“Air India bought its first set of six paintings for a princely sum of ₹87.50 in 1956, from a novice art school graduate, B Prabha,” says 79-year-old, Uttara Parikh who retired 21 years ago after dedicating 32 years to the State-run carrier.

Parikh, as the then Deputy Commercial Director of advertising, promotions and product development, was part of a team that started curating the art collection at Air India.

Today, Air India has over 40,000 art pieces and collectables, currently housed at the airlines’ erstwhile headquarters in Mumbai.

Even as the airline has been put on the block for sale, Air India has organised a four-day exhibition of 7,000 artefacts from February 13 at Nehru Science Centre in Mumbai. To showcase its heritage built through the years, there will be no entry fee. On display will be Air India’s collection of paintings, textiles, sculptures, traditional wooden and bronze artwork.

The collection also includes collectibles, in-flight menus, posters, statues, give-aways of iconic ‘Maharajah’ mascot. These were conceptualised at Air India’s inhouse design studio at its Mumbai headquarters.

Meera Dass, Secretary, Society of Culture and Environment, said, “In 2016, Air India employees started making an inventory of all art pieces owned by Air India. They realised that this beautiful collection ought to be seen by the public.”

Identifying the ‘treasures’

Dass was instrumental in roping in former employees such as Parikh to identify the ‘treasures of Air India’, for the exhibition.

The exhibition will witness eminent speakers, including those associated with Air India in the past.

“For me, it was payback time to the airline from which I learnt so much. I had the opportunity to be a part of the history of Indian aviation, and nurture it. I was privileged to have the opportunity to work with eminent personalities like JRD Tata and learn so much from them as well,” said Parikh, who will also be speaking at the event.

Speaking about one of her first tasks at Air India, Parikh remembers that Air India gifted a baby elephant to Spanish painter Salvador Dali after he designed an ashtray for the airline.

“My job was to find a baby elephant, get it a clear visa, immigration and take it to Dali. We finally found it in Bangalore and I had to deliver this baby jumbo to him! It was a lovely experience,” she says. Air India flew it to Spain, where a two-day national holiday was declared to welcome the elephant. Parikh flew to Spain to hand it over to Dali.

The Dali ashtray will be on display at the exhibition, which will also have sections on the aircraft history, cargo, technology, JRD Tata and several missions carried out by Air India. Movies and clips related to the carrier will be screened.