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Air India's grand art legacy now accessible to the public

The National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, is displaying part of Air India’s collection of 8,000 works of art

Detail from K.H. Ara’s ‘Holi On The Seaface’.
Detail from K.H. Ara’s ‘Holi On The Seaface’.

At Air India offices and lounges around the globe, visitors would once be treated to paintings specially commissioned to Indian artists such as M.F. Husain, V.S. Gaitonde, F.N. Souza, K.H. Ara, Arpana Caur, Anjolie Ela Menon and Jitish Kallat. A few artists would be paid for the work, others would get air tickets, even be flown to another country to paint their masterpiece. The only exception was Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali. He got a baby elephant.

Air India, the country’s flag carrier, which was founded by J.R.D. Tata in 1932 as TATA Airlines and became a public limited company in 1960, has been one of the biggest patrons of Indian art. Its collection of 8,000 works of art and artefacts includes modern, contemporary, miniature and Company paintings, textile pieces and a few sculptures.

Given to the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) for safekeeping and digital archiving following the sale of the airline to the Tata Group in October 2021, 200 of these works are now on display in Mumbai in an exhibition, Maharaja’s Treasure: Select Works of Art From The Famed Air India Collection. “The idea of this exhibition is to showcase the best of the collection,” says Sushmit Sharma, deputy curator of NGMA, Delhi. “Most of these were displayed in Air India’s Mumbai office building and it was only apt that it be shown to the Mumbai audience first,” adds Nazneen Banu, director, NGMA, Mumbai and Bengaluru. The exhibition, on till 13 August, is the first in a series and will also travel to other NGMA galleries in India as well as venues abroad.

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The star object of the exhibition is the famous porcelain ashtray designed by Dali, based on a work the artist had made in 1937, titled Swans Reflecting Elephants. “The reflection of the elephant appears to be a swan and the reflection of the swan appears to be an elephant. That is what I have done for the ashtray. Thus, the swan upside down becomes an elephant’s head inverted and the elephant inverted becomes a swan,” Dali had said in a statement during his collaboration with Air India.

The ashtray has a shell-shaped centre with a serpent twined around its perimeter, which is supported by a swan, but when turned upside down, it looks like two elephant heads. Legend has it that Air India officials met Dali in New York and persuaded him to design limited-edition ashtrays (the exact number is not known) in 1967. “They were gifted to Air India’s select first-class passengers,” adds Banu. In return, Dali wanted a baby elephant. The airlines bought a two-year-old baby from a zoo in Bengaluru, flew it to Geneva with a mahout and then put it in a truck to Cadaqués, a Spanish town where Dali lived at the time.

N.S. Bendre’s ‘Returning Journey’
N.S. Bendre’s ‘Returning Journey’

Another striking work is that of artist Arpana Caur, whose practice reflects the exploration of her identity as a woman and an artist. In a painting titled Women Hold Up Half The Sky, Caur depicts the face of a woman, a dark-skinned construction worker carrying a pan that looks like a crescent moon. Interestingly, her eyes are also the shape of the crescent moon—but hollow. “It talks about the struggles of mothers working as construction labourers while trying to tend to their little children,” says Sharma.

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In Anjolie Ela Menon’s Nawab With A Pigeon, a man stands behind a panelled, wooden window, next to a subdued little girl and a white pigeon. “It’s another work that comments on the shackles of patriarchy in our society,” adds Sharma.

Then there is the modernist portrayal of Kashmiri, Maharashtrian and Rajasthani women, dressed in traditional attire, by B. Prabha, whose career took off with the patronage of Air India. Fresh out of Mumbai’s Sir JJ College of Art, Prabha walked into Air India’s Nariman Point building and showed her works to Jal Cowasji, head of Air India’s publicity department. He immediately bought three paintings for 87.50 each. Her works also featured on Air India’s specially designed in-flight menus.

“Air India has played a major role in promoting Indian art and artists around the world. This exhibition is also an ode to the company’s efforts and enthusiasm towards Indian art,” says Banu.

Riddhi Doshi is a Mumbai-based journalist.

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