In mid-2012, out of the blue, reports surfaced that Air India was preparing to sell its art collection, one of the most valuable in the world. It was then that the national carrier, mismanaged by national leaders for a long time, had incurred a debt of ₹43,777 crore and racked up losses (over the previous five years) of ₹27,700 crore. Fortunately, the family jewels were not sold at that time.
Six years later, in mid-2018, again unexpectedly, it was announced that the government was open to the idea of setting up the Air India Collection as a permanent art exhibit under the care of from the National Gallery of Modern Art. This followed a proposal by an Air India chairman to establish a museum at the airline’s headquarters at Nariman Point in Mumbai. A tender was issued, estimating the cost of the museum at ₹3.5 crore. This failed when the government decided in mid-2017 to privatize the national carrier.
It’s another matter that there were no takers for the idea of privatization. At stake was a unique collection of around 8,000 art treasures. Nearly 4,000 were paintings by masters of Indian art, from MF Husain and KH Ara to SH Raza and VS Gaitonde. There were carvings and woodwork, old clocks and memorabilia, some of which dated back to the 9th century. There were ashtrays designed by Salvador Dali, which were meant to be given to first class passengers. Air India’s menu cards were famous for the paintings reproduced on them. These too have been faithfully collected and listed among the treasures.
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What was an airline doing with paintings and sculptures? It is a question that will take us to the magnificence that Air India was in its early days and the disgrace that it later became. It was a proud national flag bearer in every sense of the word until it turned into a national embarrassment after nationalization. On the whole, nationalization meant replacing visionaries with short-sighted politicians and bureaucrats. It has stripped the country of its aesthetics, its joie de vivre, its playful liberalism, even transforming the joyful cosmopolitanism of Bombay into the arbitrary micro-culturalism of Mumbai. Air India languished in this climate. But this did not affect the reputation or leadership position of the “Tatas”, a name that had come to represent all that was good and noble.
Behind this reputation lie the ideas that guided the founding father of the conglomerate, Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata. When he embarked on his mission in the mid-19th century, Jamsetji enunciated two principles: keeping social responsibilities in mind while pursuing business success, and championing nationalism in an age of colonialism. The dreams he had developed could not all come true during his lifetime. But the standards he set helped Tata companies develop unparalleled character and social status. This position won new laurels under JRD Tata whose principle “Live life a little dangerously” gave his personality a touch of glamour.
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JRD took Jamsetji’s mission to new horizons by relying on the humanism that had guided the founder. It is the Tata approach to life and business that has made Air India different from other airlines. His contributions to the prestige of India were incomparable, significant and visible. For JRD, the founder, Air India was not just an airline. It was a national symbol consciously developed as such when India was beginning to emerge on the world stage.
Tata Airlines, founded in 1932, became Air India on the eve of independence, when there were few airlines in the world and fewer transcontinental flights. Going abroad was an exceptional experience for ordinary Indians until the 1960s. When Air India’s first flight to London took off from Bombay in June 1948, it had to stop in Cairo and Geneva en route of road. In a universe still waiting to be opened up, Air India set out to project the wonder that was India to the world. She did it with such dedication and imagination that the world marveled at the colors of India, the warmth of her hospitality, the variety of her cuisine and the richness of her 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 impeccability of the toilets. If he wanted an improvement somewhere, he would send a polite note to the managers. If Air India’s greatest asset during its formative years was JRD’s vision, JRD’s winning asset was the creative genius of a staff member named SK Kooka. He had a monotonous job title of Commercial Director, but it was Bobby Kooka who made Air India a household name, and a beloved one.
He invented the Maharaja as the airline’s mascot, named the flights the Magic Carpet services and introduced an in-flight booklet with the title “Foolishy Yours”. The billboards he put up always had an impact, even though there was one that said, “We do business in three languages; English, English and English” rubbed some patriots the wrong way. Kooka not only shared JRD Tata’s ambitions for Air India; he expanded them by translating ideas into action.
He wanted Air India’s offices, especially those overseas, to project the cultural splendor of India. Art has become a tool for him. His attention to detail was such that he focused on the exterior walls of Air India offices in major cities across Europe. Colorful murals with Indian themes by Indian artists have been mounted on the walls, making them focal points for passing locals. The world got a close-up view of India, a colorful view that sparked excitement. To realize his artistic dreams, Kooka enlisted the services of Jal Cowasji, officially head of publicity for Air India, but in reality a connoisseur of modern art respected by aficionados for his knowledge and the requirement that he s is imposed. Cowasji was allowed to do what he saw fit. He could buy and order art.
This was at a time when buying art was not common in India, and buying it as an investment was unheard of. It was also a time when there were no stellar names in the field. Husain and Ara and B. Prabha and other stalwarts of the Bombay progressive group were there, struggling for attention and considering themselves lucky if someone bought a painting for three or four hundred rupees. Often, Air India paid performers in the form of free tickets. It is in this environment that Jal Cowasji was able to assemble an impressive collection of antiques, jewelry, studio photographs and paintings.
The general public tasted the treasure in 2008 when Air India released a beautiful book (Mapin Publishing) with 201 color illustrations and analyzes by four experts. Interestingly, Air India was not alone in collecting and patronizing art during this golden age. An unlikely rival was the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR).
Excerpt from The Dismantling of India: In 35 Portraits by TJS George courtesy of Simon & Schuster India.