The art of being Indian

The soon-to-be-opened Air India Art Museum will display works by several Indian masters collected over 60 years. Meera Dass gives us a preview

In 1967, Surrealist artist Salvador Dali was commissioned by Air India to design a limited-edition ashtray to be given as a gift to the airline’s First Class passengers. He produced a small, unglazed porcelain ashtray with a shell-shaped centre and a serpent around its rim. Today, one of those ashtrays will fetch millions at an auction, and you can catch a glimpse of Dali’s rare creation at the Air India Art Museum, set to open soon in the Air India building at Nariman Point, Mumbai. The museum will also house artworks by several renowned Indian artists, such as VS Gaitonde, SH Raza, MF Husain, Anjolie Ela Menon and Tyeb Mehta, which have been collected by the airline over 60 years.

New beginnings

Following India’s Independence, the nation’s leaders looked ahead at the future with a vision to shaping India into a modern, developed land rich in culture and heritage. At that time, there was a need to promote India as a new destination too, and there were only a few airlines flying across the world. Bobby Kooka, the creator of the Maharajah, knew that to stand out among them, Air India would have to be different. The vision was a commercial and not a promotional one. That is where Indian traditions and culture came in, since they distinguished the country from the rest of the world. Air India rode the culture bandwagon in the competitive aviation market. Indian works of art were placed in the airline’s booking offices across the world to portray the country as a vibrant land, steeped in
culture, heritage and tradition, along with beautiful stone and bronze sculptures of the Nataraja, tapestries and wood carvings from Mysuru, Chennai and Odisha, and more.

First steps

The first artworks to be used were paintings that Air India bought from artist B Prabha in 1956. At that time, Prabha had just graduated from JJ College of Arts in Mumbai. She sold three paintings to the airline that were used in the First Class menu cards.


The exhibits at the museum are from almost 700 artists – rare canvases by Narayan Shridhar Bendre, Kattingeri Krishna Hebbar, Laxman Pai, Shanti Dave, SG Vasudev, Manu Parekh, Gulam Rasool Santosh, Tyeb Mehta Arpana Caur and Gulam Mohammed Sheikh; and sculptures by Pilloo Pochkhanawala, Raghav Kaneria, B Vithal and more.


Apart from modern and ancient sculptures, the collection at the museum will boast contemporary paintings, rugs, carved wooden panels and woodwork from Gujarat, specimens of Indian handloom like tapestries and apparel, jewellery and clocks. Notable among the latter is a mantel clock in an ebonised break-arch wood case, finely inlaid with mother-of-pearl, said to have been made in 1845.

The museum is not just a collection of art but a presentation of India to the world. Air India could do it because it connected various countries with India and used that to its advantage.

The airline carried not only people but also Indian culture across the world. It has been the custodian of Indian culture – however, the ownership of the collection at the museum lies with the nation.


Among the most striking exhibits at the museum are the reverse paintings on glass, which use a technique of painting said to have been developed in Europe. This technique travelled to China before it came to Surat, where artisans learnt it. We cannot say it is the largest in India at the moment, but it is definitely one of the most important collections of art Air India has.

You will also find miniature paintings in the traditions of Rajputs and Mughals, narrating tales of emperors and empresses, love and war, village scenes and festivals. Watercolour paintings by modern artists from various schools such as the Kangra and Kishangarh school are among other attractions. The cross-media representation of the Kalia mardana is one of the highlights at the museum, which will be spread across 3,000 sq m. This particular mythological episode has found expression in modern sculptures, Madhubani paintings, canvas, glass and miniature paintings, woven textiles and bronze casting, among other forms. This only goes to show the ethos of the country and how culture is an integral part of the arts.


Officials from Air India would visit exhibitions in Mumbai displaying artworks from various schools of art such as Baroda and the like, apart from artists’ studios. Most artworks were sourced from there. The antique pieces, on the other hand, were bought from antique dealers in Gujarat and South India, as well as antique shops in Mumbai.

There are also some artworks that Air India has procured from artists in exchange for air tickets. VS Gaitonde is one such artist. The airline has bought art pieces from great Modernist masters when they were not at their peak, and so, in a way, has contributed to their success and popularity by showcasing their works overseas. Air India has had an important role to play in the growth and the popularity of several individual artists both within India and abroad, enabling them to establish a place on the world map.

The author is a consultant to Air India for the museum, and a former member of the National Monuments Authority

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