Flight Plan

When the national carrier goes into the art of the matter

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on January 11, 2018

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The soon-to-be-launched Air India art museum at its headquarters will be a delight for the connoisseur

Come August 15, the Air India headquarters in Mumbai will turn into a museum of art, housing some of its priceless works collected over six decades. On display will be the biggest names in Indian art: Arpana Caur, Anjolie Ela Menon, B Prabha, KA Ara, MF Husain and V S Gaitonde.

There is back-story to how the airline came in possession of such a priceless collection. When it began operations in the 1940s, Air India chose to market itself by promoting India as young country, but one which had a culture and tradition of several thousand years. It sought to achieve this image by showing off art and artefacts in the booking offices it opened across the globe — in places such as Paris, Rome, Geneva, Beirut and Cairo. All these offices had Indian art prominently displayed.

On June 28, 1961 at the time of the opening of Air India’s office in Paris, JRD Tata, said, “We have tried to put into it (the office) a little of India in the hope that when you visit it, you will feel the urge of visiting our country, even if you foolishly choose to deprive yourself of the delights of a voyage on Air India.”

The search

With the aim of showcasing a young nation with a rich culture and also promoting Indian art, a team at the airline started searching and encouraging Indian artists. Jal B Cowasji, the airline’s publicity officer, visited art studios and galleries and purchased works by renowned as well as budding artists. The JJ College of Art in Mumbai was one of his favourite places for sourcing talent. Using the yearly budget for this exercise, the airline also commissioned artists to paint murals on the walls of Air India’s booking offices at international locations. At times, a work of art was added to the collection in lieu of an air ticket given to the artist. As time went by these very artists became famous and the prices of their works also shot up. Little wonder then that it is virtually impossible to put a figure on how much Air India’s art collection is worth.

What started more than six decades ago has ballooned into a priceless collection of ancient and contemporary art. Though an exact inventory is not available, the consensus is that the collection is priceless not only in terms of the monetary value of the works but also because of the range.

Air India’s paintings include miniatures from both the Rajput and Mughal eras, which trace the tales of Emperors and Empresses; others depict romance and war. There are also works on subjects including village scenes and festivals.

Not just paintings

The collection is not restricted to paintings though. The treasure trove also includes stone sculptors , carved wooden panels, antique rugs, wall hangings, British litho prints and a collection of clocks from the late 19th century — all of them priceless. There is also woodwork from Gujarat, wood carvings from South India and printed and painted textiles.

The clock collection includes a mantle clock in an ebonised break-arch wood case, finely inlaid with mother-of-pearl, which is said to have been made in London in 1845. It also has a mantle clock in a decorative oak case with brass dial with cherub spandrels in the four corners which strikes every quarter and was made in Germany in 1910.

The airline also has a collection of textiles and costumes, including 65 that represent different regions of the country.

However, while Air India was following this unique approach of promoting art and itself, the aviation environment was changing. The coming of computers meant that booking offices were no longer the only places where tickets could be sold. Competition too started hotting up and Air India started closing down its international offices. The works came back and were stored in Air India’s headquarters in Mumbai, while the Maharaja grappled with how best to make use of this treasure.

Finally it was decided that the works that are considered of “national importance” were being wasted lying in boxes and cartons and decided to open up the museum and display them to yet another audience in India.

Published on May 16, 2017

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