Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya, India’s first Oscar winner, passed away at her residence on Thursday after prolonged illness at the age of 91. The first Indian to win an Oscar for her work in the 1983 film Gandhi began her career as a costume designer in Hindi films with Guru Dutt’s 1956 smash hit C.I.D. She entrenched her Indian design sensibilities on the global firmament when she won the Academy Award for Best Costume Design in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi along with John Mollo. Her Mumtaz-style sari still remains one of the most sought-after styles for fashionistas. Designer Ritu Kumar, who was her friend and colleague shares, “I’m so upset to hear this. You don’t make them like that anymore. In fact, when she won the Oscar, which I felt she truly deserved, a lot of people would ask, ‘why and what did she do in the film?’ and I would be like, ‘You must be joking?’ She had a deep understanding of costume designing and she was always authentic and multidimensional – be it sourcing for khadi or a film’s decor. Her work proves that she never glamorised any situation and stayed true to the storyboard and director’s vision. To be a costume designer in films is very difficult as one realises that one is the least important member of the crew and one gets the last priority, but one’s work is of paramount importance. Because when people watch a film, clothes are something they are going to notice first. In her illustrious body of work, she exercised huge amounts of restraint and there was always a sense of balance. The way she draped dhotis and styled her characters was authentic without entering into a glam mode.”
Ritu and Bhanu spoke about society, changing times and their mutual love for textiles, prints and cinema to each other whenever they met. “Once or twice she spoke to me about fabric sourcing as I work in the craft area. In Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962), Meena Kumari was supposed to be wearing Benarasi saris throughout, which made her look rather stiff so Bhanu incorporated the lightweight net into the looks to style her, which made her look beautiful. After a point, we went into the realm of Bollywood, which was dream sequence driven and this was not her forte and she didn’t enjoy it. A period film like Lagaan was more up her alley and I liked the way she depicted the ridiculous stiff upper lip Brits who wore yards and yards of fabrics in the hot Indian weather. She understood the Indian background and the Indianness of ours beautifully,” shares Ritu.
“We met on and off at awards functions and it was lovely to see that even though she was styling some of the biggest stars, she was never star-struck. I always enjoyed my time with her. She was self-effacing. The 50s and 60s were the eras when people were not pushing or promoting themselves , it was a world without mobile phones and one would often get stuck on a shoot. She told me about the salt march shoot which was hot and unbearable and they had nowhere to stay,” adds Ritu.
“It’s the end of an era. Even though she was Mumbai-based, we always kept in touch. The last time I met her was at a fashion week in Jaipur five or six years ago. We were there for three days judging crafts of the region,” she recalls.