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Prinseps mourns artist and Bollywood costume designer Bhanu Athaiya
Bhanu Athaiya, Village Women, August 1950. Watercolour on paper.

MUMBAI.- Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya leaves behind a powerful legacy as one of India’s legendary creative figures. One of the early members of the Bombay Progressives group, Bhanu Rajopadhye had a historically important early career as an artist, exploring the possibilities of Indian Modernism with her contemporaries - Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, Ambadas Gade and others at the J.J. School of Art. The diary entries from her days as a student remain a valuable mine of insights and delightful stories of the heady early days of this iconic art movement. In one such note, she said:

“We would often meet at social get-togethers at Mulk Raj Anand's place in Colaba where we used to meet the likes of Ibrahim Alkazi and discuss the latest trends and happenings in the world of art. I distinctly remember many discussions about a painting by Alkazi, that of Christ. On one Holi occasion, members of the PAG painted on a huge canvas their ideas to celebrate Holi. We also had annual exhibitions of paintings by the members of the Progressive Artist Group held at the Artists' Centre in Kala Ghoda, which had exhibited two of my paintings.”

Bhanu Rajopadhye's early paintings are an incredible study in the experimentation with styles by a curious and talented hand. As a bright, young student, she explored her fascination with human anatomy and fashion through her illustrations for the 1950s women's magazine, "Eve's Weekly".

Upon graduating from the Sir J J School of Art with a gold medal for her excellence, Bhanu Rajopadhye faced a conundrum - should she continue on her journey as an artist or follow the siren call of fashion and cinema? The latter won, bringing a young Bhanu to Bollywood and marking the beginning of an extraordinary career that would shape Indian popular culture for decades to come. The decision was not an easy one and in a diary entry Bhanu shares the weight of this choice and the derision she faced from her contemporaries such as K.H. Ara who wanted her to continue in the art space.

“Soon, I faced a dilemma where I had to choose between painting full time or designing costumes for cinema. Both were serious pursuits of creativity, even though some of my peers may not have seen it that way.

“One cannot explain in clear terms, but the pull to be involved in cinema was far stronger and I finally gave in to it. Perhaps it was my early exposure to the wonderment of cinema in Kolhapur, watching cinema pioneers like Baburao Painter and my father in front of my eyes; watching Hollywood classics like Greta Garbo's Queen Christina, Charlie Chaplin films, and even Walt Disney's films such as Fantasia all had an influence on me.”

Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya would go on to become one of the leading creators for the aesthetic of a young India through her work on costumes for Bollywood films. If Hitchcock and Hollywood had Edith Head, India had Bhanu Athaiya. Think of an iconic Bollywood "fashion moment", likely she created it. In 1983, she won the Academy Award for Costume Design for her work on Richard Attenborough's film "Gandhi". She was the first Indian to win the prestigious award.

For the team at Prinseps, this is a sombre moment. They worked closely with Bhanu Athaiya’s family over the last six months, diving deep into her archive to be able to share her incredible life’s work. Whilst Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya is no more, her legacy lives on. She will always remain one of India's finest creative spirits.

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