Bhanu Athaiya: to win an Oscar

Bhanu Athaiya won India its first Oscar in 1983 for the film Gandhi in the Best Costume Design category.  As a child, Bhanu Athaiya was surrounded by the growing surge of Indian consciousness and the influence of Gandhi. People had taken to wearing khadi clothes and Gandhi caps. This first-hand influence of Gandhi in her life was something she could not have developed with any amount of reading or research. Richard Attenborough, a foreign film director, came to India to make a film on Gandhi after 17 years of visiting the country repeatedly. He appointed Bhanu as the film's costume designer.

This is the first time we see Gandhi in Indian attire. He chose to wear the Kathiawadi garb from his birthplace. He is stepping onto Indian soil from the ship at Ballard Pier, Bombay. I made Kasturba wear a handloom sari with a border - a departure from her previous European-inspired outfits. [1]

An Indo-British co-production, Gandhi has always been considered a major film. The film starred Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, Rohini Hattanngadi as Kasturba, and Amrish Puri in a supporting role. Bhanu was the only Indian head of the department, while the rest were from England. She shared the costume department with John Mollo, the Oscar-winning costume designer of the cult classic Star Wars. Bhanu had just three months to cover events spanning half a century.

When I asked Bhanu how she did all of this, she told me: I didn't sleep or eat for months! That is what she told me, and I can believe it. [2]

She would comb the museums and libraries in Delhi to gather reference material. She also prepared a wall of Gandhi pictures from her collection so the lead actors could draw inspiration. She introduced them to the basic philosophy of Gandhi's simple attire of the dhoti and shawl.

Bhanu Athaiya's award-winning costume designs for the film Gandhi

 Illustration by Gabrielle Cooper-Weisz

The very creation of this film highlights Bhanu's intensive research skills and her sensitivity to Indian sensibilities. Bhanu gave Gandhi the required authenticity and creativity in volumes by traveling to the remotest of Indian regions to extract and reflect the essence of the film. 


[1] Bhanu Athaiya. The Art of Costume Design. 2010. HarperCollins Publishers India

[2] Ritu Kumar. The Legacy Of Bhanu Athaiya Exhibit 2023. Prinseps. 

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