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Bhanu Athaiya, the first Indian to win the Oscar passed away on October 15, 2020 at the age of 91

October 17, 2020

Faheem Ruhani, Mumbai : Athaiya had been suffering from a benign brain tumour for a few years now. 37 years ago Bhanu Athaiya made history when she won the Best Costume Design Award on April 11, 1983 at the 55th Annual Academy Awards at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles for the Lord Richard Attenborough directed biopic Gandhi.

The legendary costume designer earned India its first Oscar statuette. She shared the win with her British counterpart, the late John Mollo, becoming the first Indian to win an Oscar in a competitive category and holding that distinction for 26 years until 2009 (when AR Rahman won for Best Original Score and Best Song, Resul Pookutty for Best Sound Mixing, Gulzar for Best Song). She continues to be the only Indian woman to win an Oscar.

In April 2013 when Athaiya was celebrating 30 years of her historic moment, recalling the victorious moment, Athaiya had said, "On the way to the awards in the limousine, the film's writer John Briley turned to me and said, ‘The win will be yours.' I asked him why he thought so and he said, 'Your canvas was so huge.' Later, as I sat with the other nominees in my category, some of them turned to me and said the same thing. I did not let any of this affect me. I had done my work and had decided that now it was for the world to decide whether I deserved to win or not. When they called my name, I was in a daze. I don't even recall who handed me the award. All I managed to say was 'Thank you Sir Richard for focusing world attention on India. Thank you Academy.'"

When Athaiya and Mollo received their nominations, Columbia Pictures decided it would be Athaiya who would go up on stage to receive the trophy were they to win because it was her work that defined a major portion of the film's costumes.

In December 2012, Athaiya returned her Oscar trophy to the Academy following the brain tumour diagnosis. At the time she had said, “I do not trust anyone in India to keep it. If Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel medal could be stolen from Santiniketan, what is the guarantee my trophy would be safe? In India, no one values such things and we lack a tradition of maintaining our heritage and things pertaining to our culture.”

Actor Simi Garewal, a close friend of Athaiya, along with Garewal's mother had helped put her outfit together for the awards ceremony- a powder blue sari.

It had been Simi and Dolly Thakore (casting director of the film Gandhi) who had pushed Athaiya to meet Attenborough for an interview at Mumbai's erstwhile iconic Sea Rock Hotel, location of the Mumbai office of the production.

In those days Athaiya did not have a phone and it was Simi who would relay messages from wherever to her. Thakore who had emceed the launch of Athaiya's book two years ago, says of her association with the designer, "Bhanu had designed costumes for two of my plays 'A Street Car Named Desire' and 'Farukh Of Finchley'. She had done an elaborate job with great attention to detail. We were very pleased with her work and that's why I recommended her to Richard Attenborough. Thereafter whatever she achieved was purely because of the hard work that she put into her work."     

On her part, Athaiya was sceptical because she was not sure how she would manage to create realistic 'village' period costumes spanning 50 years because she had mainly done 'razzle-dazzle' Hindi cinema costumes until then.

"Simi would have none of it. She said I have to meet Attenborough no matter what. This was an opportunity of a lifetime," Athaiya laughs at the memory of it all now.

In Athaiya's 2010 coffee table book 'The Art of Costume Design' Attenborough commences his Foreword saying: 'It took me 17 long years to set up Gandhi, my dream film, and just 15 minutes to make up my mind that Bhanu Athaiya was the right person to create the many hundreds of Indian costumes that would be required to bring it to the screen.'

Athaiya immersed herself tirelessly in extensive research, travelling the length and breadth of the country to create an authentic period look for the film.

She worked closely with many of the principal cast including Sir Ben Kingsley, Rohini Hattangady,  Dr. Sriram Lagoo,  Alyque Padamsee to create their costumes. "I was working with world class technicians and knew that I had to work hard to match their level," says Athaiya.

In a career spanning more than 50 years, Athaiya had dressed film stars such as Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Sunil Dutt, Jeetendra, Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan among others. She has also worked with stars such as Waheeda Rehman, Meena Kumari, Helen, Zeenat Aman, Simi Garewal, Mumtaz, Dimple Kapadia, Rekha among many other leading ladies. In her stunning career she had worked with every director and producer who mattered -- Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, BR Chopra, Yash Chopra, FC Mehra, Sunil Dutt, Dev Aand, Randhir, Kapoor, Ashutosh Gowariker among others.

To Athaiya goes the credit of creating iconic looks for Mumtaz in Brahmachari, Waheeda Rehman in Guide,  Nadira in Shree 420,  Meena Kumari in Saheb Biwi aur Ghulam,  Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sunadaram, Simi Garewal in Siddhartha,  Zeba Bakhtiar in Heena among many others.

Born in Kolhapur,  Athaiya graduated from Sir JJ School of Arts, Mumbai. She began her career in the 1940s as a fashion designer for ‘Fashion & Beauty’ and ‘Eve’s Weekly’. The popularity of her sketches led to requests by film producers to design costumes for their films. So in early 1950s, she plunged into a career of costume designing for Hindi films. According to her book The Art Of Costume Design published by Harper Collins in 2010, Athaiya first designed for Kamini Kaushal for her film Chalis Baba Ek Chor.

Siddharth Tewary’s ambitious TV serial, Mahabharat , was Athaiya’s last professional assignment, where she worked as a consultant on the costumes.

Athaiya is survived by her daughter Radhika Gupta, her sister, two grandsons, and a grand child.

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