Exploring Bhanu Athaiya's Personal Textile Collection

Like a brocade bridge that takes you back in time, the personal textile collection of India’s most renowned costume designer Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya leads you deeper into both her inherited legacy and the one she herself created.

For a self-confessed history, textiles, and cinema buff like myself, the kaleidoscopic life experiences and personalities that Athaiya encountered form a captivating spider’s web of gold and silver thread. And as I touch these very threads, I realise how long and far a trail they have spun.

This is the fascinating life of a small-town girl from pre-independence India, one of 7 children raised by a widowed mother, who went on to define popular Indian fashion and celluloid’s sartorial canvas, achieving the highest pinnacle - the Oscar for Best Costume Design. As Athaiya beautifully articulates in her article ‘Drape Beautiful’ for India Today’s special collector’s issue, 2003:

“ I grew up feasting my eyes on the exquisite beauty of these gorgeous saris. Feeling their textures, enjoying their colour combinations, tracing the motifs with my fingers was heady stuff for me in my childhood, and it propelled me on a journey into the world of textiles.”

Born in the British era into a traditional Maharashtrian Hindu family with pious and regal ties, Athaiya’s grew up in a dynamic even if dichotomous India. Athaiya’s father, Ganpatrao ‘Annasaheb’ Rajopadhye belonged to a lineage of royal priests who served the Chhatrapatis of Kolhapur. An expansive and well-endowed family, the ancestral ‘Wada’ was a 300-year-old stately mansion and religious ceremonies were as intrinsic an aspect of her early life.

Bal Gandharva by Annasaheb Rajopadhye

Kolhapur being the progressive royal state and cultural melting pot it was, Athaiya received unprecedented exposure to the best of all creative mediums. Athaiya narrates in her book ’The Art of Costume Design’, her encounters and impressions of legends such as the master of dress up and Marathi stage actor-singer Bal Gandharva, the glamorous and decorated danseuse Madame Menaka (could she have triggered the imagination for Vaijayantimala as Amrapali?) the renowned and beautiful saree clad musician Gangubai Hangal (perhaps a muse for the future Kaveree Amma of her last film project Swades?) and London trained theatre personality, Hima Devi. Athaiya’s endearing daughter Radhika Gupta explains in her twinkling voice how Indian film director Baburao Painter and renowned artist Dhurandhar were regular visitors at Athaiya’s home. The strong presence of Raja Ravi Varma’s artistic interpretations may have further tinted her sense of drape and palette.

Vaijanthimala & Madame Menaka     


Kishori Ballal & Gangubai Hagal

Undeniably the exceptional artistic and visual conjuring of these personalities paved the path for Athaiya’s sartorial explorations. As she herself observed in her book, “ I was exposed to modern thinking from an early age, which later allowed me to be part of a pioneering movement in new Indian fashion.”

The Bhanu Athaiya collection of antique textiles that are the subject of my documentation here are a rich representation of the traditional Maharashtrian upper society of that era. A combination of Paithanis, Chanderis, and Benarasis in silk and cotton, these textiles are rare and unique as today they are no longer woven in either pure zari, pure cotton, or the 9 yards saree length and width. The collection also includes an infant’s christening robe, used and passed down generations in the family and last used for Radhika at her birth in 1955.

The delicate, well-worn textiles here appear to be dating as early as the 1850s, with their trademark diaphanous cotton, natural dyes, real zari (silver threads with gold plating), and intricate patterns. Some of these appear to be special commissions and bear strong commonality in quality, provenance, colours, and motifs to the textiles we possess in our Royal Gaekwad Collection.

“My family lifestyle demanded two distinct types of clothes, favoured by the family members, both male and female. Everyday activities called for fine cotton as they are easy to wash. But on the occasion of pujas and festivals, the best of rich, traditional woven handloom saris from important textile centers within India, were taken out of their boxes to be worn by the ladies of the home” - (Bhanu Athaiya, ‘Family Heirloom Saris’.)

Bhanu Athaiya with daughter, Panch Pandavaani Draupadi Oleograph & Bal Gandharva

The grand mid-night blue ‘Chandrakala’ Paithani saree from this collection is well established as Athaiya’s favourite. She even wore it at the after-wedding ceremony at her daughter’s wedding. Beautifully styled with a ‘’Kummer Patta’ or traditional metal belt around her slim waist, her svelte frame and poise reminded me instantly of both Bal Gandharva and Raja Ravi Varma's Draupadi from his famous oleograph -Mahabharat.

One of the splendid textiles in this collection is ornate rust-coloured Shela or expansive stole that is draped on one or both shoulders on auspicious and religious occasions.

Paithani Shela & Raja Maloji II of Akalkot

It is almost identical to one seen worn by Shrimant Raja Maloji II, Shahaji Raje Bhonsale of Akalkot (1857-1870) and one can safely presume a similar date of origin for this particular textile from the Rajopadhye collection. “These saris formed part of family heirlooms, which were well preserved and passed down from one generation to another”, Athaiya confirms in her article ‘Family Heirloom Saris’.

Textiles in the lot include:
A. 2 Paithani Silk Dhotis
B. 1 Banarasi Silk Dhoti
C. 2 Benarasi Shelas
D. 1 Paithani Shelas
E. 4 Benarasi silk 9-yard sarees (3 of which are identical in motif but different colours)
F. 2 Paithani 9 yard sarees (cotton)
G. 1 Paithani 9 yard saree (cotton x silk)
H. 1 petite version of the 9 yards saree worn by the family goddess (cotton)
I. 2 Chanderi 9 yard sarees (cotton)
J. 3 South Silk 9 yard sarees
K. 1 South Silk 6 yards saree
L. 1 Benarasi nine yard saree (cotton)
M. 1 Surat brocade Kunchi or baby christening robe
N. An unfinished costume made of Benarasi silk brocade belonging and gifted by the eminent Kathak dancer, late Sitara Devi.

Athaiya recalls her growing up years in her book:

“Every morning I would wake up at dawn, listening to the melodious notes of the Shenais that played in the family temple in the courtyard. At 8:00 a.m., the family priest would arrive to do the puja, and the chanting of his mantras reverberated throughout the house. My family celebrated all the religious festivals in the most correct and traditional manner."

Undoubtedly this deep understanding of Indian customs played a part in how she visualised and executed her traditional and period costumes, often herself draping actors such as Sunil Dutt in Amrapali or Ben Kingsley and the cast of Gandhi, tying “a hundred dhotis in a jiffy.”

As I look at these textiles I am transported to the era of Athaiya’s impressionable youth where both life and limb were caressed by them. The endearing impact of her artistic father Annasaheb who she lost at the age of 11 years and her progressive mother Shantabai is tenable when one views the sentiment with which their vintage textiles have been preserved by Athaiya and passed on to her only child, Radhika Athaiya Gupta.

Annasaheb was a carpenter, filmmaker, and painter. His wife Shantabai who was married at 17 was also encouraged by Annasaheb to pursue her passions. Athaiya also writes her mother specialised in the Edwardian style of embroidery and won several awards for the same. “ Father encouraged everyone in the family to pursue their individual artistic talent.”

While Athaiya acknowledges the positive impact her parents had on her, she in turn kept their legacy alive through what she knew best - textiles. As Athaiya declares in ‘ Family Heirloom Saris’: "It gave me great pleasure to handle these saris and developed in me, a growing interest in textiles.”

Radhika remembers her mother personally pulling out these antique textiles and airing them regularly.

“Ma would carefully change their folds, wrap them in muslin with semi-dried neem leaves to prevent an infestation before delicately rolling and storing them in a big trunk. I wasn’t allowed to open them till the very end!”

As I attempt to draw parables between the inheritance and the personal style and body of the work of Athaiya, I see a subtle theme emerge. The colour combinations of Waheeda Rehman in a Nauvari or 9-yard saree in the famous dance sequence ‘Piya Tose Naina Lage Re’ from Guide has a strong resonance with her mother’s pairing of a pistachio green blouse and rust saree and the hair neatly tied in a low bun with slight waves caressing the forehead. The beautiful light green saree paired with a red blouse seen on Meena Kumari in Sahib, Biwi Aur Ghulam is reminiscent of the stunning Paithani silk saree of the exact same combination from the Rajopadhye Athaiya collection.

Waheeda Rehman & Shrimati Shantabai (Bhanu Athaiya's mother)

Paithani Nauvari from Bhanu Athaiya’s
collection & Minakumari

Athaiya’s depth of understanding this inheritance is reflected in her vast body of work where she has consciously incorporated handloom and natural colours to created authenticity for her characters. As she writes in her book, “Film Ganga Jamuna is important in the history of Indian cinema because, for the first time, actual Indian handlooms and handicrafts were used to make the costumes. ” she went on to use handloom extensively in movies such as Geet, Reshma Aur Shera, Lekin, Lagaan, Swades and of course Gandhi.

The drape and silhouette of her legendary Amrapali, for which Athaiya researched the caves of Ajanta carries strong accents of the nine-yard drape that she was all too familiar with. This very apsara costume went on to take iconic proportions, becoming a template for all future celestial representations of mainstream female actors from Hema Malini in Sanyasi to Sridevi in Chandni.

Sridevi in Chandni and Vaijanthimala in Amrapali

It takes one glimpse of the vintage and valuable collection of Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya’s heirloom textiles to see where the threads of these picture-perfect celluloid personifications emerged from.

This lot of textiles is extremely important in understanding not only the history of our exquisite Indian weaves but even more so the incomparable contribution of one of India’s most critically acclaimed fashion creators of all times. And for these reasons, I hope the heirloom textiles of the Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya collection find a special space in a textile museum.

Radhikaraje Gaekwad

A Masters in medieval Indian history, Radhikaraje worked as a journalist with Indian Express, New Delhi prior to moving to Vadodara. Married into the royal Gaekwad family, she is now actively involved in running one of the largest private residences in the world along with family trusts such as the Maharani Chimnabai Stree Udyogalaya, imparting vocational training to lower-income women and the Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum Trust, housing some of the most acclaimed works of Raja Ravi Varma amongst others. She is also a patron of the Heritage Trust, an independent organisation instrumental in bringing the monumental complex of Champaner on the World Heritage Sites list, and is actively involved in preventing the city’s heritage structures from being obliterated.

Radhikaraje is currently also working on the documentation of the Lukshmi Vilas Palace and its priceless possessions. She has been researching and archiving the rich history and culture of royal India and has presented her research on prestigious platforms such as Saffronart and Robb Report and India Today Conclave. She is also reviving the lost old weaving techniques of Chanderi and Baroda Shalu- an intrinsic aspect of royal Maratha sartorial traditions.

Radhikaraje is the Director of CDS Art Foundation, Ahmedabad, where she works in aligning artisans with designers and bridging gaps with the end consumer. To raise awareness and funds for her charities, Radhikaraje organised the Palace Heritage Garba, a nine-day traditional dance festival. The event saw a congregation of over 25,000 people every day and was even conferred the Best Garba of Vadodara, 2019 award.

Through the Covid 19 pandemic, Radhikaraje alongside her sister has been able to reach out and aid over 600 artisanal families in Orissa. For this, she has also been conferred the HDFC Bank Philanthropist award.
She continues her love for writing by regularly contributing to leading dailies and magazines.

Radhikaraje is an avid traveler, visiting over 50 countries for wildlife, history, and wine! She is perhaps one of the only Indian women to take the polar dip in Antarctica!

(The research and documentation is a collaboration with Maharaja Fatesingh Museum Baroda)

Any questions?