From Gandhi to Lagaan, Bhanu Athaiya Was the Queen of Costumes. India’s First Oscar Winner is No More


From Gandhi to Lagaan, Bhanu Athaiya Was the Queen of Costumes. India’s First Oscar Winner is No More

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Bhanu Athaiya, the costume designer who made history by winning India’s first Academy Award in 1983 for her work on Gandhi, died in her sleep on Thursday, her daughter has said. The designer, who had been bedridden for the last three years, was 91.

“She passed away early this morning. Eight years ago, she was diagnosed with a tumour in her brain. For the last three years, she was bedridden because one side (of her body) was paralysed,” her daughter, Radhika Gupta was quoted as saying.

“She will be itching to finally dress the actual stars up above,” her daughter reportedly told a BBC journalist.

Athaiya leaves behind a long and successful career, having started out as a young costume designer on Guru Dutt’s hit film C.I.D., and going on to win an Oscar along with John Mollo for their work on Richard Attenborough’s famous Mahatma Gandhi biopic.

In the last five decades, Athaiya has been an important part of at least one hundred films, and has been the recipient of two National Awards  — one for the Gulzar mystery film, “Lekin”, and another for her work on 2001’s Oscar-nominated film, Lagaan.

Some of the most memorable films she has worked on in Hindi cinema include Guide, Pyasaa, Sahib Biwi Aur Gulam, Agneepath, and 1942 — A Love Story. In 2010, she even authored her own book, “The Art of Costume Design”.

In the years since Athaiya won her Oscar, several Indians have received Academy Awards including Resul Pokutty and A R Rahman. But Athaiya remains the only Indian woman to have won the honour. She returned her trophy to the Academy “for safekeeping” in 2012, however, after doctors found a tumour in her brain.

In her memoir, she recalled minutes before the big Oscar moment.

Tributes kept pouring in as news of her death made headlines.

According to a report in, Athaiya even had a short stint as a Modernist painter in the 50s, after training at Mumbai’s JJ School of Art, under the guidance of Padma Shri V S Gaitonde. Athaiya’s last rites ceremony was held in South Mumbai on Thursday. But her memory is sure to be kept alive through her incredible body of work.