In the midst of rising debts and divestment, it is hard to imagine today the kind of impact that Air India (AI) had on modern art. In the past, Air India’s booking offices abroad would often display works by artists, many of whom would become Indian modern art’s top-selling names — MF Husain in Geneva, Shivax Chavda’s murals in Washington and N S Bendre in Brussels.
“Air India’s booking offices were set up in upmarket locations and business districts. People would look at the works and be astounded. They would want to host the artist’s exhibition. What AI would do is give to and fro air tickets to the artist to attend the exhibition,” art historian Meera Dass, secretary of Bhopal-based Society for Culture and Environment, said.
Several such anecdotes are part of an ongoing exhibition on Air India’s legacy being held at Nehru Centre in Worli. It will continue till February 17. The exhibition, presented by Society for Culture and Environment, is titled ‘Maharajah of the Skies — An Indian Heritage’. It narrates the story of AI through its art collection, advertisements and memorabilia, spanning over eight decades.
J R D Tata, who founded AI as Tata Airlines, had once said that in their offices, they had “a little of India in the hope that when you visit, 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 exhibition plays host to many artists who were part of AI’s legacy — R K Laxman, Mario Miranda, notable french artist Tomi Ungerer, The New Yorker’s cartoonist Peter Arno and even Salvador Dali, who created an ashtray for AI.
The Maharajah mascot in his many avatars is also seen. “Tata was a nationalist. He was thinking about the nation. From décor to food, he wanted to pronounce Indian culture. These were a true representation of what India stood for,” said Dass, who was approached by current AI chief Ashwani Lohani in 2016 to curate the exhibition.
The artist who is most prominently discussed in the exhibition is the late B Prabha, whose works formed the basis for the collection. The company bought its first set of six paintings from Prabha, when she was still a novice. Her art was extended to the interiors of Emperor Akbar, as Air India’s Boeing 747 was called. The aircraft windows had opulent inlay works from the Taj Mahal, frescoes from the ceiling of Ajanta, lotus patterns and animals such as parrots and elephants. Prabha’s art was also used on the air hostess’ sari uniform in the 1980s, which was called the jungle print sari.
Most of the exhibits are print reproductions. The original memorabilia and artworks, currently at the AI office in Mumbai, will be housed at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi.
Dass said that as one of the most extensive corporate collections in India, it is important that the art objects are not separated from the AI story. “When people ask why Air India spent so much on paintings, the art is what makes it Air India. Just like Mumbai’s international airport. The art collection shouldn’t get truncated from the institution. The story of the airline needs to be narrated as well,” she added.
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