In 1953, at an exhibition featuring artworks by members of the Progressive Artists’ Group in Kala Ghoda, were works by a lone young woman artist. At 24, Bhanu Athaiya (then Rajopadhye), had already begun to make an impression in the circuit. A gold medalist from Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai, she later chose a career as costume designer in the Hindi film industry, but her striking talent as an artist – that could hold before the likes of MF Husain and VS Gaitonde – is being recognised little more than a month after her demise on October 15 this year.
On December 2, Mumbai-based auction house Prinseps has organised an auction dedicated to Athaiya. Featuring 32 lots, the mediums range from sketches to early fashion illustrations and paintings. “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,” writes art historian Ranjit Hoskote in his essay for the auction catalogue titled “The Legacy of a Long-hidden Sun”. While he discusses Athaiya’s contributions in the young nation that was still finding a distinct art vocabulary, corroborating his observations are Athaiya’s own works and words from her previous interactions.
Best known for being the first Indian to receive an Oscar, for costume designer for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), while Athaiya’s contribution to Indian cinema is much celebrated, the art collection compels us to contemplate the trajectory of Athaiya’s career had she continued to pursue art. The highlight of the auction are two works on the walls in the 1953 exhibition – Prayer (1952) and Lady in Repose. About the former, Hoskote writes, “Prayer is dominated by the figure of a female supplicant kneeling before an altar, her body stylised into a quasi-Cubist arrangement of angles and curves, yet with the texture and drape of fabric, the pulse of breath, the living human subject made palpable to us.” With a female nude as its central protagonist, in a note accompanying Lady in Repose, Hoskote writes, “It is, already – the artist was 21 – the work of an artist whose sensibility would be described as feminist today, a woman who knew her own mind and would make her own way in the world.”
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The catalogue discusses her early influences in Kolhapur, where “it was common to see artists with their easels propped up and painting at scenic spots like the Mahalakshmi Temple, around Rankala Lake, and on the banks of the Panchganga River”, as well as her contributions as a costume designer. Also included in the auction are several prints of her sketches that appeared in the Eve’s Weekly. “Bhanu carved a niche not only for herself in the film and fashion industry but was also the pioneer who set the path for many to walk on… Bhanu drew from the past and moved away from the Raj era, so there were cholis with intricate Indian crafts and the saris were shown in a modern avatar,” writes designer and model Meher Castelino.
The auction will take place on December 2 at 7 pm IST. It can be virtually attended via this link: https://zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_ci_w5P2mS8GCj66egpN8Fw
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