IIn mid-2012, reports surfaced out of the blue that Air India was preparing to sell its art collection, one of the most valuable in the world. By this time the national airline, long mistreated by national leaders, had amassed £43,777m in debt and accumulated losses (over the past five years) of £27,700m. Fortunately, the family jewels were not sold at the time.
Six years later, in mid-2018, another unexpected announcement came that the government was open to the idea of establishing the Air India collection as a permanent art exhibition under the auspices of the National Gallery of Modern Art. This followed a proposal by an Air India chairman to set up a museum at the airline’s own headquarters in Mumbai’s Nariman Point. A tender was published estimating the cost of the museum at £3.5 million. It fell through when the government decided to privatize the national airline in mid-2017.
Another thing is that there were no takers for the privatization idea. At stake was a unique collection of around 8,000 art treasures. Almost 4,000 were paintings by masters of Indian art, from MF Husain and KH Ara to SH Raza and VS Gaitonde. There was sculpture and woodwork, antique clocks and memorabilia, some dating back to the 9th century. There were ashtrays designed by Salvador Dali to be given as gifts to first class passengers. Air India’s menu cards were famous for the paintings depicted on them. These, too, were carefully collected and listed among the treasures.
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What did an airline do with paintings and sculptures? It’s a question that leads us to the glory that Air India had in its early days and the shame that it later became. It was quite literally a proud national flag bearer until after nationalization it became a national embarrassment. In general, nationalization meant replacing visionaries with short-sighted politicians and bureaucrats. It stripped the country of its aesthetics, its joie de vivre, its buoyant liberalism and even transformed the cheerful cosmopolitanism of Bombay into the haphazard microculturalism of Mumbai. Air India withered in this climate. But that didn’t affect the reputation or leadership of “the Tatas,” a name that had come to represent all that was good and noble.
Behind that reputation were the insights that guided the conglomerate’s founding father, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata. As he set out on his mission in the mid-19th century, Jamsetji established two principles: keeping social responsibility in mind while striving for business success, and upholding nationalism in the colonial era. Not all of the dreams he developed could be realized during his lifetime. But the standards he set gave Tata companies a unique character and social standing. That reputation gained new laurels under JRD Tata, whose tenet of “live life a little dangerously” added a touch of glamor to his persona.
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JRD took Jamsetji’s mission to new horizons by building on the humanism that guided the founder. It was Tata’s approach to life and business that set Air India apart from other airlines. His contributions to India’s prestige were incomparable, significant and visible. For JRD, the founder, Air India was not just an airline. It was a national symbol, deliberately developed as such when India emerged onto the world stage.
Tata Airlines, founded in 1932, became Air India on the eve of independence, when there were fewer airlines in the world and fewer cross-continental flights. Going abroad was an extraordinary experience for ordinary Indians until the 1960s. When Air India’s first flight to London departed from Bombay in June 1948, it had to stop in Cairo and Geneva en route. In a universe still waiting to be explored, Air India set out to show the world the wonder of India. It did so with such devotion and imagination that the world marveled at the colors of India, the warmth of its hospitality, the variety of its cuisine and the richness of its art.
The inspiration for all of this came from one man. The standards set by JRD were high, and he personally checked things from time to time—the cleanliness of the pantry, the freshness of the window curtains, the spotless cleanliness of the toilets. If he wanted an improvement anywhere, he would send a polite message to the managers. If Air India’s greatest asset in its early years was JRD’s vision, JRD’s victorious asset was the creative genius of an employee named SK Kooka. He wore a boring job title, Commercial Director, but it was Bobby Kooka who made Air India a well-known and popular name.
He invented the maharajah as the airline’s mascot, dubbed the flights “magic carpet services” and introduced an inflight brochure called “Foolishy Yours.” The billboards he put up always made an impression, although one read “We do business in three languages; English, English and English” rubbed some Patriots the wrong way. Not only did Kooka share JRD Tata’s ambitions for Air India; he deepened them as he turned ideas into action.
He wanted Air India offices, especially overseas, to project the cultural splendor of India. Art became a tool for him. Such was his attention to detail that he focused on the exterior walls of Air India offices in Europe’s leading cities. Colorful murals by Indian artists on Indian themes were applied to the walls, making them a focal point for passing locals. The world got to see India up close, a colorful one that caused a stir. To pursue his dreams on the art front, Kooka enlisted the services of Jal Cowasji, officially Air India’s chief public relations officer, but in reality a connoisseur of modern art, respected by enthusiasts for his knowledge and the high standards he sets for himself asked, was respected. Cowasji was allowed to do as he saw fit. He could buy and commission art.
This was at a time when buying art was not common in India and buying it as an investment was unknown. It was also a time when there were no prominent names in the field. Husain and Ara and B. Prabha and other followers of the Bombay Progressive Group were around, fighting for attention and counting themselves lucky if someone bought a painting for three or four hundred rupees. Air India often paid performers in the form of free tickets. This was the milieu in which Jal Cowasji was able to assemble an impressive collection of antiques, jewellery, studio photography and paintings.
The general public got a taste of the treasure in 2008 when Air India published an illustrated book (Mapin Publishing) with 201 color illustrations and analyzes by four experts. Interestingly, Air India wasn’t the only one collecting and supporting art in those halcyon days. An unlikely rival was the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR).
Excerpted from The Dismantling of India: In 35 Portraits by TJS George courtesy of Simon & Schuster India.