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Light, canvas, action
Everyone thinks of Bhanu Athaiya as a famous costume designer. Few know that her first love was painting or that she was the only female member of the Progressive Artists Group.
To many of us who follow cinema, the mere mention of Bhanu Athaiya evokes Oscar glory. But her prolific career as a costume designer which includes her extraordinary work in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982), which made her India's first Academy Award winner is built on the back of an aborted attempt at painting. While her colleagues and contemporaries, MF Husain, SH Raza, Vasudeo Gaitonde, FN Souza, Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta, Krishen Khanna and KH Ara, went on to lay the foundation for Indian modern art, Athaiya used painting as a springboard to segue into the movies.
Growing up in Kolhapur, which boasted a strong culture of art and especially, cinema, Athaiya showed an early aptitude for painting. Her father, a self-taught artist, painted in the British Academic style and as a child, Athaiya used to watch him at work, utterly fascinated by his photo-realistic portraits. Only eight at the time, she enjoyed sneaking into her father's studio and playing with paint.
"After my father was done with his work, I used to clean his brushes and the palette, " she recalls, sitting in her South Mumbai studio, crammed with her early oil paintings, vintage costumes and a desktop computer which stands out as the only truly modern equipment in a place bustling with relics. "On his visits to Bombay, he would pick up books on Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt and Turner. My young eye absorbed all the works of those masters. "
Other than her father, the local artist MV Dhurandhar's paintings, which were displayed at the Kolhapur Palace, made an enormous impression on her. "It was a common sight to see artists painting at scenic spots like Mahalakshmi Temple, around Rankala Lake and on the banks of the Panchganga River. Inspired by these scenes, I took to drawing, " she says.
Her art teacher Shashikishore Chavan, whom she calls an important "influence" in her life, persuaded her mother, after her father's death, to allow her to pursue art, not merely as a hobby but as a career. Athaiya wanted to follow the example of Abalal Rahman, the first artist from Kolhapur who had enrolled at the Sir JJ School of Art and won a gold medal. "One of Abalal's paintings of a woman going to the temple painted in the realistic manner was a prized possession in my father's collection and I admired it frequently, " she says.
At JJ, she learnt the finer aspects of paintings. "Those days, academic studies consisted of sketching live models to master human anatomy. Students were also asked to paint colour portraits of models. All these studies borrowed from the West. The only authentic Indian art was the study of miniature paintings which I was learning under professor Ahiwasi. " While still a student, she moved to Dockyard Road, one of the quieter neighbourhoods in Mumbai at the time, in order to concentrate on her painting.
It was around this time that she came in contact with Husain, Raza, Souza and Gaitonde. The Progressive Artists Group (PAG) had just been formed and in 1948, Athaiya became its only female member, hanging out with fellow artists and even exhibiting two of her works with them at the Artists' Centre, Kala Ghoda. "Gade and I joined the group together, " she says.
PAG often organised cultural trips for its members and during one such trip to Udaipur, she painted Bathing Ghat inspired by Gangaur Ghat. At one point, during the time she spent at Dockyard Road, Athaiya who was raised in a traditional Hindu background, was taken up by the sight of Catholic nuns, which found an expression in her paintings of that time. She also painted a picture of Brahmins, painted from her childhood memory. Alongside her art practice, Athaiya studied the works of Indian and French masters. She had become quite an admirer of the Indo-Hungarian painter Amrita Sher-Gil, painting very much from her shadow. "She had a pioneering style and although she was trained in the European-style and had worked in Paris, she rediscovered the artist within her in India. "
She vividly recollects the get-togethers at author Mulk Raj Anand's elegant bungalow in Cuffe Parade, where all major artists of the PAG would fetch up, and talk endlessly about the latest trends in art and culture. "I remember the many discussions I would have about a painting by Ebrahim Alkazi, that of Christ. Once, during Holi, members of the PAG painted on a huge canvas their ideas to celebrate the festival. "
It was around this time that Athaiya decided to abandon her dreams of being a painter in favour of a more stable job. She had five sisters to support but she says it was not material reasons that led her to abandon painting, neither was it the frustration of selling her work. "I was selling as a painter and I could have sold more. Both paintings and films were equally strong creative pursuits and I was always drawn towards the latter. More than anything, I wanted to be financially independent. I saw a new world opening up for me in cinema, " she says.
Before cinema changed the course of her life, she joined Fashion & Beauty magazine as a fashion illustrator where the editor focused on promoting Indian heritage. Later, she defected to Eve's Weekly magazine. When Ara learnt of her decision, he screamed at her, "Why do you want to become an illustrator? It is not art;it is so demeaning not only for you but also for other artists as well. "
"Why should I have listened to him? I was doing what I thought was best for me. Ara looked down upon illustrators. But I knew what I was doing, " she says.
In Bhanu Rajopadhye Athaiya: The Art Of Costume Design, a coffee table book authored by her, she mentions that she was advised by her senior artists friends to continue painting. "I definitely had the talent to make it in the world of art, " she writes. "I was faced with a big decision, but to me it was clear that I needed to stand on my own feet, and fashion designing was the more practical option. I have never had any regrets about this choice. "
Does she really have no regrets about quitting painting? "What I would have given to paintings, I have given to costumes, " says Athaiya who gave up oil painting decades ago. "There, I would have built a body of paintings. Here, I am leaving behind films. It's all the same. "
About her surviving fellow artists Raza, Padamsee and Khanna, she has this to say: "They are happy in their world, I in mine. "
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