From MF Husain to Salvador Dali: Air India’s art collection opens next week

ByNeha LM Tripathi, Deeksha Bhardwaj and Yogesh Naik
Jan 19, 2023 12:28 PM IST

New Delhi/MumbaiIn a heavily guarded climate-controlled hall on the first floor of the 23-storey Air India building at Nariman Point, dehumidifiers and air-conditioners hum round-the-clock, keeping one India’s finest public art collections in good condition

New Delhi/Mumbai

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In a heavily guarded climate-controlled hall on the first floor of the 23-storey Air India building at Nariman Point, dehumidifiers and air-conditioners hum round-the-clock, keeping one India’s finest public art collections in good condition.

This repository of over 5,000 paintings by Indian masters such as MF Husain, Vasudev Gaitonde, SH Raza, Tyeb Mehta, and B Prabha, and 3,000 artefacts, including those designed by Salvador Dali, will be exhibited in public for the first time on January 27 at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

The airline’s fabled art collection, built from 1956 onwards, has always been of great interest to the connoisseurs but few had access to it. “Art was an important part of Air India’s corporate culture in the 1960s and the 70s,” says Mumbai-based Debasish Chakravarty, who is chronicling the history of the airline, and whose father flew Boeing 747s for Air India in the 1970s and 1980s. Chakravarty references the airlines’ advertising tagline, “Your Palace In The Sky” to underscore his point.

The staff livery was influenced by Indian art, and works of B Prabha, Jyoti Bhatt and Nina Bon Laden were used to illustrate the airlines’ menu cards, while artists such as Husain, Gaitonde and Shanti Dave routinely contributed artworks for the annual Air India calendars. Some of their paintings were also displayed in the first-class cabins. “The corporate art collection was however a closely guarded secret and even most insiders had little idea about the extent of the collection, and rarely got to see any of the art,” says Chakravarty.

All that is set to change. “A priceless collection has been handed over to the culture ministry… You will not only also see modern art but also handlooms. It gives me a great sense of pride to hand over this collection to the culture ministry and the National Gallery of Modern Art,” said civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya Scindia on Wednesday. He expressed hope that these exhibits can also travel to different parts of the country. “I would like to request culture minister GK Reddyji that this art exhibition should not be confined only to the NGMAs, rather, it should be a travelling exposition and must go to various states in India.”

The story of Air India’s art collection also recalls a time when flying was truly a luxury. One of the most famous artefacts in the airlines’ collection, for instance, are ashtrays designed by Salvador Dali called “Double Image”. The ashtrays were designed like round shells with a serpent at the mouth and supported by two surrealist headstands, an elephant and a swan. Its design was based on Dali’s earlier work, “Swans Reflecting Elephants”. As remuneration, Dali wanted a baby elephant no less and the elephant calf was duly flown from Bangalore to his house by Air India.

But perhaps the greatest treasures in Air India’s collections are paintings by the Bombay Progressive Group comprising Raza, Husain, Ara, and Gaitonde. Each of their works fetch millions in private auctions. But in those days, many of the art works were acquired in lieu of tickets.

Dr Meera Dass, art historian and consultant to Air India, says B Prabha, for instance, was one of the first artistes to give her paintings featuring Indian women to the airlines which then displayed them at booking counters across the world.

“Air India is also in possession of a reverse painting on glass, which is unique. Though there were challenges to ship the painting to India from their booking offices overseas, the airline under the-then chairman Ashwani Lohani managed to keep count of every small artefacts,” says Dass. In fact, about 10 years ago amid allegations that several artworks had gone missing mysteriously, the airline instituted an audit and chief vigilance officer Shobha Ohatkar was able to establish that the entire collection was intact.

“The paintings and the artworks will now find their rightful place i.e. at the National Gallery of Modern Arts. Air India and the ministry of civil aviation have worked hard to preserve and protect these valuable artworks, so I promise that we will preserve these artworks for the coming generation,” said culture minister GK Reddy, speaking to reporters on Wednesday.

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