Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

Contributors Manveena Suri, CNN

India’s first ever Oscar winner, costume designer Bhanu Athaiya, has died at the age of 91. Athaiya, dressed the casts of over 100 Bollywood movies and gained international acclaim for her work on the 1982 movie “Gandhi.”

Sunil Seth, chairman of the Fashion Design Council India said she has been a “torchbearer of design,” in a statement shared with CNN. “We, as a design fraternity, salute her excellence not just in cinema, but also in proving to the world, the huge role fashion plays to shape a personality, both on and off the screen,” he wrote.

Her daughter, Radhika Gupta, told The Times of India that her mother died in her sleep. Athaiya was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2012.
Bhanu Athaiya, second from left, on the runway during Mumbai's Lakme Fashion Week in 2013.

Bhanu Athaiya, second from left, on the runway during Mumbai’s Lakme Fashion Week in 2013. Credit: Chirag Wakaskar/WireImage/Getty Images

Born in 1929 in Kolhapur, in Maharashtra state, Athaiya began designing movie costumes in the 1950s, working on a series of productions with Guru Dutt, one of the era’s most celebrated directors. She went on to collaborate with filmmakers including Raj Kapoor and Raj Khosla.

While she primarily worked on Bollywood movies, she produced costumes for director Conrad Rooks’ 1972 film “Siddartha,” an adaptation of the famed Hermann Hesse novel. But it was her work on Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi,” a biopic based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, that thrust her into the global spotlight.

Bhanu Athaiya pictured with "Gandhi" director Richard Attenborough at the 55th Academy Awards.

Bhanu Athaiya pictured with “Gandhi” director Richard Attenborough at the 55th Academy Awards. Credit: Michael Montfort/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

At the 55th Academy Awards, Athaiya claimed the award for Best Costume Design (alongside her co-designer John Mollo), one of eight Oscars won by the movie that night. In her short acceptance speech, she said that the honor was “too good to believe,” before thanking Attenborough for “focusing world attention on India.”

Athaiya continued to work in the later decades of her life, receiving industry recognition for her rich visual take on 19th-century India in Ashutosh Gowariker’s critically acclaimed “Lagaan” Her work on the movie earned her Best Costume Design at India’s prestigious National Film Awards in 2002.

Following her death, tributes have flooded in from India’s art and entertainment worlds, with actor Aamir Khan, who starred in and worked with Athaiya in “Lagaan,” tweeting that she “beautifully combined accurate research and cinematic flair to bring to life the director’s vision.” Actress Kasturi Shankar meanwhile described Athaiya as a “legendary costume designer and pathbreaking woman.”
Politicians also took to social media to honor the late Oscar winner. MP Raj Babbar, a well-known actor before his election to parliament in 2015, wrote on Twitter that Athaiya “made costume design a classical art,” adding: “(I) was privileged to wear her designs in my initial films … Her demise is a personal loss.”

Top image caption: Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya backstage holding her Oscar, after winning the 1982 Academy Award for “Best Costume Designer” for her role in Gandhi.

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