While Air India has gone back to its original owner, the Tatas, its art collection built by JRD Tata is still staying with the government. Officials said the deal entails only the airline and Air India’s non-core assets, such as land, building and other belongings, remain with the government. Sources in the Ministry of Culture said they will try to expedite the process of formal handover and consequent display of the collection in the Capital.
The focus shifted to the art collection in July 2018 when the proposed sale of Air India’s Nariman Point building started to take shape.“The Maharaja collection”, as it is called, has over 4,000 works, including paintings by legendary artists such as Jatin Das, Anjolie Ela Menon, M F Husain and V S Gaitonde. As per an understanding between the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Ministry of Culture back then, the collection is supposed to be handed over to the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Delhi as charity, without any monetary considerations since it was “just a transfer from one arm of the government to another”.
The works haven’t been opened for several decades after the airline’s fortunes started dipping and they were packed and tucked away in the Nariman Point building storehouse. Some of the works from the collection have been lost, stolen or damaged over time. In fact, the management of the national carrier came under fire for not being able to protect this priceless collection. In June 2017, artist Jatin Das learnt that his 1991 oil painting acquired by Air India, ‘Flying Apsara’, was for sale in the open market for Rs 25 lakh. Investigations pinned the blame on a former Air India executive and a complaint was also filed against him for stealing government property. Subsequently, it was reported that the airline was “examining how many more former or serving Air India officials could be in possession of such paintings”.
In fact, as Ministry of Culture offiicials made several trips to Mumbai between 2017 and 2019 to assess the modalities before a formal MoU could be signed and artworks could be shipped to Delhi, things got delayed because of authentication issues. A senior official, who was part of several such trips, tells the Indian Express, “We are trying to figure out if the artworks are original or duplicate…The collection is huge and expensive, it will take time.” Now that the airline’s deal is through, the Ministry of Culture plans to renew its efforts for a speedy takeover of the artworks.