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Oscar winner Bhanu Athaiya passed through the ages on Thursday.
We pay homage to a true legend by celebrating his best creations.

Some of the greatest films in Hindi cinema – Gandhi, Lekin, Guide, Mera Naam Joker, Ganga Jamuna, Lagaan, Jodha Akbar and Swades – owe their exquisite costumes to Bhanu athaiya.

Oscar winner for her work in Gandhi, Ms. Athaiya has been designing costumes since 1953.

Some of his greatest works have been captured in his autobiography, Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya The Art of Costume Design from which we bring you fascinating extracts.

Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978)

IMAGE: Zeenat Aman in Satyam Shivam Sundaram.

One of my most difficult assignments was Raj Kapoor’s fantasy, Satyam Shivam Sundaram.

The film starred the handsome, shapely and amazing Zeenat Aman and Raj Kapoor’s younger brother, the very handsome Shashi Kapoor.

Zeenat played the role of the daughter of a local temple priest and had to wear village clothes, as well as put on elaborate and gorgeous outfits for the fantasy sequences.

The script required that she constantly keep one side of her face hidden, as it was meant to be heavily scarred.

Her lover, a young man from the city who had only had glimpses of her, fantasized about what she could look like.

In her imagination, she wore a number of exquisite garments that showed off her shapely figure and enhanced her radiant beauty.

It was a big challenge for me to switch between two contrasting characters of the heroine – one of an extremely simple village girl, and the other of a Apsara-as a vision of beauty.

The varied costumes did full justice to both characterizations.

Chaudhvin ka chand (1960)

IMAGE: Waheeda Rehman in Chaudhvin ka chand.

The Muslim social drama was based on Uttar Pradesh nawabi culture of a bygone era.

I did my homework by meeting several people from this state who were steeped in the tradition despite living in Bombay.

They spoke Urdu and had extremely refined etiquette.

One could also quite easily find expert embroidery tailors from Uttar Pradesh in Bombay.

During those days, I was very excited to work on this film.

I had worked with Waheedaarrive before, and I also designed the costumes for Minoo Mumtaz, who played the flirtatious courtesan.

My first impression of Guru Dutt was that he was a man with a soft voice and few words.

He briefly explained the job he had in mind for me and I got what he needed to convey quite clearly.

We understood each other straight away.

Teesri Manzil (1966)

IMAGE: Helen in Teesri Manzil.

Helen was the most agile and graceful western dancer in Hindi commercial cinema.

She was the only artist who could pull off searing cabaret sequences with confidence and ease.

She always looked attractive in cabaret costumes.

Invariably, she wore fitted bodies to show off her slender waist, and her long limbs were draped in stockings and her arms covered in long gloves.

It was typical of the vampire costume of that time.

Helen’s characters were mischievous, but never “immoral” and that’s what won her over with audiences.

I have created many western cabaret costumes for Helen, however, this Spanish song costume O Haseena Zulfonwali is my preferred.

Helen is seen wearing a flamboyant red all-sequined dress trimmed with black mesh ruffles.

It brings out the seductive movements of Spanish dance to perfection.

Gandhi (1982)

IMAGE: Bhanu Athaiya and Ben Kingsley on the sets of Gandhi.

Gandhi’s austere gaze Dhoti was scary compared to the brilliance of Hindi cinema.

Simi shook me and said, “This is an important mission and a great opportunity to show your talent! I make an appointment for you to meet the director. Wear your biographical data and wear nice clothes. You will both have a lot to say.

The audition took place at the Sea Rock Hotel in Bandra, Mumbai, where Richard Attenborough’s production office was located.

Richard looked at my bios and we chatted for about 15 minutes, so he could get a feel for my understanding of India.

At the end of it, he informed his team that he had found his costume designer for Gandhi.

He then gave me the script and asked me to meet with him the next day to discuss it.

What a script it was! It made my eyes cry.

The next day, Richard told me to join the team at the Ashoka Hotel in Delhi from September 1st.

I told him I had some homework on hand and needed some time to free myself.

“Don’t worry honey, we’ll find a way out,” he said in his characteristic simple style.

I had to be prepared in just three months.

Covering a period of half a century, with so many events, incidents and changes in time and style, has not been easy.

The looks of the main characters must have undergone constant changes with age, as the story progressed.

I worked day and night, like a possessed person, to meet the deadline.

I combed the museums and libraries of Delhi to gather all my reference material.

Ben told me that I had the best reference material and then asked me to prepare a wall full of Gandhi photos from my collection so he could be inspired by them.

He also asked me to introduce him to the basic philosophy of Gandhi’s simple outfit. Dhoti and shawl.

Lagaan (2001)

IMAGE: Aamir Khan and Gracy Singh in Lagaan.

Ashutosh Gowariker, the director of Lagaan, came to meet me at my studio at Breach Candy one day, with producer Reena Datta.

He introduced himself saying that his father had studied with my older sister at Rajaram College in Kolhapur.

Ashutosh had brought the full script for his film and said he would like me to read it.

The script was inspiring and gave me a lot of possibilities as a designer.

In India, it is a luxury for a costume designer to have a full script in advance.

I appreciated the gesture and made the most of it.

I had three months, between the time of reading the script and the time of the actual execution of the costumes.

I designed and made the whole look of this movie, from the villagers of Champaner, to the British regiment and the group of English civilians.

There were a number of interesting requirements, ranging from cricket costumes and equipment, British military uniforms and dashing red jackets for the ball, to the graceful evening dresses of the women, as well as village dresses. .

All the costumes were made in Bombay itself, but I was taken there to get a feel for the location.

The entire movie was shot on location in Bhuj, Gujarat, but the story was meant to take place in the dusty plains of Madhya Pradesh.

I created the whole wardrobe for the villagers with handweaves and khadi and I did not touch the fabrics in the factory.

I visualized the British uniform in khaki, exploring what type of regiment it would belong to and the medals and decorations that might have been worn.

In India, such outfits cannot be rented or purchased in stores.

Each must have been created after careful study of the aspect of this period.

For British women, I chose pale pastel colors to contrast with the bright Indian colors.

The whole English wardrobe was created with veils, using pleats and laces typical of dresses of this period.

It wasn’t something Indian tailors used to do.

I had to spend almost a month of time working with them, to get them to perform it correctly, with the right proportions.

Extract of Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya The Art of Costume Design by Bhanu Athaiya, HarperCollins India, courtesy of the publisher, Rs 2995.

This story was first published on Rediff.com in March 2010.

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