Bhanu Athaiya : recreating the spirit & splendour of Indian miniature paintings for an Air India calendar

a tribute to yesteryear painters, a celebration of women, and a testimony to the continuity of Indian craftsmanship and tradition.

Bhanu Athaiya (b.1929 – d. 2020) was an artist, illustrator, costume designer, conceptualised art for advertisements and became India’s first ever Oscar winner. The expanse of her contributions to Indian art and cinema reflect years of intense research and passionate creativity.

Bhanu Athaiya (née Rajopadhye) was born in Kolhapur, Maharashtra. Her father, painter-filmmaker-photographer Annasaheb Rajopadhye encouraged her to pursue her passion for art from an early age. In an era when female artists were rarely acknowledged, a very driven and creative Bhanu travelled to Mumbai as a teenager to learn painting at the J.J School of Arts. By 1953, she became the only woman to exhibit her works as part of the Progressive Artists’ Group in Mumbai.  

Since the 1950s, Athaiya worked with noted filmmakers like Guru Dutt, Yash Chopra, Raj Kapoor, and later Ashutosh Gowarikar, winning several national awards for her work on costume design (Lagaan and Swades). In 1982 she won the Oscar for Best Costume Design for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. Bhanu’s costumes brought life to the characters on screen, which eventually went on to inspire Indian fashion.

In the 1980s, Bhanu Athaiya was commissioned a one-of-a-kind calendar by Air India. The calendar recreates Indian miniature paintings in the National Museum Collection.

Apart from art and cinema, Bhanu Athaiya also worked in the world of advertisements. For their 1983 calendar, Air India appointed her to recreate the scenes captured by yesteryear folk and court painters in their miniatures. These miniatures – Pahari, Deccani, Mughal, Rajasthani – feature exquisite women indulging in the unhurried luxury of their pleasures and pastimes. Whether it is a queen or an attendant, each woman is brought to life through Athaiya’s carefully constructed brocade and tinsel costumes, elaborately fashioned pearl and gem-studded jewellery and the use of objects and accessories in the set-design. The images, each juxtaposing the original miniature were photographed by Wilas Bhende, a leading photographer of the time. The Air India calendar, thus, is not just a tribute to yesteryear painters or a celebration of women, but is also testimony to the continuity of Indian craftsmanship and tradition.

Take a look at the 12 beautiful recreations in this gallery:

These images are part of an upcoming exhibition hosted by Prinseps: ‘The legacy of Bhanu Athaiya’, opens on January 28, 2023 at the Bikaner House Delhi.

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