Prinseps celebrates the creative genius of one of India’s finest costume designers Bhanu Athaiya in a multi-dimensional exhibition

Bhanu Athaiya at the 55th Oscar Awards 1983

Goa (India), December 5: Prinseps presents the second edition of ‘Bharat Through the Lens of Bhanu Athaiya’ which celebrates the life and legacy of the multifaceted artist who left an indelible mark on the world of art, cinema, and fashion. The exhibition curated by Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil is scheduled from December 6th 2023 to January 1st 2024 at Aguad, Goa. The showcase chronicles the extraordinary oeuvre of one of India’s finest costume designers with over 50 exhibits, her personal heirloom textile pieces, some oil and water paintings, and beautiful sketches and costumes designed for iconic films such as Lagaan and Gandhi.

‘Bharat Through the Lens of Bhanu Athaiya’ is a celebration of the life and work of Bhanu Athaiya whose contributions as an artist, illustrator, film and theatre costume designer, and art advertisement conceptualist are unparalleled. Notably, she stands as India’s first-ever Oscar winner, a testament to her creative brilliance. Prinseps introduced this exhibition with its first edition at Bikaner House, New Delhi in January this year, offering visitors a comprehensive overview of Bhanu Athaiya’s remarkable legacy.

With an illustrious career spanning six decades (1929-2020), Bhanu Athaiya reshaped Indian fashion and introduced the role of the costume designer to the Indian vocabulary.

She was born in Princely India but worked during a time when India was transitioning into a democratic nation. Her surroundings played a pivotal role in her artistic evolution, inspiring her to first paint and then venture into the world of costume design. This exhibition sheds light on the significance of this period for artists and explores how India’s culture, nature, and heritage played an instrumental role in shaping Bhanu Athaiya as both an artist and a designer.

Broadly chronological, the exhibition opens with a section devoted to the artist’s early years in Kolhapur and what led her to eventually move to Mumbai and join the JJ College of Arts. Along with this, the treasure trove of Bhanu Athaiya’s personal heirloom textile pieces will also be displayed. Beautiful, handwoven sarees with real Gold Zari, passed down to Bhanu from her mother and grandmother. Descending from a family heritage of Rajopadhayas (Royal Priests) in Kolhapur, Bhanu Athaiya inherited and treasured these ornate sarees. These stunning pieces of art were not only adorned by Bhanu and her family members but it was also this exposure that inspired her many costumes during her path-breaking career. These ornate textiles have in recent years been documented and photographed by the Lakshmi Vilas Palace and Museum, Vadodara.

The exhibition then focuses on her time as an artist, the only woman artist as part of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) with artworks ranging from technical sketches to beautiful oil and water paintings. Artworks displayed here will include loaned works from museums and esteemed art collectors such as the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. This section is an important part of modernism in the Indian art historic realm and how Bhanu contributed to Modern Indian Art. Her canvas, ‘Rang Mahotsav’ will be displayed for the first time in an exhibition.

Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil, Vice-President of Prinseps, adds “I am thrilled to be curating a second exhibition on Bhanu Athaiya. There are so many beautiful, inspirational layers to her as an artist and designer. Having the access and opportunity to study these and bring them to the public realm makes me feel like we are doing justice to her legacy. When studying her art, archiving her sketches, and intricately written handwritten notes, I am amazed to see the level of detailing and research she took on, at a time prior to the internet and social media. She was an influencer before the term was popularised and I hope this exhibition and her legacy inspire other budding creatives.”

The final section is then devoted to Indian cinema. She travelled to far-flung parts of the subcontinent to understand culture and tradition and do justice to her designs. The section includes beautiful sketches created by her as well as costumes to complement the sketches. Her detailing and research to successfully put together the Amrapali silhouette or her historic documentation to design costumes for iconic films such as Lagaan and Gandhi are displayed. The section also features a range of blouse pieces, showcasing the diversity of India and the research that went into designing costumes for each film. The exhibition also provides an overview of her work as an art advertisement designer for leading organizations of the time such as Air India and Onida.

Radhika Gupta, daughter of Bhanu Athaiya shares: “Each film was a fresh canvas on which Bhanu Athaiya visualised costumes according to the script narrated by the director. Ideally, if she did costumes for all the artists in the film, e.g. Amrapali, Lagaan, Gandhi, the colour palette and look of all the actors blended into their distinctive characters creating a visual extravaganza. Her creative flair, the in-depth knowledge of the cultural heritage of India and the insatiable quest for learning was the secret of her lifelong commitment to art and all that was artistic.”

In addition to the showcase, the programming also entails two engaging conversations.

‘Breaking Stereotypes’ on December 13 promises to offer an insightful dialogue  between Bollywood icon Zeenat Aman and journalist-author Sujata Assomull. The discussion will delve into design trends of their time, reflecting on how costume design has evolved in cinema over the years.

Sharing how she views Bhanu Athaiya’s creative genius, veteran Indian actor Zeenat Aman says: “With her innate style, scrupulous work ethic, and inimitable creativity, Bhanu made waves globally. Prinseps’ work towards documenting and preserving her legacy is invaluable to India’s cultural heritage.”

On 16th December 2023, art critic and curator Gayatri Sinha will examine India at the cusp of Independence in the talk “Emergent Influences of the late 1930s and 40s in Art Cinema and Design: The Making of Bhanu Athaiya”. The discourse will focus on how Indian artists began to break away from the constraints of the Bengal School, discovering and rediscovering India, and creating unique styles in the process.

Gayatri Sinha shares, “Among the least well-understood and most awarded members of the Progressive Artists Group, Bhanu Athaiya represents a critical phase of Indian modern art history. Years before she was awarded the Oscar for her work in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, she had gained mastery over what opportunities the city of Bombay offered, in art, cinema and costume design. This talk will seek to address the decades of the 1940s and 50s as a backdrop for artistic endeavour, from which she built her own highly individualistic practice that stood at the cusp of different creative industries.”

About the Curator

Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil is the Vice President of Prinseps and holds a BA Joint Honours in Archaeology and Art History and an MA in Heritage Conservation. She has worked in the industry for a decade essaying various roles from conservator to curator.

About Prinseps

Prinseps is an avant-garde auction house that celebrates discerning luxury and prides itself on being a research-focused auction house with a par-excellence archive and library. The name Prinseps is a reference to the Latin word meaning ‘first’ or ‘foremost’, to the princely states and to James Prinsep, the founding editor of the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Best known for deciphering the Kharosthi and Brahmi scripts of ancient India, James Prinsep’s diligent documentation and illustration of aspects of culture are reflected in Prinseps’ methodologies and processes.

Having hosted multiple auctions to date Prinseps continues to foster research, curation, and further discovery within the art world. Following the inaugural auction where Prinseps was entrusted with artworks from the estate of Rathindranath Tagore (son of the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore), subsequent auctions have gone on to bring together the leading names in modern and contemporary art, backed by strong provenances and publication details. Over time the brand Prinseps has grown to become a one-stop destination for the collector and connoisseur.

Prinseps represents the estate of Bhanu Athaiya. This exhibition in no way has any sales involved and is purely educational and engaging.

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