I met Bhanu Athaiya, the legendary costume designer who died on October 15, twice in my life. The first time was at the long defunct Centaur Hotel in Juhu, where we sat in the lobby and talked briefly about costume before she set off to do some work-related shopping. I wanted to interview her formally for a research project on film costume, but she demurred, politely but firmly. She wanted to tell her own story, she explained, not hand it over to someone else. The next time, a full eight years later, was at her workshop at Breach Candy, where we talked for an hour and a half about her philosophy of film costume and what she’d learned in her long career. Her book, The Art of Costume Design (2010), had recently been released. As a document of her long and illustrious career, it was, and remains, a must-have for anyone interested in film costume in India. Beautifully illustrated with stills and sketches, and accompanied by Athaiya’s commentary, it draws the reader more closely into the process of design in Indian film costume than anything else available.
Athaiya never did give me a formal interview, and I had to be content with what she called our “little chat.” She had much more of her story to relate, she explained, a second volume of her book perhaps, with more of her sketches and vast collection of papers and artifacts. I wanted to know more about her working style, the professional give-and-take between designer and director, but I couldn’t help but admire her steely determination to do things her way.
Like other costume designers, Athaiya had been called on to make costumes for select stars or for the female leads. But she also designed for the entire cast, a rarity – until recently — outside the parallel cinema. One advantage of designing for the whole film, she confessed, was because it liberated her from worrying about pleasing stars. But that wasn’t the only reason, or perhaps even the main reason, since her work for select stars and films certainly afforded her opportunities to explore new styles and themes. The clue came from her reflections on discovering a shared sensibility with other Oscar-winning costume designers, a sensibility rooted in conceiving of costume as something not beholden to a star, not even a director. Costume simply isn’t draping one outfit after another on the actor. All the costumes, in all the scenes, form a set with its own contours and rhythms.
This is not to say that the designer doesn’t have as their priority the faithful rendering of the director’s vision. What it means is that the designer must do this while honouring what is in the best interests of the costume régime. For Shah Rukh Khan’s scenes in Nasa at the beginning of Ashutosh Gowariker’s Swades (2004), Athaiya had his shirts tailored in her workshop, even though she could have picked them up ready-made. To her, every element of the design required her close supervision. Costume, in other words, merits choices dictated not by convenience but by what the designer feels serves her creativity best.
Athaiya was able to exercise this singularity of purpose because of her seniority in the industry and the sway that her Oscar commanded. For this alone she would be remarkable. But she is remembered most fondly by film fans for the iconic costumes she crafted for some of the industry’s biggest stars. There is no mistaking the influence of her fashion background in these designs, but revisiting them in the last few days, I’ve been struck by how beautifully they punctuate the film’s narrative. In the stunning ensembles worn by Nadira as Maya from Shree 420 (1955), Athaiya was able, in a series of compact images, to drive home the contrast between her and Nargis’s virtuous, sari-wearing Vidya. For Waqt (1965), her designs for Sadhana as Meena and Sharmila Tagore as Renu – their sleeveless kurtas, form-fitting churidars, and gorgeous saris — didn’t just introduce a jolt of fashion. In a film with a fair measure of loss and humiliation, they sounded the notes of the youthful optimism that helped bring about a happy conclusion.
Within the industry, Athaiya was renowned as a designer of historical films and films that demanded a strong regional identity. She was typically given full rein to steer the costume as she wanted, guided by meticulous archival and visual research but also by talking to locals, observing their costumes, and integrating what she learned into her work. She is most famous, of course, for her work on 2001’s Lagaan and her masterpiece, Gandhi (1982). The work is impressive in both cases, of course, but few appreciate the sheer scale of the task of designing for an entire film, particularly one of Gandhi’s epic dimensions. Athaiya was responsible not just for outfitting the principal characters but all the secondary characters and junior artists too. There was no option in the early 1980s of adding crowds with computer special effects: every figure in the crowd had to be dressed, accounted for, and monitored so they continued to wear their costume correctly. All of this had to be done after only a few months of preparation and then within the unbending constraints of the shooting schedule. The operational demands, on top of the creative ones, are staggering to imagine.
Athaiya’s career began in the golden age of Hindi film with Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor; it drew to a close as costume design was undergoing significant change in the industry, with more filmmakers opting to hire one designer for the film instead of several. Where Athaiya led, others have followed. Costume even now rarely attracts the attention and respect it is owed as a critical component of communication and feeling in films. But thanks to Athaiya’s meticulous artistry, it has happily gained some of the spotlight.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 21, 2020 under the title “Clothes That Tell A Story”. Clare M Wilkinson is associate professor of anthropology at Washington State University, Vancouver, US
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