Remembering Bhanu Athaiya: 'Mumtaaz saree' to 'Lagaan', how India’s first Oscar recipient female costume designer changed the face of showbiz


Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya, who became the first Indian to win an Oscar, left for heavenly abode on Thursday, October 15, 2020, owing to a prolonged illness. She breathed her last at 91, at her residence, leaving a void in the showbiz that can never be filled. 

Apart from winning an Academy Award in the Best Costume Design category at the 1983 Oscars for her work in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, she was a recipient of the BAFTA Award for Best Costume Design and two-time National Award winner for costume designing in Lekin (1991) and Lagaan (2001). Athaiya began her career as a costume designer in Hindi cinema with Guru Dutt's 1956 superhit C.I.D. and went on to work in over 100 films which include hits like Chandni (1989), Prem Rog (1982), The Burning Train (1980), Shalimar (1978), Anamika (1973), Agneepath (1990), and many others.Her last work for costume design was for a Marathi film Nagrik (2014). In a career spanning nearly five decades, Athaiya worked with numerous feted filmmakers including Raj Kapoor, Kamal Amrohi, Guru Dutt, Yash Chopra, BR Chopra, Vijay Anand, Raj Khosla, Gulzar, Ketan Mehta, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Subhash Ghai, and Ashutosh Gowariker.

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Besides the international recognitions, it was her work that stood out and made a difference to the Indian Cinema. Be it Kasturba Gandhi's Khaddar sarees or Gracy Singh's bandhani duptatta, Athaiya put her soul in the costumes, giving it new meaning that would align to the characters in the film. It was all about the details for this mestro as she managed to capture the essence of true India with her costumes. From Mumtaz's tight orange drape to Sridevi's iconic Chandni look, Bhanu has given the film industry some of the iconic looks that can never be forgotten. With convincing costumes and unparalleled vision, she delivered what she was asked for, every time. Being the only female costume designer in the industry back then, she dressed up the generations in Bollywood. She dressed to the likings of veteran actress Sharmila Tagore in films like Waqt (1965) and Dastaan (1972) and later designed costumes for son Saif Ali Khan for Yash Chopra’s Parampara (1993). The actors who have been dressed by this genius vouched for her skills. They say Simi Garewal, who worked with the designer on Siddhartha (1972) suggested her name to Attenborough. Saif vividly remembers his conversation with the maestro during the trails of Parampara and lauded her for her 'great sense of humor'. “The first item was a normal blue sleeveless, V-necked sweater. Rather boring really... I looked at her, and she laughed and said, ‘Not everything I do is going to win an Oscar! This is what your role requires," he recollected her words as quoted by First Post. The one who crossed paths with her had nothing to say but the best. Gandhi's director Richard Attenborough, described her as “the revered doyenne of Indian costume designers,” while couturier Tarun Tahiliani called her the 'right blend of aesthetic and intellect' as reported by Indian Express. Lagaan's actor Aamir Khan paid his last tribute to the designer with a heartwarming tweet.

Raised in Kolhapur, Athaiya came to Mumbai in in 1945 and joined the Sir JJ School of Art. She is survived by her daughter Radhika Gupta, who calls her mother as 'God-gifted.' Well, with a legacy that big, there is no shred of doubt about that.

As we bid adieu to the maestro of costume designing, here are some of the notable looks from the curator herself that changed the face of showbiz.

WAQT (1965)

GUIDE (1965)





GANDHI (1982)


CHANDNI (1989)

LAGAAN (2001)

SWADES (2004)


Athaiya's demise is indeed an end of an era in the fashion world but her legacy would continue to thrive. Fashion industry has truly lost a gem. Rest in peace, Bhanu ji. You will always be missed.