Peeping into Air India’s colourful cargo hold – Indian modern masters



By Madhusree Chatterjee 
New Delhi

The Maharaja – mascot of India’s official carrier Air India-   has arrived in the national capital with his colourful booty at the National Gallery of Modern Art in an exposition, “Air India Salutes Indian Masters” — a collection of nearly 76 works from the archives of the aviation giant acquired over a period of more than 66 years.   

The collection on display at National Gallery of Modern Art features 66 paintings and 10 sculptures.

Air India’s tryst with modern art is a slice of India’s art history connected to its nationalistic movement post Independence. The aviation leader became one of the largest and the earliest platform for young pioneers like M.F. Husain, N.S. Bendre, Shanti Dave, V.S. Gaitonde, K.H. Ara, S.H. Raza and Anjolie Ela Menon, P.V. Janaikram, B. Vithal and several others who were painting a new language of Indian art. It gave Air India a strategic business positioning ground as well.             

The later decades of modernism of the 1960s and 1970s are represented in the collection with the works of Badri Narayan, Harkishan Lall, Ram Keote, Vijay Gupta, Sakti Burman, Jatin Das, Surya Prakash and Kevin Pearsh.        

The works cover a range of styles – from early figurative studies to strong abstractions and landscapes. An oil on sunboard installation by Anjolie Ela Menon — “Nawab With Pegion”— painted on a old window-like panel frame drew attention for its quaint execution and a retro “art deco” chic. Two sunboard art panels by Menon on display at the exposition were especially commissioned by Air India.           

When India became Independent in 1947 and the aviation industry took wings commandeered by pioneer JRD Tata, Air India was in desperate need of a brand icon and a spot of colour to light up the bare walls of its corporate offices and reservation offices so that passengers and clients could unwind. The brand identity, as the bosses echoed, had to be rooted in the tradition of Indian hospitality.

What could be more suitable than art, mused the then director of Air India commercials, Bobby Kooka, the creative whiz who created the aviation giant iconic Maharaja logo with artist Umesh Rao.

Consequently, a few years into operation, Air India began to buy art in the 1950s- coinciding with the era when modern Indian art began to chart its own language fired by the messianic zeal of the Bombay Progressive Group in 1947-1948 – a group of young modern Indian artists who decided to break out of the creative confines of European impressionism and East India Company’s documentary genre of art.

Art market was barely of any consequence – and artists from across social and cultural divides hawked their works for pittance to sustain. Air India’s entry as a corporate buyer of art gave the country the first tangible feel of an art market — with corporate investment in art becoming a nascent reality to be followed vigorously many other behemoths in the decades to come.

The new Air India offices were decked with modern art. The collection made the company’s public relation exercise easier. In the initial years — and in several later- Air India printed art calendars from its collection. The company would present its prized clients with a set of three full size reproductions of the works of M.F. Husain, N.S. Bendre and Shanti Dave. This gesture led to a symbiotic relationship between the Air India and the artists of the time.

The collection reflects the passage of time in Indian art history. When the Indian economy opened to the forces of globalization in 1990s, the country’s art market got a fresh shot in the arm with a “sudden spurt in global demand for Indian contemporary art, experimentations with content and media by younger artists and blending of international styles with local issues”. The 1990s have found place in the collection with a series by new media artist Jitish Kallat and P. Mansaram.        

“The art collection owes much to the marketing genius of Bobby Kooka, the commercial head of Air India and to Homi J. Bhabha – of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (who died in an Air India crash in 1966). They came up with a scheme to decorate all the Air India offices and VIP lounges. In 1980, I was assigned to conceive a new design of the VIP lounges by the then Indira Gandhi-led government for the Non-Aligned Prime Ministers’ Summit. I remember going on an art buying spree,” recalled noted designer, art connoisseur, critic, writer and collector Rajeev Sethi.

He bought “eight huge art works of M.F. Husain for nearly Rs 32 lakh”. Two of the works were on display at NGMA. Sethi said “the works were unique because the artists took great pains to make them”. “Air India wanted to bring in new faces on its roster and It was a privilege for the artists to hang on the walls of Air India offices”.     

Manju Singh, the chairman of the advisory committee of NGMA, said “the collection could be traced to the expansion of Air India’s offices worldwide”. The pieces were beautiful and original. “We are now making an effort to make a comprehensive catalogue of the nearly 500 art works of Air India,” Singh told this writer.

Pankaj Srivastava, executive director (Commercial) of Air India, said “the carrier makes an attempt to nurture, preserve and restore the collection”. “Maintaining such a large collection under Indian climatic conditions is difficult. We employ two artists to keep the collection as good as new,” Srivastava said.

Artist Dhananjay Gopinath Gupte, a graduate of the J.J. School of Art in Mumbai, has been tending to the Air India collection for the last 29 years with a colleague. “This collection was supervised by J. Kawaji in 1960s and later by artist Sachin Dabolkar,” Gupte told this writer.

The platinum collection of 35-40 works require “frequent cleaning of the canvas for fungus and touching up for dis-colouration,” Gupte said.

“A restorer has to understand the art practice of individual artist, stylization and have a sound knowledge of art to touch up master’s works,” Gupte said. The in-house restorer has worked with masters like B. Prabha and B. Vithal “to restore paintings”. “I have watched master modernist K.H. Ara at work,” he said

The journey of modern Indian art from its genesis in the 19th century to its current trends in the 21st century – and its ability to include and adapt itself to diversities — is well-plotted in the collection of Air India, director of NGMA Rajiv Lochan explained, pointing out the significance of the collection.   

 PS: The exhibition opened on July 17 in New Delhi.  

Madhusree Chatterjee


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