The fate of the priceless artwork collection of Air India, acquired over the past 60 years, will be decided by a group of ministers which is looking into the proposal for the air carrier’s disinvestment, official sources said. The inventory of the thousands of artefacts, comprising works by stalwarts such as M F Husain, SH Raza, VS Gaitonde is still underway. In the past year, 60 percent of the review has been completed, they said. A proposal was mooted several years ago to display the artistic treasures at a museum but the idea was gathering dust until it was revived by the current chairman and managing director Ashwani Lohani. A museum was proposed to be set up at the Air India building at Mumbai’s Nariman Point. A tender was floated in May this year worth Rs 3.5 crore but the contract was not awarded following uncertainty over the airline’s future, with NITI Aayog then mooting disinvestment of its stakes in Air India. A Cabinet decision last month gave its in-principle nod to this proposal. This painstakingly gathered collection has its origins two decades ago, after Air India’s maiden flight in 1932. The erstwhile Tata Airlines was starting to expand its global reach as a need was felt to create a distinguishing image for itself. Thus began a search for masterpieces that would represent the rich cultural heritage of India. B Cowasjee, Air India’s publicity officer at that time, visited art galleries and purchased works of renowned as well as struggling artists. These pieces would adorn the airline’s booking offices around the world and draw the pedestrians passing by.On the occasion of the opening of an office at Paris, JRD Tata had said, “We have tried to put into it (the office) a little of India in the hope that when you visit it, you will feel the urge of visiting our country, even if you foolishly choose to deprive yourself of the delights of a voyage to Air India.”
Over the decades, Air India has accumulated over four thousand paintings, which include works by artists such as KA Ara, Anjolie Ela Menon, Arpana Caur and B Prabha, among others. There are stone sculptures dating back to the ninth century, woodwork, decorative friezes, a collection of exquisite clocks. There is also a costume collection, called ‘Paridhanika’, comprising Kanjeevaram, Paithani, Baluchari sarees as well as patolas, pashminas and dresses displaying intricate zardozi work. Many of the paintings were also reproduced on menu cards, greeting cards and calendars, with a wide reach among Air India’s guests. While some of these works were commissioned by Air India, there were others that were bartered for air tickets to artists travelling abroad. The airline also supported artists who were young and struggling but would go on to become renowned worldwide. One such personality was B Prabha whose three early paintings were purchased by Air India when she was fresh out of Sir J J School of Art in Mumbai and the airline would continue to buy her works for several decades. However, over a period of time, as new modes of purchasing air tickets developed and the size of Air India’s booking offices shrunk, the art pieces had to be packed and stored in godowns. The interest in buying new works, which had dwindled since the 1980s, petered out by 2007 after which Air India ceased to add to its collection.
Now there are questions about the funding of the museum as the government is looking at ways to liquidate Air India’s assets. Under Lohani, a formal auditing of the entire collection had started, including physical verification, digitisation, cataloguing, proper storage and instituting of a security system. Those associated with the process closely say it is an extremely challenging task as the collectables are spread across the world. “Bringing these art pieces is a challenge as the movement of art is not easy. You need specialists to do the job and you need insurance for these works before transporting them. All this can be an extremely expensive business. We are hoping that the MEA would cooperate and bring it back,” said Meera Das, consultant to Air India for the proposed museum. It may also include gifts that were presented to first class passengers in the fifties and sixties, another reason why the entire inventory is not complete yet, Das pointed out. While these rarities are no doubt priceless, ascertaining their monetary value is going to be an uphill task. “Any figure would be hugely speculative (at the moment) because we have in our collection, for example, ancient stone sculptures which are non-gradable so how do you estimate the value those?” As these valuables were scattered in different parts of the world, they were also vulnerable to pilferage.
Padma Bhushan awardee Jatin Das had recently alleged that one of his works, commissioned by Air India, had reached the open market. While the matter is being investigated by the airline, the painter remarked that the incident was a result of “indifference, negligence and theft”.Following this, he had also written to Air India demanding high-resolution images of all his works possessed by it. “Unlike museums, Air India’s artworks were moving and there was a mass movement at that. In London alone, they shifted three offices. It was a far more difficult task (to keep a track). There was scope for pilfering despite the airline’s keen interest in these arts,” Das said. Despite the recent controversy and questions about the future of the national carrier, its treasure trove is a testament to the penchant its founders had for art and the role essayed by the airline as the timekeeper of India’s cultural heritage as well as Air India’s legacy.