Rich yards of midnight blue cotton, a silky bridal Banarasi, a pink brocade kunchi worn by babies in a Maharashtrian tradition, real zari Paithanis, South-style silk sarees, heirloom textiles are all part of Bhanu Athaiya’s antique textile collection that’s up for auction.
Renowned costume designer of Indian film industry, Athaiya has worked with filmmakers such as Guru Dutt, Yash Chopra, B.R. Chopra, Raj Kapoor, and Ashutosh Gowariker. Styling everyone from Mumtaz in the song Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyaar Ke Charche, Meena Kumari in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Vijayantimala in the film Amrapali, and of course the cast of Richard Attenborough’s biopic, Gandhi, Athaiya has a long and illustrious career. She is India’s first Oscar winner and won the prestigious honour for Best Costume Design for Gandhi in 1983.
Upon her death in October 2020, her estate was consigned to Mumbai-based auction house Prinseps. To document her exquisite heirloom textiles, dating back to over a century, the auction house roped in Maharani of Baroda, Radhikaraje Gaekwad, who is a passionate sari collector herself. In an article on the Prinseps platform, Gaekwad writes of her experience handling these antiques, as well the life and achievements of Bhanu Athaiya.
The renowned costume designer grew up in pre-independence India Kolhapur, into a family that traced its lineage to royal priests. She credits her childhood for her eventual rise in the industry. “I grew up feasting my eyes on the exquisite beauty of these gorgeous saris. Feeling their textures, enjoying their colour combinations, tracing the motifs with my fingers was heady stuff for me in my childhood, and it propelled me on a journey into the world of textiles,” writes Athaiya in an article titled ‘Drape Beautiful’ for India Today.
In her book ’The Art of Costume Design’, Athaiya talks of her impressions of legends such as Marathi stage actor-singer Bal Gandharva, and decorated danseuse Madame Menaka. Gaekwad even draws parallels between the costumes of Madame Menaka and drape, silhouette of Athaiya’s legendary Amrapali film costume.
According to Gaekwad, the Bhanu Athaiya collection of antique textiles are a rich representation of the traditional Maharashtrian upper society of that era. A mixture of Paithanis, Chanderis, and Benarasis in silk and cotton, these textiles are rare and unique. This is because today they are no longer woven in either pure zari, pure cotton, or the nine yards saree length and width. The textiles appear to be dating back to the 1850s, with their diaphanous cotton, natural dyes, real zari (silver threads with gold plating), and intricate patterns.
The grand midnight blue ‘Chandrakala’ Paithani saree from this collection is well established as Athaiya’s favourite, writes Gaekwad. She even wore it at her daughter’s post-wedding ceremony, styled with a ‘’Kummer Patta’ or traditional metal belt around her waist (pictured below). Chandrakala is a special Makar Sankranti saree, a unique day when the black drape is acceptable.
“As I attempt to draw parables between the inheritance and the personal style and body of the work of Athaiya, I see a subtle theme emerge.” muses Gaekwad. The maharani links the colour combinations of Waheeda Rehman in a Nauvari aka a 9-yard saree in the famous dance number ‘Piya Tose Naina Lage Re’with Athaiya’s mother’s pairing of a pistachio green blouse and rust saree. The light green saree paired with a red blouse seen on Meena Kumari in Sahib, Biwi Aur Ghulam is reminiscent of a stunning Paithani silk saree of the exact same combination from the Rajopadhye Athaiya collection.
Athaiya’s preference for India’s cultural heritage is reflected in her vast body of work. Her incorporation of handloom and natural colours created authenticity for her characters. Athaiya herself once said, “Film Ganga Jamuna is important in the history of Indian cinema because, for the first time, actual Indian handlooms and handicrafts were used to make the costumes.” She went on to use handloom extensively in movies such as Geet, Reshma Aur Shera, Lekin, Lagaan, Swades and Gandhi.
The drape and silhouette of Vijayantimala’s costime in the film Amrapali was history-making. The Oscar-winner researched the caves of Ajanta for inspiration, and the apsara costume went on to become a template for all future celestial representations of mainstream female actors; right from Hema Malini in Sanyasi to Sridevi in Chandni.
Her considerable collection of handloom textiles that is now up for auction, serves as yet another contribution to the preservation of Indian culture and handicrafts.