to mention Army uniforms.

“Gandhi” — a three-hour saga covering more than half a century of politics, protest and purposeful nonviolence in the life of Mahatma Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) — was anything but a fashion show.

Some Indian moviegoers complained that everyone looked so ordinary, from the actors — among them John Gielgud, Martin Sheen and the young Candice Bergen (playing the American photographer Margaret Bourke-White) — to the thousands of extras dressed for crowd scenes.

But Athaiya (pronounced ah-THIGH-yah) knew the value of her work.

“Richard Attenborough was making a complex film and needed someone who knew India inside out,” Athaiya told Eastern Eye, a British weekly newspaper, in an interview published last year. “So much had to be contributed, and I was ready for it.”

“Gandhi” won eight Oscars, including best picture, actor and director. And when the costume design award went to Athaiya — sharing the honor with the British designer John Mollo — she became the first Oscar winner in history from India.

Bhanumati Annasaheb Rajopadhye was born on April 28, 1929, in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, known as a city of the arts, in British India. She was the third of seven children of Annasaheb Rajopadhye, a painter and photographer from a wealthy family, and Shantabai Rajopadhye. Her father died in 1940.

After completing her formal education at 17, Bhanu moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) and stayed with a woman whose mother happened to work at Eve’s Weekly, a popular magazine.

“They saw my sketches and could tell my hand was good,” Athaiya told Eastern Eye, adding that she “had been sketching from a very young age.”

Her work as a magazine illustrator led to a job at a boutique, where she began creating her own designs, although she had never attended fashion school. That brought her to the attention of India’s movie industry.

“Top stars started approaching me on their own and recommending me to filmmakers,” she told The Indian Express in an interview published last year. In a separate interview, she summed up her career: “I never had to go knocking on doors.”

She made her film-industry debut in Raj Khosla’s “C.I.D.” (1956), a black-and-white murder drama (with musical numbers, of course), about halfway through the golden age of Bollywood. She went on to design costumes for more than 100 movies over almost six decades.

They included some of the best of Hindi film, like Guru Dutt’s “Pyaasa” (1957), about a struggling poet and the prostitute who believes in him; Vijay Anand’s “Guide” (1965), about an unhappily married woman and a spiritually seeking former tour guide; Ashutosh Gowariker’s “Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India” (2001), which combined cricket uniforms, military uniforms and women’s fashions of late Victorian England; and the same director’s “Swades” (2004), about a modern-day scientist returning to his childhood village.

She considered herself a director’s designer. She was disdainful of stars who tried to dictate costume decisions and of designers who put their own fame above a film’s quality.

Athaiya won particular praise for her designs for the actress Sridevi, angelically dressed in white in Yash Chopra’s “Chandni” (1989); Zeenat Aman as a physically and psychically scarred wife in “Satyam Shivam Sundaram” (1978); Vyjayanthimala in the fantasy “Amrapali” (1966); Mumtaz, doing the twist in fancy-party scenes in “Brahmachari” (1968); and Waheeda Rehman, one of the designer’s favorite actresses, in “Guide.”

She said she loved her movie career because it allowed her to create designs for both period pictures and contemporary stories.

“And it has got a timeless life,” she told Eastern Eye, “whereas fashion will come and go.”

She married Satyendra Athaiya, a lyricist and poet, in the 1950s. (She changed her billing from Bhanumati to Mrs. Bhanu Athaiya in 1959.) According to The Times of India, he died in 2004.

India can now claim eight Academy Awards, including two for the 2008 film “Slumdog Millionaire” (score and sound mixing), an honorary Oscar in 1992 for the director Satyajit Ray and several technical awards.

In 2012, after she learned she had a brain tumor, Athaiya returned her Oscar statuette to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles for safekeeping after her death.

She died on Oct. 15, 2020, in Mumbai. She was 91.

Her last film was “Nagrik” (2015), a mystery about casually dressed criminals. She was the author of “The Art of Costume Design” (2010).

The Oscar was not Athaiya’s only major prize. She won India’s National Award for Costume Design twice, for “Lekin…” (1991) and for “Lagaan” a decade later, and the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.

Working in film, Athaiya said in an interview with The Indian Express, “became a way to express myself and let my imagination soar.”

“It was so fulfilling that I did not feel the need to do anything else.”

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