IF WE DARE to look beyond the official narratives of Indian modernist art history, we might finally begin to uncover the vast range of speculative, non-canonical accounts that have always run parallel. The danger lies in the possibility that what we unearth, were we to reconsider the past through less gender and caste-biased eyes, runs the risk of forcing a reconfiguration of existing value. Pitifully, in the case of modern Indian art, art-historical significance has been configured and reimagined not through scholarship so much as through the diktats of the market. Given this fact, what do we do, for instance, with the immense art-historical vacuum in the case of female students who earned degrees from art schools around India in pre and post-Independence times whose careers were either subsumed by their practice of housewifely vocations or their decisions to follow other better-paying, professional paths? Did they continue to make art in private? Did their kitchens serve as studios? Did they pass on their skills to their children or the neighbourhood kids, as either craft tutors or drawing teachers, and in doing so, did they not maintain a form of practice? Did they inadvertently function within the realm of Femmage, a genre of women’s art that remains under-studied worldwide, an umbrella-term, really, for all the crafts that were essentialised as womanly hobbies, rarely validated as legitimate art forms?
As a selection of 100 objects from the estate of Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya, who died in October, aged 91, is set to be auctioned by Prinseps on December 2nd, we have little excuse not to reconsider the uniqueness of her contribution to modernist Indian art. For Prinseps founder Indrajit Chatterjee, the auction is the result of an ‘aha’ moment that transpired when the company was called in to evaluate Athaiya’s collection of books, given their expertise in this domain. “We felt an instinctive draw—the kind of adrenaline rush one feels when one comes across some truly special art and sense that a discovery is being made,” he says. The lots are all direct from the estate, he emphasises.
Athaiya’s paintings are making their way belatedly into art-historical discourse not because scholarship has demanded we re-examine them, but in the event of her recent demise and on the back of her ragingly successful career as a pioneering, internationally acclaimed costume designer. In the accompanying essay in the digital catalogue, titled ‘The Legacy of a Long Hidden Sun’, art historian and poet Ranjit Hoskote begins by admitting to his ignorance about Athaiya’s art background. It was art critic DG Nadkarni in the early 1990s, followed by Shaila Parikh, founder of Mohile Parikh Center for the Visual Arts, and later artist Prafulla Dahanukar who educated him about Athaiya being a JJ School of Art alumnus. ‘Until then, I had known of Athaiya as a sophisticated and celebrated designer of costumes for the popular Hindi cinema; she had won an Oscar for Best Costume Design for Richard Attenborough’s 1982 masterwork, Gandhi,’ he writes.
One gleans how her having chosen fashion over traditional painting was not just the more viable choice but was indeed Bhanu Athaiya’s calling
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Hoskote was not alone in his ignorance. At some level, Athaiya’s impressive career as a pioneering costume designer perhaps eclipsed any painterly aspirations she might have entertained. She was privileged enough for her talents to be nurtured from an early age, having had access to opportunities because of her class mobility. Athaiya came to Bombay from Kolhapur because she was awarded a fellowship to study at the JJ School of Arts, then a hub for the European academic realist style. She won several awards for her paintings, which drew the attention of the primarily male artist collective that had banded together under the aegis of the Progressive Artist Group (PAG), which invited her to show along with them. Soon enough she found herself as part of an artistic and intellectual milieu, contact with which helped her interrogate more profoundly what it meant to go beyond the stylistic conventions she inherited from art school. ‘I, along with other upcoming artists such as MF Husain, Krishen Khanna, Raza, Ara, Souza, Gade, and others would meet and hear talks and accounts of the changing scene in art from other parts of the world,’ she has written in her notes. She has recounted in her memoir social gatherings at Mulk Raj Anand’s apartment in Colaba, which included guests such as Ibrahim Alkazi.
Hoskote’s essay elaborates on this amorphous circle that constituted Bombay’s cognoscenti to arrive at an important point: that ‘members of the Bombay art world’s older circles—in whose lives the visual arts, cinema, music, architecture, and theatre intersected closely—were perfectly aware of Bhanu Athaiya’s work as an artist before she left it behind to achieve excellence and fame as a costume designer for film’.
HOSKOTE CONTENDS that to the younger generation that has only recently discovered Athaiya this comes as news, which explains why, in his opinion, she is presented to the public ‘as a Progressive long lost to view; indeed as the only woman Progressive’. Such a facetious summary does little to address art history’s very real propensity to erase either the contributions made by women, or the simple fact of their presence at pivotal evolutionary moments. ‘Had Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya continued to practise as a painter, she would certainly have been a major presence in her pioneering generation of cultural practitioners in newly independent India,’ he declares.
He is perhaps totally on point, but only if one subscribes to an understanding of art whose purview excludes Femmage. The real art-historical tragedy was never that Athaiya didn’t pursue painting, but that she stopped being considered an artist because the staggering work she did do was not regarded as lofty enough to be received as art.
Bhanu Athaiya’s designs for Eve’s Weekly are spectacular and still feel audaciously fresh all these decades later. One could write whole essays about each elegant design
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While several of her paintings are part of the auction, in a less snobbish world the truly coveted lots would unarguably be her sketches and fashion illustrations. In an ideal world, all the lots would be part of the archives of a meticulously maintained art and design museum. Viewed as a collective, the 100 lots offer a wondrous glimpse into Athaiya’s fundamental grasp of the female body and how she seemed continually drawn towards aesthetics that were non-seminal—in that they literally didn’t originate from a male body. These, coupled with her notes, offer a picture of a woman artist who derived from the work of other women—from Amrita Sher-Gil’s burnished palette to the penitent form of nuns at the convent in which she lived during her art student years to a recollection of how colour appeared on widowed bodies. Her studies of temple sculptures and busts can be read retrospectively as prescient forays into design and draughtsmanship, and the scholarly rigour that marked her research that was driven by a quest for authenticity, but combined with a sartorial inventiveness that was entirely the result of her innate talent. As you survey the 100 lots on offer, one is remorseful that they were never displayed as part of an exhibition, or were never used to contextualise her work. On a more positive note, though, one gleans how her having chosen fashion over traditional painting was not just the more viable choice but was indeed her calling.
In her notes, she reflects on what it really meant to have to choose between two equally serious pursuits of creativity, even though her peers didn’t quite see it that way. She wanted, quite simply, to be self-sufficient and independent, capable of supporting her widowed mother rather than being a burden. In her writing, she seems to allude to thespian Hima Devi as her mentor. Devi had taken Athaiya under her wing and roof when she moved to Bombay. When Devi’s mother, Meera Devi, who was Assistant Editor at Fashion and Beauty, took Athaiya one day to meet the editor, Kishan Jangiani, Athaiya secured for herself a working position as an illustrator, given the figurative nature of her drawing and her contouring of the female body. She began work the very next day. ‘I grabbed the opportunity,’ she recounts. She would eventually move to the newly launched Eve’s Weekly (1940s) and to actually designing clothes when the magazine opened its own boutique. ‘Unfortunately, the members of PAG including KH Ara felt that I should concentrate on painting and thought that I was degrading myself by moving to cinema.’
In the mid-1960s, while many of the members of the by-then defunct PAG were trying to secure funding to either go to Europe or continue to live there, Athaiya received a six-month scholarship from the French government to study fashion design in Paris. In the Netflix mini-series that I wish existed, this chapter of her life would perhaps take up one or two hour-long episodes, beginning from when she was called in last for the funding interview because her résumé was the longest. At the time she had just finished work on the film Amrapali and would have been credited as a dress designer. ‘Being a student of Art, visiting the European museums gave me the biggest ‘high’,’ she says. She seized the opportunity to travel every weekend to absorb cultural landmarks. ‘As students, we were given a lot of opportunities to visit fashion houses and see the big names in the couture world at work. We were constantly exchanging ideas—I got a lot of requests to teach them how to drape the sari!’
Which brings us to the real gems in the Prinseps auction: her sketches for sari ensembles. Former model, designer and fashion writer Meher Castelino writes passionately about Athaiya’s brilliance with sari designs. ‘In the 1948 issues of Eve’s Weekly, Bhanu’s graceful sketches introduced the fashion connoisseurs to the traditional sari but with elegant touches. The chiffon saris with delicate embroidery for a ‘Saks’ feature highlighted the western influence, while the drawing titled ‘Repeat Performance’ was all about Maharashtrian jewellery to accessorise the sari. Bhanu’s feature ‘Roses spell Romance’ gave the choli a longer length, with a cascade of roses flowing from the hemline onto a pale pink sari.’
Athaiya’s ingenious articulations of sartorial modernity by adapting old traditions and reimagining textile legacies is wonderfully manifest in Lot 30, Eve’s Weekly Spread Pages, a set of 14 prints, sized 17×26 inches, dated from February to June 1952, estimated at Rs 30,000-50,000, with a starting bid of Rs 3,000, unlike her oil on canvas Prayer, estimated at Rs 1-1.5 crore. One wonders whether the original illustrations have survived.
The designs are spectacular and still feel audaciously fresh all these decades later. Looking at them closely inspires you to make a dash for a fabric shop and tailor, so they can be reinstated into our contemporary wardrobes. One could write whole essays about each elegant design, what it borrows from, which stylistic features are wholly derived and which are wholly invented. Two other exciting lots are Eve’s Weekly Collection 1, which features another brilliant set of 23 prints, while Collection 2 has a set of 24 prints that are more obviously and intelligently dialoguing with dance traditions such as Bharatanatyam and Kathakali. The sketches seem to refer to the sartorial world that Athaiya’s mother inhabited, nurtured by her father’s eagerness to intellectually nourish his wife and their six daughters. ‘He took my mother under his wings and tutored her in embroidery, sewing and pastel drawing. In her free time she would develop these skills and soon her work won her many awards in local competitions,’ Athaiya recounts. Her own artistic legacy hovers around each sketch. Revisiting them reminds us of the fact of their reproducibility, which the art world perceives as a signal for their non-value, when coded into their being is the idea of their dissemination, from the page to being part of one’s wardrobe, using a circular economy that remains still at women’s disposal in India, making them so much a part of our lived experience and visual culture, it’s easy to forget they were engineered by someone. These illustrative sketches serve to remind us that the real pity isn’t that Athaiya didn’t pursue painting, it’s that despite her immense contributions to the Indian experience of modernity, she was never considered an artist. The loss was always ours.
(The auction of artworks from the estate of Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya, hosted by the online auction house Prinseps, will take place on December 2nd, 2020)