Whether Air India decides to sell its art or not, the publicity surrounding it has turned the focus on a historically important and little seen collection. Gargi Gupta attempts to trace the story of how and when the Air India collection was put together
Family jewels are meant to be sold in times of need. So it’s only natural that the beleaguered Air India, saddled with a debt of Rs 43,777 crore and accumulated losses of Rs 27,700 crore in the last five years, should be thinking of “monetising” its large collection of art. To this end, a committee comprising Sarayu Doshi, former director of National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai; Tasneem Mehta, art historian and vice-chairman of INTACH, Mumbai; and Anjali Sen, former director of NGMA, New Delhi, has been appointed with the mandate to advise, classify, catalogue and evaluate the works. The committee will submit its report in two months’ time and only then will a final call be taken on whether to sell, says GP Rao, Air India’s spokesperson. But Union Civil Aviations Minister Ajit Singh already has a ballpark estimate of Rs 350 crore for the collection, which is somewhat incredible given that the entire Indian art market today is valued at between Rs 1,000-Rs 1,200 crore. This means that Air India will not find it easy to sell the works at one go, as Kishore Singh, Delhi Art Gallery’s head of publications and exhibitions, points out, since that would have a disastrous impact on prices.
Be that as it may, one good thing has already come of all the publicity — it has turned the spotlight on one of independent India’s most important art collections, a collection that has never been displayed and whose range and depth few people know of. Of course, the art-works have not exactly been under wraps — these are spread all over the landmark Air India Building at Nariman Point in Mumbai, and in the airlines’ offices abroad. Over the years, some of these have also been showcased in calendars, posters, covers of in-flight menu cards, timetables, exclusive giveaways and other publicity material.
In 2008, on the occasion of its 75th year, Air India published a coffee-table book on its collection. While tantalisingly sketchy on details — there’s very little information, for instance, on when the collection began, how and who put it together, and what principles, if any, guided the acquisition of objects — The Air India Art Collection has plenty of images, which gives a fair idea of its nature and importance.
The Air India Art Collection is an eclectic and patchy assortment of five different sets of artifacts — contemporary art; antique art objects; specimens of traditional Indian handlooms, apparel and some jewellery; 19th century studio photographs and old clocks.
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The first category, which has attracted the most attention, includes paintings and sculptures of artists working in Mumbai between the 1950s and 1970s, which is when most of the art-works were acquired. The Progressive Artists’ Group, among the most coveted of Indian artists at auctions today, is well represented by MF Husain (18 paintings), KH Ara, SH Raza and VS Gaitonde. Besides, there are several canvases by NS Bendre, KK Hebbar, Badri Narayan, Laxman Pai, Shanti Dave, SG Vasudev, GR Santosh, Manu Parekh, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh, Anjolie Ela Menon and Arpana Caur — all artists who have since made their mark and become famous. Among the younger, contemporary set there’s an early canvas by Jitish Kallat. There are sculptures as well by the likes of Piloo Pochkhanawala, Raghav Kaneria and B Vithal, artists who are important for creating a modern idiom and using industrial material such as scrap iron.
Art writer Ratnottama Sengupta, who saw a large portion of the collection when she was writing her essay on the modern Indian art section in the book, says “most of the works have value because of the history .[In the 1950s and 60s] Air India was a big collector, and a big hope for artists...at a time when the concept of art as an investment did not exist.”
The second category, that of antiques, is a mixed bag of bronze and stone sculptures, elaborately carved wood panels, miniature paintings, Thanjavur glass paintings, pichvais and kalamkari prints — the highlights being a 9th-century stone figure of Vishnu, with figures of Brahma and Vishnu on the halo surrounding his head, and another 11th-century door jamb depicting the river goddess Ganga on her crocodile mount. (To give an approximate estimate of the international prices of such objects, the September 12 Christie’s auction of Indian art has a 9th/10th century door relief in red sandstone with a price range of $10,000-$15,000 [Rs 5.6 lakh and Rs 8.4 lakh]).
The collection of textiles is rather indifferent, containing representative weaves of different parts of India — the Assamese mekhala, a double ikkat Patola wedding sari, Kanchipuram brocades and Baluchari silks, a few specimens of zari and gold kasab embroidery, and some pearl and silver ornaments. The old photographs are all portraits of Indian princes by the Lala Deen Dayal studio.
The surprise element, however, is the assortment of mantle clocks in exquisitely decorated cases made of oakwood, brass or marble, embellished with fine inlay work, gilded brass or glass etchings. Dating back to the late 19th-early 20th century, these were made in Europe by specialist clockmakers such as Winterhalder and Hofmeier, James McCabe and Savory & Sons and are much coveted collectibles today. Jitendra Bhargava, Air India’s former executive director, remembers these clocks occupying pride of place in the directors’ offices and “an old man, who would come to wind them up every day”.
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Brand-building seems to have been the primary reason why Air India collected art. As V Thulasidas, then chairman & Managing Director, Air India, wrote in his preface to The Air India Art Collection: “Inspired by the wealth of our cultural heritage, it was decided to build up prestige and goodwill internationally by creating a truly national character for the airline [….] works of art added to the ethnic interiors of our booking offices, some of which were visible through large glass windows to attract pedestrians passing by.”
But who was it at Air India with the discerning eye for art and the instincts of a Magpie? According to Thulasidas, it was Jal B. Cowasji, Air India’s publicity officer at the time, and S.K. (Bobby) Kooka, its first commercial director (who also created the maharajah logo for Air India in 1946). “Cowasji…an avid lover of art, visited art galleries and art studios, and purchased works…Artists were also commissioned to paint murals on the walls of our international booking offices.”
Eminent senior artist Shanti Dave, for instance, made several large murals for Air India in the ’50s and ’60s. “The first was at the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay where Air India had a reservation counter, after which I was asked to do one at the airline’s Janpath office. Later, I did murals for Air India’s offices on 5th Avenue, New York, Los Angeles, Rome, Sydney and Perth.” Dave’s mural at the VIP lounge of New York’s [JFK] Kennedy airport, depicting the village in Gujarat where he was born, was featured on the front page of The New York Timesin 1964.
Husain, too, has spoken of Cowasji in a conversation with art-historian Yadhodhara Dalmia published in Journeys: Four Generations of Indian Artists in Their Own Words: “Jal used to buy B. Prabha and [Rasik] Raval was the most fashionable painter in those days with all the Parsis, so much so that we started calling it the Air India school.”
Baroda-based senior artist Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh remembers Cowasji as a “stocky”, “friendly” figure who was extremely familiar with art and artists and a regular at exhibitions. Incidentally, Air India was Sheikh’s first buyer. “Cowasji picked up an oil painting from my first solo show in 1960 at Bombay’s Jehangir Art Gallery,” Sheikh reminisces, paying “not more than Rs 400-Rs 500”.
But Air India did not always have to buy. “Often, a work of art was added to the collection in lieu of an air ticket to the artists because, during this period, art did not really have any commercial value,” writes Thulasidas. Husain bears this out in his reminiscences to Dalmia: “They would take the paintings and give free air tickets in return. As a result, the artists could travel to Czechoslovakia, Hong Kong, Paris. I did about four or five trips.”
Some of the spirit of those times is captured in The TIFR Art Collection (2010), an elaborate account by Mortimer Chatterjee and Tara Lal of how another institution was building a large collection of modern Indian art around the same time — Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, under Homi Bhabha. There was “camaraderie and competition” in art collecting between TIFR and Air India, write the authors, with representatives of both institutions checking out exhibitions and galleries. The book refers to a note by K S Chandrasekharan, a mathematician at TIFR, to Bhabha after the former went to see an exhibition of Adi Davierwalla’s sculptures: “I saw Davierwala’s (sic) show. He said Air India wanted the Thunderbird. He was waiting for your [i.e., Bhabha’s] word.”
Of course, in later years, the TIFR and Air India collections have gone divergent ways — while few have seen the latter, Bhabha’s labour of love was recognised by a large exhibition and The TIFR Art Collection, a significant publication that gives interesting details of when and how the works were bought, how their purchase was funded (Bhabha got Jawaharlal Nehru to saction 1 per cent of the funds for art acquisitions) — sets it in the context of the times.
Air India’s precarious finances might rule out this option. What might, however, be open to it is what is happening to the collection of the other Bhabha, Homi’s brother Jamshed, whose estate, comprising paintings, sculptures, china, glassware, silver, etc is being auctioned by Pundoles’ auction house, to benefit the National Centre for Performing Arts, an institution that the latter founded.
But will that be enough to save Air India?