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T2 Mumbai: A grand museum that shows ‘what Indian art is all about’

Mohini Chaudhuri New Delhi | Updated on January 10, 2014

The mammoth art project… 7,000 artefacts and works by 1,500 artists. — Paul Noronha   -  PAUL NORONH;BUSINESS LINE

A few hours before the unveiling of the much-anticipated art museum at Mumbai International Airport, its celebrated curator and scenographer Rajeev Sethi admitted that he might have been more enthusiastic about designing a railway or bus station if issues like the weather and security could be controlled.

Yet, he hopes that with its 7,000 artefacts and works by 1,500 artists, the mammoth airport project by GVK Group will spur many similar initiatives to bring art into the public domain.

“Everybody looks at art as an investment and less of something that belongs to the public space. Why should art be limited to whispering galleries and museums? Hopefully, others will now see a public area as a place where you can reach out to people or else, art cannot survive or be nurtured. The artist, too, will benefit from feedback by an audience he doesn’t know,” says Sethi, who hopes that the sprawling 3-km long art wall will attract both Indian and foreign travellers in equal measure.

For Sethi, it was the prospect of building an art museum so captivating that passengers wouldn’t mind giving their flights a miss that inspired him to accept the challenging project.

The brief handed to him by GVK Managing Director Sanjay Reddy was simple yet clear. He wanted the museum to reflect the best of what India had to offer. “Sanjay’s vision of wanting to produce something that wasn’t going to end up looking like Shanghai and Dubai is what inspired me. He was willing to explore a whole different ethos which would make young Indians proud and understand who they were,” says Sethi.

For the last four years, he has been tirelessly working with a team of 500-600 workers in a studio not too far from the airport to restore and repair artefacts that were being sourced through the length and breadth of the country.

“I got permission from the Archaeological Survey of India to pick up things that were thrown away or burnt. Some of them included wonderful rathas. I then collected them and got them duly restored and conserved. A lot of work was being done in different parts of the country, too – from Kanyakumari to Kashmir and villages in Rajasthan to the North-East,” he says.

The biggest lesson, he says, was training his contractors in putting up delicately carved doorways, terracotta horses, sculptures and chariots – artworks they had never encountered in this age of cement and steel.

Visual artist Parvathi Nayar is one of the contributors to the project. She made a bronze sculpture which is 20-feet high and projects three-dimensional images. The images showcase flying pollen grains, maps of Mumbai and visuals of aircrafts landing and taking off.

“The idea is to show Mumbai as a centre of transit over time,” Nayar says. Since the airport is four floors high, the 20-feet sculpture is visible from all floors. “But it looks different from each level,” she says.

Through this project, Sethi is also determined in turning people’s attention to a 1971 law that mandates that 2 per cent of all costs of building a structure must be spent on the arts and crafts.

Sethi himself was unaware of this law till a couple of years ago when he was approached to design a swanky new CBI building in New Delhi. It is then that he read up on all the rules and regulations on the subject. “This is a rule that is singularly never followed. Imagine the difference it would make if builders, an industry that is growing rapidly, would take cognizance of this rule,” he points out.

Around the world, there are an increasing number of airports that have made space for art museums.

Most recently, Paris’ Charles de Gaulle launched a museum exhibiting works by illustrious French artists. Sethi finds the ones in South Korea, Amsterdam, and Mexico particularly “commendable”, but quietly adds that the new Mumbai airport will be the largest of them all.

“It is wonderful when museums begin to think of outreach. As they say, if can’t bring Mohammed to the mountain, take the mountain to Mohammed.”

Nayar, too, is impressed by the scale of the airport and the art museum.

“I genuinely haven't seen anything like this (the art museum) anywhere in the world. It is an amazing opportunity for people all over to see what Indian art is all about. I am so happy to have my work displayed here— it is a public space, a grand museum and an airport. It has everything,” she says.

Published on January 10, 2014

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