The Prinseps Exhibition: Legacy of Bhanu Athaiya

by Saritha
The Prinseps Exhibition: Legacy of Bhanu Athaiya

The Prinseps Exhibition: Legacy of Bhanu Athaiya, coordinated by Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil, is presented by Prinseps. This exhibit aims to raise awareness of Bhanu Athaiya’s legacy and her contributions to the worlds of art and cinema over the course of 60 years. By examining her early years, her time as a fashion artist, and eventually her skill of costume design, it tells this story. The Exhibition, which features about fifty displays of Bhanu’s works (along with a few by her family members or coworkers), informs the discriminating art enthusiast of why she is so important to the history of Indian art and cinema.

Athaiya’s life was a creative path that included a plethora of contributions to Indian art and cinema. He was an artist, illustrator, costume designer for film and theatre, art advertisement conceptualist, and India’s first-ever Oscar winner. Bhanu Athaiya (1929-2020), whose work spanned six decades, created a new position known as “the costume designer” while also influencing Indian fashion. The “Legacy of Bhanu Athaiya” Prinseps exhibition looks at more than just her costumes; it also explores her formative years in Kolhapur, her time as a student and artist at the JJ School of Arts in Mumbai, her time as a fashion illustrator at Eve’s Weekly, and, of course, her contributions to Indian theatre and film.

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 concentrates on her career as an artist. She was the only female member of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), and she created magnificent oil and watercolour paintings as well as technical sketches. The artwork on show here will come from renowned art collectors and museums, like the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

A section is then devoted to Bhanu’s life as a fashion illustrator at Eve’s Weekly, sketching glamorous sarees and silhouettes, eventually leading her to design costumes for Indian cinemas leading actors and actresses.

The other section of the exhibition then follows Bhanu’s time as a costume designer. It 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 exhibition also provides an overview of her work as an art advertisement designer for leading organisations of the time such as Air India and Onida as well as her costume design work for regional theatre. The spectacular final room is dedicated to videography. An immersive room showcasing content from various classic films that she worked on such as Amrapali, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Lagaan and the iconic Gandhi.

Radhika Gupta, daughter of Bhanu Athaiya says: “My mother…’An Unputdownable Lady !!’ Her inspirational childhood, continued self-study and hard work combined with her immense talent and passion for creativity led to a pathbreaking career in a male-dominated industry that had no women technicians in the 50s.”

Indrajit Chatterjee, Founder of Prinseps, says: “It has taken us close to two years to collate, document, and create the initial exhibit of the estate of Bhanu Athaiya. Bhanu was the first woman to win a gold medal at the JJ School, the only woman member of the progressives and the first Indian to win an Oscar. The estate includes her early years in Kolhapure with her family, her JJ School & Progressives Artists Group Period, and six decades of her subsequent costume design period. There were a few discoveries in this process – importantly her JJ School Gold Medal, many Artworks earlier thought to be lost, and important costume designs and sketchbooks. This is the first of such exhibitions and just scratches the surface in terms of her oeuvre. We hope these exhibitions will be useful to researchers, scholars, and art enthusiasts alike.”

Brijeshwari Kumari Gohil, Vice-President of Prinseps, adds: “researching and curating this exhibition has been an enriching and gratifying experience. Bhanu Athaiya was a pioneer of costume design who has simply not been given the due considering how important her role was in shaping Indian fashion. Prinseps has always aimed to add value to the world of art and culture and this exhibition is yet another testimony to our endeavours. Befitting a permanent museum, this exhibition will indeed be a treat for art and fashion lovers!”    – IANS

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