How Bhanu Athaiya Brought India Its First Oscar for Shaping Indian Fashion

Bhanu Athaiya won India its first Oscar in 1983 for the film Gandhi in the Best Costume Design category. From Gandhi to Brahmachari, she put India on the global fashion scene. On her birthday, we take a look at her fashion journey.

Srushti Pathak
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Bhanu Athaiya

Ask anyone about Mumtaz’s orange saree or Zeenat Aman in an adivasi drape and you will hear about how they brought along a transformation in the on-screen fashion industry. And the brains behind such standout creations was none other than fashion designer Bhanu Athaiya. 

On her birthday, we talk about her Bollywood journey from Gandhi to Lagaan and how she became a fashion inspiration. 

Art to Fashion to the Oscars

Image Courtesy: Film Companion

She studied art and art history at the J.J. School of Arts and was the first woman to be invited to be part of the Bombay Progressive Arts Group. It was her part-time work as a freelance fashion illustrator for women's magazines like ‘Eve's Weekly’ and ‘Fashion & Beauty’ that kickstarted her fashion career.

It was when Eve Weekly’s editor started a boutique and asked Athaiya to try designing dresses that led to her working with Guru Dutt on C.I.D. in 1956. She worked in 240 films, her last one being Jaypraad Desai’s Marathi language Nagrik in 2015. 

From sourcing Khadi for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) to zipping Mumtaz into a pre-pleated piece while making the fabric flare at her feet as if they were folds of a saree, she made history. She often broke norms. The slim-fit narrow-bottom pyjamas with sleeveless fitted kurtas for Sharmila Tagore’s college-going character in Waqt in 1965 and a cabaret costume in Shree 420 in 1955 are some examples.

Legacy of Influence

Image Courtesy: Pinterest

Many believe that Athaiya's work in Lagaan in 2001, set in Bhuj, Gujarat, where the actors are dressed in bandhani, handlooms and local embroideries, was one of her finest. But nothing beats her winning the Oscar for Best Costume Design in 1983.

Her work spanned across films of various genres, including romance, thrillers and period films, where she was able to combine her understanding of Indian as well as global styles and trends.

In 1966, Amrapali found inspiration in art when she styled Vyjayanthimala, drawing from the wall paintings at the Ajanta caves in Aurangabad.

Mumtaz’s low-waist, unconventional pre-pleated orange saree in Brahmachari’s Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyaar Ke Charche song gave birth to our saree gowns. Today, India is being spoken about so much, in terms of design, craft, textile, art, luxury. The list of fashion influencers that pop up to showcase the Indian fashion scene is endless. And Bhanu Athaiya made the country cool in all these ways 60 years ago! She truly was the OG fashion influencer.

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