Air India's collection of art and memorabilia goes on exhibition

Photo credits: Kamlesh D Pednekar
Debt-ridden Air India, which is to go under the hammer, will see a part of its art and collectibles showcased at the Nehru Centre in Mumbai from Thursday. 

The exhibition titled ‘Maharaja of the Skies – An Indian Heritage’ is being organised by the Society for Culture and Environment.

The collectibles consist of hundreds of memorabilia that mostly include reproductions but also a few originals from Air India, the organisers said. 

The originals include a book with JRD Tata’s flight records, Royal Doulton porcelain plates with the carrier’s logo, flight recorders and scale model aeroplanes. The reproductions comprise posters and photographs of calendars, diaries, coasters and paintings. 

Air India chairman and managing director Ashwani Lohani told Business Standard that earlier plans to house the entire collection of art and collectibles in a new museum built just for it have been shelved. 

“Now, the entire collection of art work will be housed at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi in the near future,” he said. In other words, divestment or not, the art and memorabilia will not go on the block. 

He went on to add that the exhibition was a powerful reminder of Air India’s past glory. 

Photos: Kamlesh D Pednekar

He said, “One cannot but help remember what a great culture Air India was imbibed with in the past, from having its own glamour and style quotient, to its own engine works.” 

Despite its troubles, he said, the airline still flies to over 40 international destinations and is operating 450 flights daily.

Air India was also renowned for having a strong culture of investing in art to promote the airline with department budgets and personnel specifically dedicated to achieve that.

Its art department had patronised young talent who went on to become established artists and include B. Prabha, whose paintings were first bought by the carrier. The original collection includes six-feet long paintings by MF Husain, and other large works by VS Gaitonde, Anjolie Ela Menon, Jitish Kallat and Sakti Barman. It also includes textiles, sculptures, wooden artefacts and even ash-tray sculptures that were created by artist Salvador Dali. The collection also includes diaries, posters and sketches by Goan artist Mario Miranda. 

How many pieces does the collection consist of? While speculation in public domain has ranged from estimates of 10,000 to 40,000 pieces, it’s not known as to how many exactly there are in the catalog of collectibles. 

Air India officials declined to offer specifics, saying even letterheads, annual diaries and coasters were collectibles and hence the number was high but not available off-hand. 

Dinesh Vazirani, CEO of art gallery and auction house Saffronart, said Air India’s collections happened over decades and they were not just in India but in all of its offices internationally as well. “The collection, which is a store of Indian heritage and history, would be best served by being housed in museums across the country, given that it is after all government property,” he added.

Is there a valuation to the entire collection? Experts say it’s hard to narrow it down to a single number because of the diversity of artefacts in the portfolio. 

“The original posters of Air India itself sell for between Rs 50,000 and Rs 60,000 each which is high for just a poster,” said Ashvin Rajagopalan, director of the Piramal Art Foundation. 

“The original masters like Hussain and Raza are in the crores,” he added. The entire collection is hard to zero down in value but its scope and expanse are legendary, he further said. 

Meera Dass, the official who curated the exhibition, said the point of the display was to encourage a look-back at the history of India’s only state-owned airline whose mascot is depicted by a turbaned Maharaja. It carried a tagline ‘The airline that treats you like a Maharaja’.

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