Bhanu Athaiya and Her Impact on Indian Fashion 60 Years Ago

Bhanu Athaiya: A Trailblazing Artist and Costume Designer

In a corner of The Aguad, Goa, stands a black velvet female mannequin, draped in a metallic bikini-armour — a helmet with bison horns on its head, with a curtain of chain mail covering the crotch. A large poster behind it shows a model wearing the same costume, with the addition of bat-wings splayed out from her spine. This striking creation is the work of the great artist and costume designer, Bhanu Athaiya, as showcased at the ongoing Prinseps exhibition, “Bharat Through the Lens of Bhanu Athaiya”.

Legacy of Bhanu Athaiya

Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya was born in 1920 in Kolhapur, into the family of the royal priest. She demonstrated an early affinity for arts and crafts, influenced by her father’s carpentry and painting skills, and later encouraged by her mother to pursue her talent in Mumbai. Athaiya 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, alongside renowned Modern Indian art luminaries such as F.N. Souza and S.H. Raza.

For many years, Athaiya’s contributions have been overlooked, relegated to little more than a footnote in Indian art history. However, her daughter, Radhika Gupta, has been dedicated to salvaging and preserving her mother’s legacy, which has been worn down by time and a white ant infestation, for over four years.

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Preserving Athaiya’s Legacy

Gupta recounts how her mother had trunks full of archival material, hoping to bequeath it to someone interested in her work. Unfortunately, no one showed interest, and a ministry representative even suggested leaving the material behind for them to handle. Rejecting this idea, Athaiya firmly expressed her desire to destroy the material rather than give it away in such a manner.

At The Aguad, a museum in the Port and Jail complex, visitors can now witness the results of the painstaking work that has gone into preserving Athaiya’s legacy. This endeavor has been enthusiastically encouraged by Prinseps owner Indrajit Chatterji, who has taken over the responsibility of Athaiya’s estate.

Exploring Athaiya’s Artistic Contributions

The ongoing exhibition at The Aguad showcases Athaiya’s dedication to her craft, featuring carefully-preserved costumes, including the iconic orange sari for Mumtaz from the movie “Brahmachari”, which has become a prototype of the now-popular concept sari. Athaiya’s innovation in incorporating a zip for a performer’s comfort has been highlighted, demonstrating her artistry and technological prowess.

With a career spanning a remarkable 240 films, Athaiya is recognized for her keen eye, attention to detail, and meticulous research. She had the ability to blend an art historian’s perspective with a researcher’s rigour, distinguishing her as a significant figure in popular culture.

Legacy Embellishments and Future Plans

Bharat Through the Lens of Bhanu Athaiya is just one of many interventions planned by Prinseps to embellish her legacy in mainstream memory. The team is exploring the possibility of donating some of her sketches to the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, and is looking into Athaiya’s Shakespearean influences, a lesser-known aspect of her work in theatre.

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Upcoming plans include a large-scale show in Mumbai in 2024 and the digital recreation, possibly using AI, of the Calico fashion show of 1958. Indrajit Chatterji emphasizes, “Athaiya was fashion before there was fashion,” acknowledging her pioneering contributions to the industry.

In conclusion, Bhanu Athaiya’s legacy is being honored and preserved, shedding light on her remarkable career as an artist and costume designer. Through dedicated efforts and upcoming initiatives, her enduring impact on Indian art, fashion, and popular culture will continue to be celebrated for generations to come.

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