Art and Design in the Life of Bhanu Athaiya: Realizing a Dream By Gayatri Sinha

As a girl born into the priestly class of pandits from the royal house of Kolhapur in 1929, Bhanumati Rajopadhye may have appeared as an unlikely instigator of dramatic change in the sphere of mass aesthetics. But it is no exaggeration to say that she led the nation’s gaze in the appreciation of feminine beauty, mined the country’s craft and couture traditions, and created waves in the worlds of fashion and consumer desire. One of the questions around Bhanu Athaiya’s vast oeuvre is how do we address her art in the context of her work in cinema and vice-versa.

In this brief paper, I will examine her location within the Progressive Artists' Group (henceforth, PAG) and her expansive career as the foremost costume designer for Hindi cinema.

Bhanu’s sensibility was honed and refined in the courtly ethos of pre-independence Kolhapur, and the many layers of cosmopolitan Bombay, where she received her training. She imbibed the culture of her home state, with its grandeur, slow tempo and conservative styles. Under its ruler, Shahu Maharaj, Kolhapur came into the forefront of aesthetic and cultural endeavour and produced some of the finest performing and visual artists of the pre-independence era. Around the same time, the Bombay Presidency was at the centre of a great churn, due to the growing field of academic training in art and the introduction of the technological marvel of the camera. Bhanu’s father, Annasaheb Rajopadhye, was an aesthete and amateur artist, who practised photography and took to filmmaking, an influential medium in Kolhapur from the 1920s. [1]

Kolhapur artist, Abalal Rahiman, shifted to Bombay to study at the J.J. School of Art and was celebrated in his hometown. Bhanu wrote, “one of Abalal’s paintings of a woman going to a temple painted in the realistic manner was a prized possession in my father’s personal collection, and I admired it frequently.” [2] Another famous Kolhapur artist, M.V. Dhurandhar, had his paintings hung in the Kolhapur palace, which were later viewed by Bhanu. [3] She also recalled seeing artists painting with their easels propped up on the picturesque banks of the Panchganga river or the Rankala lake, all of which made a deep impression on her young mind.

 The backdrop against which Bhanu started her career as an artist and went on to become a premier costume designer marks her movement from the painter’s individual studio practice to the densely competitive spheres of industry and technology. What is significant is how her family background in Kolhapur, in particular, may have influenced her career choices. In a sense, she straddled the worlds of experimental modernity, traditional literature and the mythopoesis of 20th-century cinema in India. At home, Annasaheb had a vast collection of books by European masters like da Vinci, Rembrandt, Turner and Constable [4], and encouraged his daughter’s aesthetic and intellectual interests, while she assisted in cleaning his brushes and palette.

Kolhapur was also home to Baburao Painter (1890-1954), who was a leading backdrop painter for theatre, bringing perspective and realistic settings to the Kirloskar Natak Mandali and Parsi theatre productions. Baburao successfully built his camera in 1918, after much trial and error. In the same year, he also set up the Maharashtra Film Company, for which Shahu Maharaj granted him land and funds for a camera. As the first producer to cast women in cinema, he made Seeta Swayamvar (1918), which was a big commercial success. He also served as an assistant to D.G. Phalke. Baburao went on to make several other films, including mythologicals like Sati Savitri (1927) and Rukmini Swayamvar (1946). [5] Annasaheb followed suit and started working on his own film, called Mohini (1940), in which Bhanu played a small role as a child actor. Tragically, he died during the film’s production, when Bhanu was just 10. [6] But the dye had been cast for her artistic career. In terms of chronology, her progress was rapid for one so young. In her high school in Kolhapur, she won three awards for drawing, which led her art teacher to encourage Bhanu to study art.

Bhanu went to Bombay to train in the field and lived with Hima Devi, a dancer and theatre producer, whose mother worked at the women’s magazine Fashion and Beauty. Bhanu joined Nutan Kala Mandir for a year and then enrolled at the the J.J. School. She also designed a few costumes for Hima Devi’s theatre productions and was later hired as an illustrator for Eve’s Weekly, where she presented realized, mature drawings on contemporary fashion, with directions on how garments could be styled. [7]

 It is interesting to see how Bhanu coped with the different influences that dominated the J.J. School at that time. There seems to have been an oscillation between the classical and academic influences of her growing years at Kolhapur, the education she received in Bombay, and her artistic bent. These multiple factors and sensibilities came to be reflected in her practice.

The problem of indigenism vs modernism played out in J.J., as it did in other art institutions. In a newly independent India, buoyed by nationalistic feeling, how did the idea of decolonization resolve the painter’s need to ally with prevailing internationalism but also project an Indian identity? From the body of extant work, which she completed mainly between 1949 and 1952, we see Bhanu’s engagement with the female nude not only as an academic subject drawn from live models, but also as inviting abstraction. She took on a number of stylistic experiments, evident in her academic portrait titled Untitled (c. 1950) and her still life paintings. Some pieces bear the influences of Nandalal Bose and Ahivasi, then Dean at the J.J. School, who insisted on an entirely Indian form of painting. Other works, which are similar in style to Amrita Sher-Gil’s compositions, reveal Bhanu’s skills as a colourist. Two works, Untitled (c. 1950) and Prayer (1952), speak of her days at the nunnery where she lived and of the considerable ease with which she handled Post-Cubist imagery.  One is surprised at the rapid maturing of her style, and the deftness with which she draws from Indian miniature and prevailing Western influences, but in a manner that is uniquely her own. In 1951, she won the gold medal for the painting, Lady in Repose, at the J.J. School. She broke new ground with the manner in which she made the nude appear to advance and recede between different colour planes. The entire composition was marked with black cross hatching, which lent it a brooding symbolism. This showed a considerable shift from the Sher-Gil inspired works she had produced in the previous year.

As she came into the limelight, Bhanu drew the attention of the PAG painters. Thereafter, H.A. Gade invited her to join their next exhibition at the Bombay Arts Society Salon in September 1952, where two of her paintings—Prayer (1952) and Bananas (1952)—were displayed. Even though this would be her only showing with the group, she made her mark as an intrepid modernist within the PAG.

Clearly, by the close of 1952, another churn in her trajectory was taking place. The PAG, as is well-known, had already started to splinter. In this context, the significant question to ask is why did Bhanu decide not to be a painter? As she said in an interview with Manjula Sen in 2010: “South Bombay had painters, north Bombay had the cinema world. I chose working with (the) camera.” [8]

Can we speculate that the creation of language, especially outside the long shadow of Amrita Sher-Gil, was a challenge she did not want to engage in? Or was it that cinema offered opportunities to design for the female body and assured her of more financial independence? Certainly, the work provided an enriching platform for observation and design, all born of intense research, which dovetailed with the visual seduction and the mass audience reception associated with cinema.

While her participation with the PAG has been acknowledged, it was her column with one of India’s leading women’s magazines that highlighted the unique flair she demonstrated as a designer—an aspect that demands a separate study. Nevertheless, it is difficult to estimate what influence her column may have had, presenting as it did both Indian and European styles that offered women the chance to create their identity and self representation. This was an intermediate phase before Bhanu launched her studio, which attracted Kamini Kaushal, a leading star of the times, who assigned her work for an upcoming film. This resulted in the next decisive turn in Bhanu’s career.

How did Bhanu make this transition to establish herself as the first major professional woman designer dedicated to film costume? At a time when her confreres from the PAG were lining up to go abroad—Padamsee, Raza and Souza had already left for Paris; Ram Kumar for Mexico; and Gaitonde and Krishen Khanna were to follow—Bhanu made a contrarian decision to celebrate the Indian ethos. There is a handwritten note where she shares a heartfelt statement on the decolonization of design:

“It has a lot to do with timing. It couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. I defined myself.  My subject was not my sensibility or my inward development, but the worlds I contained within myself, the world I lived in. Finally, man and creative person come together.” [9]

It is interesting that even as she speaks in both first and third person, there is introspection and objective rationalization in a larger Indian postcolonial matrix. Bhanu says, “It was too frightening to accept. I was hiding my experience from myself. Hiding myself from my experience.” And then, the final parting shot:

"Our colonial education and our consequent fascination with the west stunts us. It blocks us from even trying to examine what is truly worthwhile in our culture and building on that.” [10]

I believe this kind of self-reflexivity was very unusual for the time.  Bhanu decided to step away from art with its veneer of internationalism at a time when she had been lauded for her painting talent. However, it was also the time when cinema was still struggling with issues of identity, and the invocation of the layered history of the past for a free India. Meena Kumari, Nargis, Dilip Kumar and Madhubala all assumed Hindu names for social acceptability (Madhubala, as late as 1947). Newer studios were proliferating, and there was an influx of talent into Bombay, not only from the north but also from former west Punjab, with its long and haloed traditions of Urdu and a syncretic Hindu-Muslim culture.

We should recall that Bhanu’s career, like that of her fellow compatriots, was fashioned within a rapidly changing Indian polity. As a colonial city, Bombay was already a bustling cosmopolitan hub, created through a confluence of money, labour and the politics of resistance to the colonial ethos. The residue of European influence, the Parsi, Gujarati and Marathi elites, and the vast undocumented underbelly of the working classes made up the city’s viewership. The city had one major art gallery—the Jehangir Art Gallery—and a number of film studios at Tardeo and Dadar with a powerful star system. With Partition, migrants from west Punjab and Uttar Pradesh arrived looking for a footing in the city, and brought with them a north Indian Hindustani with a fluency in Bhojpuri and Purabi. IPTA or Indian Peoples Theatre Association with its close proximity to cinema through its stars like Prithviraj Kapoor, Balraj Sahni , Zohra Sehgal and others brought a left leaning political conviction to their touring productions.  Cinema became the ground for a dramatic encounter between different cultural strains, which also shaped Bhanu’s emerging work in fashion. To her upbringing in the Brahminical culture of Kolhapur was added the sounds of Ganga Jamuni tones, and the echoes of the badlands of the Chambal ravines. In her hands, the texts of scores of other novelists and writers, came to assume bodily form.

In a sense, Bhanu was one of the few artists of her generation who had a pan-Indian calling card of ethnicities, histories and politics, all coming together on her drawing board.

As a fledgling designer, Bhanu designed for a penumbra of male and female characters. At the core of her practice lay a keen understanding of the body of the Indian woman, drawn from the hundreds of sketches that she made from temple friezes, her studies of feudal culture, and also her observations of everyday life. Her points of reference began shifting from art to literature. She collaborated with some of the finest screenwriters and authors of the time, including Wajahat Mirza, who wrote the scripts for Aan (1952) and Mother India (1957), Abrar Alvi, who worked in close proximity with Guru Dutt and wrote Mr and Mrs 55 (1955), Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz ke Phool (1959), and K.A. Abbas, who wrote Shri 420 (1955). Through such films, Bhanu, who was still in her early twenties, came to be lauded costume designer.

In the next six decades, Bhanu determined our notion of beauty and desire; she opened our eyes to cinematic fashion as trendsetters, and, as if with an invisible thread, led the self-fashioning of Indian women. Then why is she relatively unsung and hardly ever acknowledged in the annals of the Indian art canon, as the only woman artist in the PAG, or as the initiator of India’s fashion industry? Speaking of herself as a “director’s designer”, (“people come looking for me because I give my best”), Bhanu chose to live and work with remarkable modesty and economy of scale. [11] For years, the Oscar that she won for Gandhi rested in her small garage studio adjoining her house. She was reclusive, and her meetings with the great and the famous, much like her contributions to cinematic dreams, were spontaneous and unstructured. She spoke about Raj Kapoor asking her to come to R.K. Studio in Chembur, narrating his story, giving her a paper and pencil, and asking her what she would design.

And design she did. Bhanu’s filmography is a stunning document that runs into several pages on your Google Drive.

In the 60 years between 1953 and 2014, she worked in 236 films, at an average of about 5 to 6 films a year.

The directors ranged from Kumar Shahani, an aesthete who imaged his women with a delicate sensuosity, to Helen, the epitome of the spectacular, dancing on sparkling stilettos with her feathered plumes. In this melee of narratives, Bhanu was to draw on Indian fabrics, regional designs and traditional drapes, even as she held a mirror to the growing urban-middle class and its aspirations. 

I also want to suggest that Bhanu took to cinema easily, possibly because of her upbringing in the environment that flourished back then in Kolhapur. At the time of independence, there were three important studios—New Theatres, Bombay Talkies and Prabhat Studios. Prabhat was based in Kolhapur, and was well-known for making films in the devotional, mythological and saint genres, melding socio-cultural traditions with creative talent and technological advancement. Hrishikesh Ingle has argued that Prabhat, on account of the religio-cultural content of its films (from Puranic to Bhakti themes) conferred social respectability to Indian cinema. [12] Further, Ingle states that many of the studio’s personnel came from Marathi performing and artisanal classes, and the films were made in Marathi and Hindustani, with strong regional and national outlooks. While British colonial rulers looked askance at cinema’s ability to foster nationalist, anti-colonial sentiments, the industry grew in the hands of talented artists, who were making a representative India, part fictive, part mythological, and part revisualized from everyday life.

Over a 60-year career, Bhanu created a style that was genuinely pan-national, one that did not mimic any one region. She could think as a modernist, beyond vernacular silos, and her skills as a colourist came to the fore. She styled for a range of films and actresses—Kamini Kaushal in Aas (1953) and Radha Krishna (1954); Waheeda Rehman in Guide (1965); Vyajanthimala in Amrapali (1966); and Simi Garewal in Siddharth (1972).  As the dancing raaj nartaki, Vyjayanthimala as Amrapali wore a number of costumes that invoked a timeless classicism within a broadly Indian look with no regional inflections. Bhanu also recorded how the male armour drawings that she had made 20 years earlier in the British Museum came to be used for the warring armies of the ancient kingdoms of Vaishali and Magadh in Amrapali, or even the later Razia Sultan (1983).  Here, the question of Bhanu’s influence on art is also clarified. The proximate relationship between cinema, mythology and calendar art spawned an entire field of image-making.

Bhanu wrote of how she went to Calcutta to study old buildings of the landed aristocracy for Sahib Bibi aur Gulam (1962), [13] to gain a sense of the festering decrepitude of zamindari culture. She designed costumes for five films by Guru Dutt, including the epic Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz ke Phool (1959). While these were located within a mid-20th-century India and its discomforts of urbanism, a timeless subject was the villager and the tribal in films like Ganga Jamna (1961), Mujhe Jeene Do (1963) and Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978). We recognize then that by moving away from the art gallery, Bhanu came closer to the spirit of the popular art market. Satyam Shivam Sundaram bore affinities to several spin-offs on the tribal look, in films, posters and calendar art. On a shared plane, one may draw connections and comparisons between the prints of the Ravi Varma Press, such as Shakuntala Sakhi (1890), Saira Banu’s look in Shagird (1967), and Zeenat Aman’s in Satyam Shivam Sundaram.

Bhanu also designed an emergent metropolitan middle class, in which the audience read goodness and evil [Shree 420 (1950)], conflict and class difference [Pyaasa (1957)], romance and spirituality [Sangam (1964), Meera (1979), Damini (1993)] and suspense [Mera Saaya (1966)]. So entrenched was her style that the audience could perceive different nuances even in her palette. In Sangam, Meera and Damini, there are different aspects of purity that Bhanu emphasized through her use of the colour white.

 Furthermore, Bhanu proved to be a master at designing for ensembles. Films that had trans-national or political content, like Mera Naam Joker (1970), Gandhi (1982), Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000), Lagaan (2001) and Swadesh (2004), involved complex designing for characters across different social strata, nationalities and periods, which she achieved with quiet understatement. In retrospect, one cannot help but be impressed with the sheer volume of her output. The ensemble scenes in Amrapali, Gandhi and Lagaan are all the outcome of her research, her observational skills and eye for meticulous detail, and her pursuit of authenticity.

 Do we view Bhanu’s accomplishment only as talent bent towards commercial success? Or is her achievement embedded in the matrix of society, culture and artistic praxis? Can we argue that as a harbinger of feminism she designed to liberate the female body from the tyranny of the faded tones of khadi (associated with the independence struggle) and a society depleted of the idea of pleasure,  with mills in England churning out and feeding it with only synthetic sarees? It may not have been apparent even to her, but Bhanu was every woman’s instrument of emancipation. At the beginning of her career, it would have been difficult to attribute to her a cultural plan. But as she went from film to film, from year to year, from decade to decade, Bhanu created typologies of female beauty that struck a resounding chord with the great Indian masses. At the same time, cinema brought her to the masses, even as it allowed her to maintain her well-known reclusiveness.

I think it is important to probe if Bhanu’s training and early success as an artist had any bearing on her work for cinema. Certainly, she had to abandon the individuality of the artist working alone in her studio to work with teams for films. The industry itself offered little hopes of permanence and none of the security of the earlier studio system. In every film she worked on, Bhanu became, to use the term by Michel de Certeau, a “tenant of culture”. Her creativity was genuinely relational, with sensuosity and spectacularism, because it operated outside a private symbolic space. Her art was not something you walked past, as in an art gallery; it was the stuff of dreams, imitated even today by design and couture houses, holding up a mirror to a slice of Indian social history.

Listen to Gayatri Sinha's insights on the legacy of Bhanu Athaiya here.

 Notes

 [1] “Bhanu Athaiya: Early Days in Kolhapur,” Prinseps, https://prinseps.com/research/bhanu-athaiya-early-days-in-kolhapur/.

 [2] “Bhanu Rajupadhye Athaiya’s Association with the Progressive Artists Group,” Dictated Note, Mumbai, May 2010.

 [3] Ibid.

 [4] Ibid.

 [5] “Baburao Painter,” Cinemaazi, https://www.cinemaazi.com/people/baburao-painter.

 [6] “Bhanu Athaiya: Early Days in Kolhapur,” Prinseps.

 [7] “Bhanu Athaiya: A Synopsis,” Prinseps, https://prinseps.com/research/bhanu-athaiya-a-synopsis/.

 [8] Manjula Sen, “Interview with Bhanu Athaiya,” The Telegraph, April 4, 2010.

 [9] Bhanu Athaiya, Handwritten Note. Courtesy of Brijeshwari Gohil.

 [10] Ibid.

 [11] Sen, “Interview with Bhanu Athaiya.”

 [12] Hrishikesh Ingle, “Early Marathi Cinema: Prabhat Studios and Social Respectability,” Synoptique, 5, no. 2 (Winter 2017): 79-100.

 [13] “Meena Kumari in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962),” Prinseps, Facebook Post, December 14, 2022, https://www.facebook.com/PrinsepsOnline

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Any questions?