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COSTUME DESIGNERS: OUR UNSUNG HEROES?

Sathya Saran  (click here to know more about this blogger)

There are designers, and there are costume designers. And for some strange reason, the latter kind of designer is not seen as being on par with the former. Yet, both are doing almost the same thing: expressing their creativity by creating garments that enhance a personality, signify a mood or celebrate  the human body. These thoughts occurred to me as I watched Bhanu Athaiya walking shakily up to the stage at Mumbai's NCPA's Tata Theatre at the Ladli Media Awards for Gender Sensitivity to receive her Trophy for a Lifetime's Achievement in Designing for Films. 

Over the years, I have met Bhanu many times, sometimes for an interview or a quote, other times at an event. She occupied the room next to mine at the Diggi Palace one year at the Mantles of Myrrh... which was a Fest that celebrated our heritage in weaving, motifs and their extension into oral literature and performance.. and we spent an evening chatting about her work. I remember she said little in praise of herself.. just a few stories from her experiences in films that shared with me not as a journalist but as someone spending a slice of evening with her. And I sensed an anger in her about how the industry was turning away from research.. how costume designing in most films had lost direction and meaning. Unlike other costume designers who have tried to straddle two worlds by creating collections for the market, Bhanu has concentrated mostly on films, working steadily from the black and white era through to the era of historicals and period dramas right into the modern age. 
 
For those who came in late, Bhanu Athaiya was born 84 years ago in Kolhapur, studied at the J J School of Art and started her career as an illustrator for the now defunct Eve's Weekly: a woman's magazine steered by the far sighted Gulshan Ewing. When Ewing started a fashion store, she encouraged Athaiya to design garments for it as her sketches indicated there could be a skill in that  direction. The group that published Eve' Weekly also published Star and Style, and Ewing headed that magazine too so it was only natural that the stars of the time drop in to shop at the store. So Athaiya had the likes of Nargis and Kamini Kaushal, among others, wearing her stuff. Which in turn got the notice of directors who were looking for sharp edgier costumes for their off beat films. Guru Dutt, it is said, was among the first. He was making CID, a thriller, and offered Bhanu the assignment of designing the costumes for Shakila and a very new Waheeda Rehman.
 
Thus it was that Bhanu Athaiya moved out of the confines of the store she designed costumes for and entered the studio to design for films. Her foray was nothing if not successful, and soon her portfolio included films for almost every major producer of the time... BR Chopra, Raj Kapoor, S Mukherji... and of course Guru Dutt. Her costumes were varied and suited to the canvas she had to fill. They ranged from the gauzy saris of Waheeda the streetwalker in Pyaasa to Dimple's evocative Rajasthani ensembles in Lekin; from the trendy saris of Guide to Waheeda's classical costumes for the dance numbers in the same film. And the breathtaking costumes for Simi in Siddhartha. The heroines she designed for included Mala Sinha, Asha Parekh, Vyjiantimala, Padmini Kolhapure and Meena Kumari... to name a few. To Bhanu Athaiya went the credit for Mandakini and Zeenat's sexily draped saris in Raj Kapoor's films and in Lagaan she covered the spectrum from village belle to gora memsahib complete in ruffles and lace and parasol, with nonchalant ease and conviction.
 
Needless to mention, the fifty year period that she created costumes for after involved research for Attenborough's Gandhi won her the Academy Award and the respect of a nation that had till then barely noticed her presence or contribution. Yet designers like Bhanu Athaiya have without intending to, influenced the fashion scene in India much more than a top rung designer who enjoys star status. Sociologists agree that Hindi films, for better or for worse, are a source of inspiration for young men and women who wish to dress up in a manner beyond the ordinary. Fashions are dictated by what the star couple in a hit film wear.. be it the rather ugly double sari that Rajeshree wore in Brahmachari or the daring tomboy attire a debutante Asha Parekh wore in Dil Deke Dekho. By that yardstick, Bhanu Athaiya and her ilk should be seen as stars in their own right, for shaping the way generations of young men and women dress.
 
Yet, it is not so, and costume designers for films remain mostly unsung. Today even as the lines are blurring, as designers move into creating clothes for film (Aki Narula and Sabyasachi being two examples that instantly come to mind) in the plethora of books being written on Bollywood these days, some student of fashion should find the time to chronicle the changing face of filmi fashion through the years.. critically evaluating the good and bad examples. Bhanu Athaiya's own book could have.. should have set the ball rolling but despite great production values and a treasure trove of her sketches, it contains little to track her growth as a self taught designer in a fast changing milieu, who had to please producers of widely different tastes. The story of her sartorial adventures in Bollywood would be as interesting as it would be illuminating, indeed.
 
Bhanu Athaiya and her iconic costumes
 
Sathya Saran
 
07-FEBRUARY-2013
 
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8 Comments
 
15-FEBRUARY-2013 SHASHI
this is brilliant information
 
 
07-FEBRUARY-2013 Madhumita Gupta
Brilliant! Am posting it on FB for those who will love it!
 
 
07-FEBRUARY-2013 Meher Castelino
Bhanu Athaiya is truly the doyen of Indian fashion and the amazing lady who won the Oscar for India with her brilliant work in Gandhi
 
 
07-FEBRUARY-2013 Zerin Dordi
About time people gave costume designers the respect and admiration they deserve for making film actors and actresses look so gorgeous on screen. Well done. Sathya
 
 
07-FEBRUARY-2013 Namrata Guha
Jasmeen this is a brilliant piece!!!!! Sathya Saran is truly a fashion powerhouse. Today also when (if at all) I pick Femina I relate it with her.
 
 
07-FEBRUARY-2013 Malini Sengupta
A beautiful read. I have admired your work for years and it's so nice to see your articles online.
 
 
07-FEBRUARY-2013 Pooja Chandokh
Very thought provoking. We all admire the films and wear most of the looks but don't give a moment's consideratio to WHO designed those looks!! The credit goes to the heroines who wore them i.e. Sadhna haircut etc.
 
 
07-FEBRUARY-2013 Kanika Mahajan
Respect.
 
 
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