Grounded in art: Highlights from the Air India collection
If you flew Air-India in its heyday, your journey started long before you boarded the flight. Since 1953 (two decades after it started operations as Tata Airlines in 1932 and the year it was nationalised; JRD Tata ran Air India till the late 1970s), the national carrier has relied on Indian art and motifs to serve as a living, breathing, flying ambassador for the country. Booking offices around the world were decorated in Indian motifs — contemporary art, bronzes, murals and stationery. Flight attendants wore traditional Indian apparel. The flight itself was a showcase for Indian visual art, down to the window frames, menus, coasters and luggage tags.
Some 10,000 of those items, collected over 60 years, have been archived at the Air-India headquarters in Mumbai. It’s not the most lavish art collection India has ever seen.
It’s the most lavish art collection India has never seen.
There are early works by MF Husain, VS Gaitonde, Anjolie Ela Menon, Tyeb Mehta, Arpana Caur, SH Raza and KH Ara. An ashtray — a porcelain shell surrounded by a serpent and supported by an elephant and swan — designed by surrealist artist Salvador Dali as a gift for first-class passengers. Some 500 of the ashtrays were made, and are scattered all over the world.
There are posters by Indian cartoonist Mario Miranda as well as ads designed by New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno.
Meera Dass, an art historian and conservation architect who is working on a book about the archive, says the collection “represents Indian modernism — a young country intent on showing the world its best side”. A few stone sculptures date back to the 9th century. Other artefacts are more recent, such as photos of sari-clad Air-India flight attendants shot by Life magazine’s Margaret Bourke-White. And of course the Maharaja is everywhere, peeking out of everything, from Royal Doulton porcelain plates and hand-painted calendars to matchstick heads.
None of this should surprise anyone. For decades, Air India was among the world’s best airlines (it was also the first to move to an all-jet fleet once jets became the norm).
“The idea was to give people around the world a sense of India, and our rich and varied culture,” Dass says. Jal Cawasji, the airline’s publicity officer in the 1950s, would visit art galleries and patronise young artists, reproducing their works across objects, décor and souvenirs. Many artists accepted flight tickets as payment to paint murals in a foreign country. Dali, however, wanted a baby elephant in return for his ashtray design. Air-India obliged there too. They couldn’t find one at Bombay’s Byculla zoo, so they got one from the Bangalore zoo and flew him to Dali, who named the animal Saras.
Air-India’s art budget, dwindling since the 1980s, dried up by the 2000s, and its artefacts were packed away at the Mumbai headquarters. “Initially, the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai was roped in to catalogue and display the art,” says Dass. “They’d planned to break up the collection and showcase only the modern art, but the collection is so much more than that.”
Private collectors know this all too well. On auction sites like eBay, a rare Maharaja-themed coaster can fetch up to ₹10,000. Original posters and mint-condition calendars from the 1960s can fetch even more. Online galleries like AirIndiaCollector.com maintain impressive catalogues of even small items like boarding passes, keychains and safety manuals.
All display plans were grounded when the government formalised plans to privatise Air-India in 2017, raising questions about future ownership of the collection. Dass has been working on building a museum on the 9,000-sq-ft first floor of the headquarters ever since. Two registers, with entries dating back to the 1960s, record each transaction by the airline’s Art Team: dates, locations, artists, commissions and costs. These have been invaluable in tracking pilferage and forgotten artefacts in far-flung outposts.
Some items had their first outing in February 2020, just before the pandemic hit India. Dass curated the exhibition Maharaja of the Skies – An Indian Heritage, at the Nehru Centre in Mumbai. Canvas prints of works from the collection were mounted alongside a replica of that famed Dali ashtray, and original calendars, photos and Tata Airlines founder JRD Tata’s aviation certificate, alongside other memorabilia. The majority of visitors were former Air-India employees, their children, art collectors and aviation enthusiasts.
It’s not nearly enough, Dass says. “Air-India’s art collection is a story worth telling to the whole country. My ultimate objective is to convince the government that a full-fledged museum is required.”