Have you been yet? Boarded or disembarked a flight at T2, Mumbai airport’s much-talked-about, much- photographed, much-feted new international terminal? Perhaps you stopped for a selfie at one of the art installations there to show off on Facebook. Maybe the folk art and contemporary works made you pause en route to baggage claim. It’s quite possible that you remember nothing specific, but saw so much on your way in or out and were so taken with it all, you almost missed your flight.
For Rajeev Sethi, the 64-year-old man behind all the art at T2, getting people to miss their flights is all part of the plan. When Sanjay Reddy (the managing director of the joint venture that runs the airport) first asked him to take over the art at T2, Sethi hedged for quite a while. “Then Sanjay came into my office one day and said ‘I don’t want a Dubai or a Shanghai. I want people to see India. And I don’t mind if they miss their flight’,” Sethi recalls. “That swung the deal for me. I said, ‘You’re so crazy that I’m going to do it’.”
In retrospect, the crazier man was probably Sethi. “It’s quite common for people to give me a yard and for me to take a mile,” he says, grinning. “The airport started by giving us niches – ‘Here, you can put art in it’ – and we ended up with the whole wall.” Four years, 1,500 artists, a thousand sketches and many CGI renderings later, Sethi has pretty much taken over the whole terminal. Covering Arrivals, Departures and everything in between are 7,000 single pieces, installations and assemblages made from metal, terracotta, papier mâché, stone, bone, ceramic and wood. Some works are made from more unorthodox materials: cow dung, commercial billboards, ship prows, bottle caps and circuit boards. One work spans 3.2 kilometres, another projects images of you as you pass, yet another dates back to the 6th century.
Think of the T2 as a museum, one that holds more artefacts than any museum in India does, is open 24x7 (albeit only to those who can afford an air ticket), is temperature-controlled and under constant security. “What excites me about our country is that it is easily the most skilled region in the whole of South Asia,” Sethi says. “The airport gets 40 million footfalls a year, more than all the galleries in India combined. We wanted the art to be a seamless whole, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, a tribute to the anonymous genius of India.”
STAYING THE COURSE
Not all of it is anonymous – big-name artists like Vivan Sundaram, GR Iranna, Manu Parekh, Baiju Parthan, Jagannath Panda, Riyas Komu and Mithu Sen have created works especially for T2. But they seem no more important than the colourful quilt made by Andheri slum women that wraps around the top floor, or the patta-chitra work a level lower that Sethi found “in 526 envelopes”. One gigantic backdrop was created by draping a big cloth over a structure in Dharavi so artists could work. Slum residents posed for painters so the drape of the clothes on the human figures would come out right.
All of it, you’ll realise, is site-specific. Nothing has been transplanted from a different time and place to sit at T2 and do nothing. Sethi’s installations blend ideas and forms to tell bigger stories. Temple pillars aren’t just artefacts in themselves, they set off a poster of Raghu Rai’s image of wrestlers. A filigree window is actually made up of more than 100 jalis from across the country. “The problem with art in public spaces is that people expect it to be only decorative,” says Sethi. “They don’t probe. They don’t expect there to be layers. But it really doesn’t matter, because we had fun doing it.”
* A white automated peacock that flies around the terminal every hour
* A shop named Jai He that allows you to buy the kind of art displayed in the terminal
* Apps that will act as a guide to the exhibits and let passengers download material and making-of featurettes
* Regular guided public tours so you needn’t have to buy a plane ticket to see the artworks
* “I also think there should be a new flight option by airlines, Bombay to Bombay, so people get to see the airport,” jokes Sethi.
Sethi has had plenty of fun with T2, harnessing the skills of both the acclaimed artist and anonymous artisan. The terminal makes no distinction between folk art and fine art, and neither does he. There are no distinctions among people either. Sethi has a way of breaking through the veneers of class, race and gender to treat everyone he meets the same – greetings to airport janitors are just as warm as they are to established architects (and are just as warmly reciprocated).
That charm also paves the way on larger arenas. Once, when serendipitously seated beside corporate affairs minister Sachin Pilot on a flight, Sethi convinced him to include funding for the arts in the 2.5 per cent of revenue that businesses were required to earmark as CSR. And in 2000, when the Indian tax authorities took him for a stenographer instead of a tax-exempt scenographer (a kind of curator, creative designer and art director rolled into one), he took his case to the Supreme Court and won.
He doesn’t carry a cellphone. He stops midsentence to greet stray dogs in the street. But there’s a method to his madness. A week to the opening, he knew where every little thing was being displayed at T2; the history, cost and location of every restored object; that the cages on the second level were missing parrots; and that a smear of paint on a folk-art work on the third level needed to be cleaned.
Rajeev Sethi’s creativity is all over T2, but so is his sense of humanism, his passion for India, his respect for the then and now, and his eye for detail. So even though he delights at the thought of you missing your flight, he says he’s never missed one himself. “I’ve just always made it on time, you know?”
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From HT Brunch, March 16
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