Even now, 37 years later, when the orchestra plays Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram as as Bhanu Athaiya ascends the stairs to receive her Oscar for Best Costume Design for Gandhi, most reasonably emotional Indians still get a lump in their throats. Especially as Athaiya thanked, quite simply and succinctly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sir Richard Attenborough, for focusing world attention on India.
Fittingly she was dressed in a sea green sequinned sari. For throughout her career as a designer for the dream merchants of Mumbai, Athaiya held aloft the mystery of the sari. And the form that it fitted. Much before designers in Mumbai thought shopping for the men at GAP and DKNY could pass off as art and weighing down the actress in embroidery and embellishments was couture, Athaiya celebrated elegance and economy.
Take Sadhana’s tightly fitted kurta and churidar in Yash Chopra’s epic, Waqt (1965). Or Vyjanthimala’s bustier and dhoti in Amrapali (1966), inspired by the frescos of Ajanta and just this side of risque even when copied and worn as tribute by Deepika Padukone in Om Shanti Om (2009). Or even the gorgeous Mumtaz’s pre-pleated sari with a zip in Brahmachari (1969).
Athaiya was an icon of made in India, from the fabric to the inspiration to the form. Her women danced, teased, flirted, with a smile and sometimes a tear, never looking obscene or inappropriate.
Offscreen, young women got their tailors to copy the Sadhana kurta to look cool for college, while Mumtaz’s orange-bar coloured sari became the go-to party dress. Athaiya’s work, perhaps for the first time, showed the remarkable hold Mumbai cinema was to have on the country’s fashion industry. It was work that had context and heritage, whether it was the gypsy costumes of Reshma Aur Shera (1971) or the svelte one-shouldered gown worn by Nadira in Shri 420 (1955).
That it also happened to make the women smoulder on screen was an added advantage.
Athaiya’s inspirations came both from her father’s cinematic career as well as the movies he took her to watch, such as Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (1937). Form fitting gowns, lovingly wound saris, and little throwaway embellishments such as Vyjanthimala’s arm band in Sangam (1964) or Padmini Kolhapure’s knotted scarf at the neck in Prem Rog (1982), made Athaiya any director’s dream, whether it was Raj Kapoor or Guru Dutt.
Bhanumati Rajopadhye was one of the first working women in post-Independence India, training in art at a time the Progressive Artists Group were emerging at the JJ School of Arts where she was studying too. But in spite of her obvious talent, she chose the steadiness of film work. Gandhi elevated her to global fame, and its thousands of costumes won her a place in cinematic history.
She was to recreate that scale and grandeur in Lagaan (2001) and Jodhaa-Akbar (2008) much later, trying to marry the present to the past. Her legacy lives on, whether it is the women who wore her creations with glee, or the men, down from Ashok Kumar to Shah Rukh who looked their authentic best.