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Bhanu Athaiya’s collection of heirloom textiles, some over a century old, to be auctioned

Athaiya, who died last October, loved it so much that she wore it to her daughter Radhika Gupta’s wedding, styling it elegantly with a waist belt.

Written by Benita Fernando | Mumbai |
Updated: July 10, 2021 8:51:49 am
Born in Kolhapur, Athaiya’s was born in a family that traced its lineage to royal priests and grew up in a 300-year-old mansion, where religious ceremonies were a part of her upbringing. (Express)

Among the saris that late designer and artist Bhanu Athaiya loved was a midnight blue paithani, with buttis crowding its length like a starlit sky. This chandrakala sari was a nauvari (nine yards long) and specially meant for makar sankranti.

Athaiya, who died last October, loved it so much that she wore it to her daughter Radhika Gupta’s wedding, styling it elegantly with a waist belt. The sari is today more than a century old, originally thought to be woven around 1880, passed down generations.

Mumbai-based auction house Prinseps will put up Athaiya’s collection of heirloom textiles later this month. The collection comprises Athaiya’s saris, including the dark blue chandrakala, dhotis, shelas (stoles) and even a kunchi – a baby’s christening robe – all of them starting from the late 19th century.

Athaiya was a designer extraordinaire, who meticulously designed the costumes for over 100 films, often drawing from art and sculpture to inform her creations. She was the first Indian to win an Oscar, for Richard Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi (1982), sharing the honour with her British counterpart John Mollo.

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Prinseps approached Radhikaraje Gaekwad, the maharani of Baroda and a passionate sari collector herself, to offer her personal perspective on the collection. Gaekwad went the extra mile in documenting it. In an article on Prinseps’ blog, she writes that this collection is “a rich representation of the traditional Maharashtrian upper society of that era”, akin to the Royal Gaekwad Collection.

Born in Kolhapur, Athaiya’s was born in a family that traced its lineage to royal priests and grew up in a 300-year-old mansion, where religious ceremonies were a part of her upbringing.

The textiles, intricately patterned and made of natural dyes, incorporate real zari (silver threads with gold plating), some of them showing techniques that were used before jacquard weaves became popular. She said, “This collection is unique because it’s a springboard to explore Bhanu Athaiya’s textiles and to take her legacy forward as a costume designer.”


Among her observations, Gaekwad highlights a pink christening robe with a hood, called a kunchi, made of silk brocade, originally woven in the 1900s and last worn by Gupta as an infant.

The kunchi is an important part of christening ceremonies, Gaekwad explained, which takes place 12 days after a child is born. Aunts gather around the cradle to name the child and pass around a symbolic grindstone draped in the kunchi as if it were a baby. The ceremony is very much in practice even today, and Gaekwad performed it for her own children, too.

Gaekwad said that this collection is also useful in understanding some of the nuances of Athaiya’s career in costume designing. The very fact that Athaiya could style a dhoti drape for the masses in Gandhi or turn it into an alluring form in Amrapali (1966) is indicative of how commonly it was worn in the family, she said. “She obviously knew how to drape it, whether it was for the male or the female form,” she added.


In her article, she draws links between the colour combinations of saris and blouses that were worn in Athaiya’s family to those seen in her work with films. One such instance is of Waheeda Rehman from Guide (1965) dancing in ‘Piya Tose Naina Lage Re’. It has a strong resonance with Athaiya’s mother’s “pairing of a pistachio green blouse and rust saree and the hair neatly tied in a low bun with slight waves caressing the forehead”, Gaekwad wrote.

Prinseps manages Athaiya’s estate and has previously sold her artworks and sketches. Indrajit Chatterjee, director of Prinseps, said that the upcoming auction will cater to institutional buyers and not private collectors, so that the valuable textiles can be conserved.

“When we opened one of her trunks, we noticed that these were antique,” he said. Of the 30 pieces in the trunk, 20 were in good condition. With evaluations are yet to be finalised, Chatterjee estimates the lot to be pegged anywhere between Rs 50 lakhs to Rs 1 crore.

It is not very often that textiles, and saris in particular, come into the auction market. One of the main reasons, as any sari owner is bound to know, is that the yards need tender attention or fall apart, quite literally, at the seams. In Athaiya’s case, many from the trunk have survived in good condition. The other problem is establishing provenance, but one that shouldn’t be a deterrent in the case of Athaiya’s collection, given the photographs of her wearing the saris.

One such photograph, shot by the late artist Akbar Padamsee, is from Gupta’s wedding, mother and daughter standing side by side. “My mother wore the chandrakala sari but my aunts and grandmothers also wore saris from that trunk. They often told me how the box was opened up for occasions,” Gupta said. For that matter, her mother had recreated her wedding saris from an older one originally from around 1900. While the recreations were in pink, the original was a green Banarasi with a medley of motifs—keri (mango), straight lines, karan phool (eight petalled flower) and paisley. “The older one was in better condition than the new, mainly because of the raw materials and the techniques,” Gupta said.


In this link across generations of women, Gupta believes that the textiles will be better looked after in a museum than in her hands. “Of course one is sentimental of them but it is better if they are looked after by people who are proficient at it,” she said.

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First published on: 09-07-2021 at 11:40:39 pm

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