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.
Following the opening of The Legacy of Bhanu Athaiya exhibit was an insightful discussion between stalwarts Ritu Kumar (Textile Historian and Fashion Designer) and Kiran Nadar (Founder and Chairperson KNMA). H.H. MAHARANI Radhika Raje Gaekwad of Baroda inaugurated the event and fondly spoke of her learnings while documenting and intensively researching the legacy of India's most globally renowned costume designer Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya.
The Hindi movies that I grew up watching in the ’70s, in theatres, and then in the ’50s and ’60s on Television, left lasting impressions. What attracted me most was the song & dance and the costumes worn by the stars. Many years later, I learned to my surprise that almost every look that was created for the actresses right from Waheeda ji, to Mumtaz ji to Zeenat ji – was by one person - Bhanu Athaiya!
My first encounter with Bhanu Athaiya happened when I was working on my debut film, Sawan Bhadon, released in 1970. I was playing a village belle, and Bhanuji designed my costumes in the film. How can I put it – it was perhaps predestined, that God chose an exceptional artiste like her to come into my life at that point, in 1969, when I was a naïve teenager who knew practically nothing. Bhanuji became my teacher, mentor, creative guide, and friend all rolled into one.
Actor Tanuja narrates Bhanu Athaiya's transition from art to Indian cinema while carrying her love for art on her sleeve. Lovingly addressed by Bhanu as 'Tanu', the actor reminisces about Bhanu's eagerness to delve into the actor's role before designing her costumes.
Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya (b. 1929) was born in her 300-year-old sprawling ancestral house in the heart of Kolhapur. Bhanu grew up surrounded by indigenous and western political, social and cultural influences. Her ability to translate all this information into the medium of cinema and art made her the first Indian ever to win an Oscar. Bhanu Athaiya is not only recognised as the revered doyenne of Indian costume designers; but also a remarkable modernist artist.
Each time young Homi Wadia entered the set with his producer-director brother J.B.H. Wadia, his eyes would light up like a kid in a candy shop. His gaze was not stuck on fantastical costumes or the star-studded cast but set on the camera. This demonstrated his childhood aptitude for mechanical processes and all things technical. It was not long before he decided to dispense his studies and join his brother in the art of film making.
A young boy's obsession with film was the cause of his secret trips to Bombay's cinematheques. Perhaps it was J.B.H. Wadia's heart thudding in anticipation that often broke the silence enveloping the dark movie theatre right before the big screen would light up. Mr. Wadia was a dedicated student of film since his high school days, growing up in an ever-present environment of cinema. Bombay's historically prominent locations dotted with stand-alone theatres were photographic landmarks etched in J.B.H's memories. These glorious theatres were not just recreational spots for the cinephile but institutions that shaped his cinematic oeuvre.
In the mid-1700s, the Master Shipbuilder Lowji Nusserwanji Wadia built a grand bungalow in tony Parel, which came to be known as Lowji Castle – with an imposing entrance hall and a wide oak- wood balustrade leading from it to the living area! Lighting up the entrance lobby were several colourful stained-glass panels with the family crest and motto – “Honor and Magnanimity” along with the sailing ship at the centre of the design! Several generations of the Wadia family lived in this palatial abode right up to the late 1800s. It is recounted by J.B.H. Wadia's family members that the elite of Bombay society wined and dined at the ‘castle’ including senior members of the British establishment.