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.
Noblewoman being bedecked with ornaments
Sringara is a traditional elaborate toilette ritual of decoration and adornment of the body with herbs, oils, jewellery and other finery in preparation for the tryst with the lover.
In this image, Bhanu Athaiya has recreated the Noblewoman and her attendant.
Radha and Krishna looking at their reflection in a mirror
The mirror which captures the reflection of the two lovers signifies the harmony and unity of their love.
In this image, Bhanu Athaiya has recreated the figure of Radha.
Month of Phalgun
Phalgun, associated with the festival of Holi by most miniature painters also marks the beginning of Spring. Mock battles are staged wherein men and women spray each other with rose scented coloured water and powder.
In this image, Bhanu Athaiya has recreated the figure of the Maharani, participating in a Holi celebration.
Indian melodies inspired miniature painters to personify the music in painting series called Ragamala. Here the nobleman seated in the flower bedecked swing surrounded by maidens personifies this raga which is a spring raga.
In this image, Bhanu Athaiya has recreated the figure of the musician playing the dholak (drum) and attendant pushing the swing.
Lady playing chalupas with a companion
Chaupar, a mild gambling pastime was popular amongst women of leisure. Bhanu Athaiya’s recreation has captured the mood of languid sensuality produced by the artist and also the use of the earth colours alongside a vivid blue and red.
In this image, Bhanu Athaiya has recreated the figure of a lady reclining, and her companion.
Also a part of a Ragamala series of a different art-school, this ragini is personified in the central figure of the lady holding the Veena. Somber and sad, this melody expresses loneliness at being separated from the beloved.
In this image, Bhanu Athaiya has recreated the figure of the Ragini Todi.
After the bath
The bird on the right side refreshes its thirst as it drinks up the water dripping from the wet locks of the noblewoman.
In this image, Bhanu Athaiya has chosen to recreate the figure of the attendant holding the silver tray with ornaments and accessories.
Ladies on a garden terrace
The diaphanous dress called the Peshwaz and elaborate jewellery worn in this miniature represent the court style of 18th century Hyderabad. A choli (blouse) is worn underneath the peshwaz (outer garment) and a brocade pyjama covers the legs.
In this image, Bhanu Athaiya has recreated the figure of a lady standing and listening to music.
Maulvi (tutor) with students
Education, especially for young noblewomen was limited to instructions on religious texts by elderly tutors.
In this image, Bhanu Athaiya has recreated the figure of one student.
The comparison between the highly stylised drawing of the female form of the painters’ imagination and of the Indian woman today is perhaps most vivid in this recreation. Notice the dusky complexion, black glossy hair, and almond-shaped eyes.
In this image, Bhanu Athaiya has recreated the figure of one dancer.
Princess playing with Firecrackers
The festival of Diwali celebrates the Hindu New Year and at this time homes are decorated with oil lamps, echoing with the sounds of firecrackers.
In this image, Bhanu Athaiya has recreated the figure of an attendant holding the whisk and sparklers.
Bride being led to the bridal chamber
This is a traditional custom, still maintained where a married sister or friend guides a bride to her chamber.
In this image, Bhanu Athaiya has recreated the figure of an attendant with the torch.