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India's First Oscar Statuette Returned to Academy for Safekeeping

Ghandi Film Still - Ben Kingsley - H 2012
Ben Kingsley in "Gandhi"

Bhanu Athaiya, who won best costume design for "Gandhi" in 1983, has returned her trophy because she “does not trust anyone in India to keep it.”

NEW DELHI – The first Oscar to be won by an Indian has made its way back to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.

Mumbai-based Bhanu Athaiya won best costume design for Richard Attenborough's multiple award-winning Gandhi at the 55th Annual Academy Awards in 1983. But the 86-year-old, who is suffering from a potentially life-threatening brain tumor, has returned her statuette to the Academy for safekeeping.

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"I do not trust anyone in India to keep it. If [acclaimed Indian writer and poet] Rabindranath Tagore's Nobel medal could be stolen from [Tagore's hometown] Shantiniketan, what is the guarantee my trophy would be safe?" Athaiya said in a statement. "In India, no one values such things, and we lack a tradition of maintaining our heritage and things pertaining to our culture. In the past, many Oscar winners have returned their trophies for safekeeping with the Academy such as eight-time Oscar-winning costume designer Edith Head, among others."

Tagore, who passed away in 1941, received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. But in a 2004 burglary at a university he founded in Shantiniketan (in the western state of Bengal), the Nobel medal and other personal belongings of Tagore were stolen.

In addition to her Oscar, Athaiya has also donated some papers and photographs related to her work for Gandhi. These include newspaper articles and a 1983 telegram from Attenborough sent to Athaiya congratulating her on her nomination.

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Athaiya was slated to travel to L.A. in 2013 and personally hand over the trophy to the Academy. But in June this year she was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor leading her to hand over her Oscar earlier. The Academy made arrangements for the Oscar to be collected last week from Athaiya's Mumbai workshop.

"The Academy is honored to receive back your statuette," AMPAS assistant general counsel and MD of administration Scott Miller said in an email to Athaiya. "As you mentioned, we were donated Edith Head's Oscars [along with Head's career papers and drawings, which are part of the collections at the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library]. Many other artists have also donated their statuettes and personal papers to the Academy for their perpetual safekeeping and public education. And those statuettes are always treated and displayed with dignity at the Academy's exhibitions and galleries. Also, we are in the process of creating the finest motion picture museum in the world, and I'm certain it [Athaiya's statuette] will find a place to be displayed there.”

As one of India's most acclaimed costume designers, Athaiya has worked on more than 100 films, including classics like Guide, Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam, Pyaasa and India's 2001 foreign film Oscar nominee, Lagaan.