It must be noted that she never formally learnt fashion designing but picked up the tricks of the trade on the job. Bhanu Athaiya was born in Kolhapur on April 28, 1929. She was the third of the seven children born to Annasaheb and Shantabai Rajopadhye. Athaiya’s father, Annasaheb was a painter. He died when Athaiya was nine years old. In one of her interviews, she had stated that when her father finished a project, he used to call her to clean his brush and palette. That’s how she developed an interest in painting from a young age. Inspired by her father, Bhanu too started painting and later joined the JJ School of Arts. She graduated from the prestigious institute with top honours, winning a gold medal and a fellowship. She worked as an illustrator in women’s magazine after graduation. It’s said that one of her editors encouraged her to sketch dresses. When the editor opened a boutique, she took Athaiya along and that’s when her journey towards fashion designing truly began. Her designs reportedly caught the attention of Kamini Kaushal, who was one of the foremost leading ladies of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Soon, it’s said, she started designing Kaushal’s personal wardrobe. That association led her to design for Kaushal in films like Shahenshah (1953) and Chalis Baba Ek Chor (1953). Nargis was said to be another admirer of her work.
It was Guru Dutt who gave her a proper break in films. She became costume designer with the film C.I.D. in 1956 and followed it up with other Guru Dutt productions such as Pyaasa (1957), Chaudhvin Ka Chand (1960) and Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). Another filmmaker with whom Athaiya came to be closely associated with was Raj Kapoor. She designed the costumes for his Sangam (1964), Mera Naam Joker (1970), Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978), Prem Rog (1982) and Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985).
Bhanu was a trendsetter when it came to fashion. For example, her tight fitted kurta and churidar became a rage when she dressed up Sadhana and Sharmila Tagore in them in Yash Chopra directed Waqt (1965). Likewise, the form-hugging orange ‘Mumtaz sari’ which the actress wore in the song Aajkal tere mere pyar ke charche song from Brahmachari (1968) became a rage. She took inspiration from ancient India for her creations. It’s said she studied Ajanta cave paintings to create costumes for Vyjayanthimala in Amrapali (1966). She won the National Film Award for Best Costume Design for Lekin (1991) and Lagaan (2001) and reportedly studied the Rajasthani and Kutchi folk art for her designs. She was also a winner of the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
The biggest challenge of her life came with Gandhi. She worked closely with the other costume designer on the film, John Mollo, and handled all the Indian costumes. Since Gandhi’s was a closely documented life, her sources of inspiration were found in various libraries and museums. She poured painstakingly over old photographs to get the look right. The film documented Gandhi’s progress from a barrister in South Africa to the messiah-like figure who spearheaded India’s freedom struggle in later life and her costumes reflected that change. Strangely, in 2012, she returned the Oscar that she won for Gandhi to the Academy for safekeeping. She was a woman of her word and never regretted the decision.
She was married to writer Satyendra Athaiya but later separated. Athaiya is survived by her daughter Radhika Gupta.