Suspense, drama, auction! Another side to the artistry of Bhanu Athaiya
Bhanu Athaiya is a “Progressive long lost to view; she is indeed, the only woman Progressive,” art critic Ranjit Hoskote writes in the catalogue for an upcoming auction.
Athaiya, who died in October, aged 91, is best known for being the first individual Indian to receive an Oscar, which the costume designer won for her work on Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982). But she could have had a career as a very different kind of artist.
“After her death, we visited her home,” says Inderjit Chatterjee, founder and curator at Prinseps, the Mumbai-based auction house conducting an online auction of 29 of her art works, on December 2. “On the walls were striking canvases and watercolours, including the oil-on-canvas Prayers, that she had displayed at an exhibition in 1953, alongside works by members of the Progressive Artists Group.”
MF Husain, SH Raza and FN Souza were founders and leading lights of this art movement. Athaiya, who had moved from Kolhapur to Mumbai to study at the JJ school of Art at 19, joined the group briefly, on invitation. At 24, she would leave the fine arts for a career in the Hindi film industry.
It was the “practical choice”, she writes, in scattered personal notes that have also been handed over to Prinseps. The upcoming auction features paintings, sketches and cutworks from her peak period, the 1940s and early ’50s. Here is a look at the highlights.
Prayer, oil on canvas, circa 1950
A nun kneels before an altar, “her body stylised into a quasi-Cubist arrangement of angles and curves, yet with the texture and drape of fabric, the pulse of breath, the living human subject is made palpable to us,” Hoskote writes in the catalogue. Athaiya’s autobiographical notes suggests this painting may have drawn on memories from her days as a student at JJ, when she lived at a hostel run by a Catholic religious order. “Nobody saw it as something drawn from personal experience but insisted that I had done a copy of some foreign work,” she says in her notes.
Lady in Repose, circa 1950
A female nude reclines, sensuous and unselfconscious, her back to the viewer. The cross marks on the canvas suggest she is seen through mosquito netting. The model, Hoskote indicates, could have been a fellow student at Athaiya’s hostel. “The brushwork creates a curtain of shooting light. This painting is not the work of an acolyte of male masters. It does not offer itself up for the delectation of the male gaze,” he adds in his note. “It is the work of an artist whose sensibility would be described as feminist today.”
Gandhi, cutwork, 1938-39
In her autobiographical book, The Art of Costume Design (2010), Athaiya writes of how her father, painter and filmmaker Annasaheb Rajopadhye, noticed her interest in art and got her a private art tutor when she was eight. The Gandhi collage is a work of early experimentation with paper.
Coming to Bombay, sketch, 1948
This painting was a game-changer for the budding artist, prompting her family to suggest she head to Bombay to be trained professionally. “At the high school annual competition,” she writes in one of her notes, “I won three awards for my paintings on a flower study, a glass painting, and a sketch of a young girl with a deer, the latter inspired by a Grecian-style sculpture.”
Ranga Mahotsava, watercolour on paper, 1950
The use of colour and the recreation of landscape here recall artist Baburao Painter, also from Kolhapur and one of Athaiya’s early influences. Two years into her training at JJ, with its focus on Western styles with Indian subjects, this one was in keeping with the style of the time, says Suhas Bahulkar, an art historian who is editing an encyclopaedia on the visual art of Maharashtra. “Bombay Orientalism became endemic to much of the art being produced in western India between the 1920s and 1940s,” Hoskote writes.
Village Women, watercolour on paper, 1950
The rounded figures of Athaiya’s women were representative of women figures as painted by artists like Pran Nath Mago and Satish Gujral during the ’40s and ’50s, says senior artist Ashok Bhowmick. “The angular woman form came in with Jehangir Sabavala in the same period,” he adds.
Temple Study, circa 1950
By the time Athaiya joined the JJ School of Art, there was an emphasis on draughtsmanship, including the drawing of nudes. Students were taken to Ajanta and Khajuraho to do temple sketches. This sketch by Athaiya were likely done on site.
Fashion spread from Eve’s Weekly, circa 1950
In her early years as a costume designer, Athaiya also created fashion spreads in the women’s magazine Eve’s Weekly, to indicate what was in vogue to women readers. Those amazing sketches introduced a variety of trends to the post-Independence Indian woman, former model Meher Castelino says in the catalogue. Bhanu offered up daring combos of her own — subtle chiffons paired with backless mirror-work blouses; a floor-length coat worn over a sari. It was on the choli that Athaiya lavished most of her creativity, Castelino says.
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