Atelier Diva: Work, Play, Love
The Costume Curator
April 11, 2022 COMMENT comment
The Costume Curator
By Juhi Baveja
Revered for heralding the art of film costumes in the country, costumier Bhanu Athaiya talks about the changing face of costume design, validation for her work, and the stories behind her impressive oeuvre.
The Indian film industry turns 100 this year. The legendary entertaining run of the world of make-believe has been possible because of the aesthetics which lend authenticity to this fictional landscape and the style motifs that make the movies seem larger than life. Many actors across the world have sworn that it is only when they have worn their costumes that they have truly gotten into character. Credited with being an active player in the evolution of film costumes in the country, Bhanu Athaiya has been associated with the industry for over 60 years. From dressing Mumtaz in the iconic orange sari for Aaj kal tere mere song to Ben Kingsley in Gandhi (1982); Aamir Khan in Lagaan (2001) to Shahrukh Khan in Swades (2004), Athaiya has a repertoire of big projects that have earned her the title of the golden lady of Bollywood.

Talking about the trajectory of the evolution of film costumes she says, “Before me, the director of the film and the art director would conceptualise costumes for the scenes and then ask the tailors to execute their vision,” she recalls, and claims to have had more of a defining role in the changing of the landscape of film costuming. “My directors would give me the brief by narrating the required scenes and leave it to me to come up with the desired costumes. Raj Kapoor would actually enact the required portions, even play and sing the songs,” she recollects.

Winner of two national awards, the 83-year-old hails from a small town in Maharashtra, and was brought up in a family whose lineage went all the way to the stalwart of the Maratha dynasty, Shivaji himself. She was introduced to the fine arts by her father, who was a self-taught painter, photographer, filmmaker and cultivator of roses. Equanimity in the household made for an uplifting cultural setting for Athaiya while she was growing up: “Although my father studied Sanskrit and the ancient texts and scriptures, it was the arts that beckoned him. He helped me perfect my creative expression.” After her father passed away, the costumier immersed herself in the arts, and found a mentor in her art teacher. “He took me to Bombay and enrolled me in the prestigious JJ School of Arts, where I fraternised with many artists of great stature.

After my stint at the school, I worked with leading magazines like Fashion and Beauty and Eve’s Weekly as a fashion illustrator. The readers of the latter requested the editor to open a boutique where my illustrations could be made into actual garments and sold,” she says about her journey. It was while she was working at the boutique that many film stars and filmmakers who came across her work rented and bought the elegant ensembles she produced. Since then she has worked with cinematic masters like Guru Dutt, Yash Chopra, Raj Kapoor and Ashutosh Gowariker on movies such as Lagaan (2001), Dr Ambedkar (2000), Swades (2004), Sahib, Biwi, aur Ghulam (1962), Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), Siddhartha (1972), Amrapali (1966) among several others.

At the time when women only associated with the entertainment industry to become silver screen divas, Athaiya chose this previously less traversed path. “I never had the luxury to pause and think about such a thing. I was a single girl living in Bombay trying to support herself and send money home to her mother and siblings. There were no options. I just wanted to work. You could say I was very, very lucky that I kept getting opportunity upon opportunity that paved the way to a career in which I found immense joy, satisfaction and rewards,” she says. Her choice of profession was much derided by her fellow artists: “I knew I had found my calling. I faced flak from the art world and my fellow painters for abandoning painting but I knew I wanted to work in films, although I continue to be a painter at heart and will always be one.”

Working as a costumier for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) – for which she went on to become the first Indian to win an Oscar – was a milestone of sorts in her impressive oeuvre. “Working with a world-class team of experts kept me on my toes. The whole canvas of the film with its numerous characters took a lot of time to research and coordinate – it was challenging and invigorating at the same time,” she says. Winning an Oscar only affirmed her faith in her abilities. “In my heart, I was representing the country and even thanked Sir Richard for bringing the Indian subcontinent to the attention of the world. However, the state has yet to acknowledge my contribution to Indian cinema,” she posits.

Her squabble with her country has propelled her decision to return her trophy to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for safekeeping. “The Academy has a rule for all its winners and members that if they are unable to find a good place for the trophy at the end of their lives, they must return it to the Academy. And yes, my decision is also a statement,” she adds. Athaiya has often expressed her resentment towards the country for not respecting her oeuvre – by not felicitating her with a Padma Shri or other such honours. But her legitimate concerns regarding the ‘styling’ of today’s movies are worth mulling over. In common parlance, a costume designer is oft called a stylist – a word that Athaiya thinks is derivative and reductive. “First of all, there is no such thing in cinema as a ‘stylist’. The definition of a stylist is completely different from that of a costume designer. A stylist takes clothes from several fashion designers and puts it on a model or actor in a unique way that heightens their appeal,” she opines.

The act of putting together looks by alluding to the social context of the period (that the film is based in) requires much more, and according to Athaiya it is diametrically different from styling a star. “Costume designing requires, above all else, a deep understanding of life and culture, as well a questing mind which unfortunately, contemporary fashion designers do not possess. If an audience does not notice the costumes the actor is wearing on screen and it vanishes into the fabric of a film, a costume designer’s work is done,” she adds decisively. Athaiya has previously authored an exquisite tome titled Th Art of Costume Design – which chronicles her life as an artist, the highlights of her journey including her association with the famed Progressive Artists Group and her work in fashion.

Athaiya works in her downtown Mumbai studio but travels across the world to research for her movies, and visits her daughter in Kolkata when free. She even went to Paris on a scholarship and selected costumes for Vyjantimala’s famous song from Sangam (Mein kya karoon Ram, mujhe budhdha mil gaya) – showcasing her dedication to the craft. For Gandhi, the costume perfectionist personally selected each drape and thread for all the players involved.

Athaiya, who is part of the voting committee for the academy, is prudent about the projects she invests in. The veteran is currently working on two books – one about her hometown Kolhapur, and the other on her costume illustrations. Talking about her future plans, she says, “My plan is to continue working on the Mahabharata serial for Swastik Pictures. I have also been approached for a play in London.” Further proof that her affair with the silver screen continues.

“A costume designer is not a stylist. Costume designing requires, above all, a deep understanding of life and culture, as well a questing mind.”

medical abortion pill online abortion pills online

buy abortion pill abortion pill online purchase

Popular this week
  Devoted to dance
  Conquering every sea
  Tied for time
Latest Articles
  Pretty on the outside
  Flower power
  Weekend escape
  Time savers
  Birthing a new you
  So spa so good
Hair Growth in Seconds Grow Hair whenever you want at home instantly with ILLUSION Hair Fibers
Be Beautiful Your Beauty Needs are Unique Get beauty tips meant just for you!
Site Content
Your Home
[email protected]