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Air India

  • Air India was one of the largest art collectors in Bombay. Indian art was used as branding for Air India in international competition right from the start.
  • Air India
  • Air India International, Tata Airlines

  • Airline
  • Air India was one of the largest art collectors in Bombay. Indian art was used as branding for Air India in international competition right from the start.

    Word Count: 27

  • Indian industrialist, entrepreneur, avid aviator and pilot Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy (J.R.D.) Tata (1904–1993), heir and chairman of the Tata Group, founded the Tata Aviation Service, forerunner of Tata Airlines, in 1932, as a national airline. As air traffic in India expanded exponentially up until the mid-1940s, Tata's private commercial aviation experiment became a great success.
    In 1946, with independence just around the corner, the airline was renamed Air India and became a publicly held company. The very first poster for Air India illustrates the last line of the prayer poem Let my Country Awake by the Indian national thinker Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941): “Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.” The poster shows a woman and a man of the Indian working class looking dignified, self-determined, powerful and purposeful as they look towards the future. A silver plane flies like a bird in the sky above the couple, symbolising the machines that, along with the people’s willpower, will build a new independent nation. Around 40 years previously, Tagore had urged his countrymen to seek a life of honour and dignity in a free, decolonised India. In 1912 the English version of the poem was first published in Gitanjali, the Nobel Prize for Literature winning poem collection, as Poem 35. In 1917 the Nobel laureate Tagore recited it at the Indian National Congress session in Calcutta. In 1946 Walter Langhammer, an Austrian painter in exile working as a commercial graphic artist in Bombay, interpreted the poem line graphically and designed the visual empowerment and encouragement for independence.
    Langhammer’s work for Air India continued with another poster commemorating the first international flight from London to Bombay via Geneva and Cairo in June 1948. In the meantime, J.R.D. Tata and the young Indian government had successfully agreed on a joint venture between the private and public sector to form an international airline for India, which was named and incorporated as Air India International in March 1948. J.R.D. Tata became chairman and selected the Centaur, according to V. Thulasidas, former managing director of Air India, “a stylized version of Sagittarius“ (quoted in: Franz 2008, 264); by connecting East and West, history and the future, it symbolises speed and movement and has a universal appeal. Again it was Walter Langhammer’s graphic talent that visually adopted the Centaur as the symbol of the young airline.
    Air India’s PR department was aiming for a global focus, but Air India was neither the most experienced nor the largest airline, so endeavoured to create a distinctive public image. The Maharajah, conceived by Bobby Kooka, who later became Air India’s commercial manager, and designed by the artist Umesh Rao, was a PR coup that has been in use since 1946. But there was a much broader concept involved, as follows.
    Shortly after independence, Indian art was widely adopted as a tool to demonstrate the greatness of independent India to the world. The Exhibition for Indian Art of the Royal Academy of Arts in London showed 5 000 years of Indian history in the winter months of 1947/48. Through its own art, ancient and contemporary, the young nation displayed its beauty and wealth with pride, self-esteem, honour and dignity in the capital of its former coloniser. Air India's public relations officers followed a similar advertising strategy. Air India International was branded as the flying ambassador of India using Indian art and artefacts. The nationalisation of Air India in 1953 – against strong opposition from J.R.D. Tata – pushed this policy.
    Jal Cowasji (Cowasjee), a former assistant to Walter Langhammer at The Times of India art studio, became publicity officer and director of public relations at Air India. Together with commercial director Bobby Kooka, he developed Air India’s unique art-related advertising policy through innovative public relations and publicity tools, and made Air India an enthusiastic and strong advocate of contemporary art in India.
    “We have tried to put into it [the office] a little of India in the hope that when you visit it, you feel the urge of visiting our country, even if you foolishly choose to deprive yourself of the delights of a voyage on Air India” (Air India 2008, 9), JRD Tata was quoted as saying on the occasion of the opening of the Air India Paris office in June 1961. Indian artists were commissioned to paint murals on the walls of (international) booking offices “and thereby recreate the spirit of India abroad. Their works of art added to the ethnic interiors of our booking offices, some of which were visible through large glass windows to attract pedestrians passing by” (Air India 2008, 8).
    The practice started in Bombay when Shiavax Chavda (1914–1990), a modern interpreter of ancient Indian art forms, painted the first of these murals, Triumphant Aerial Return of Ram & Sita from Sri Lanka, in the Air India lounge. This was followed by a mural by the young Shanti Dave (born 1931) for Air India’s reservation counter at the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay and another at the airline’s Janpath office in New Delhi. International Air India offices were set up around the world, and Indian artists – some young and unknown like Dave, others well-known like Husain – adorned the walls with their paintings. Dave painted murals for Air India’s offices on 5th Avenue in New York, in Los Angeles, Rome, Sydney and Perth, as well as for the Air India VIP lounge at JFK Airport in New York (1964). Shiavax Chavda made another mural for Air India, in Washington. Murals were also produced by: N.S. Bendré (1910–1992) in Brussels and for Air India’s London Bond Street booking office; the young Sampath Kumar (born 1949) for the Air India office in Vienna; B. Prabha (1933–2011) in Bangkok; A.A. Raiba (1922–2016) at Sidney Airport in 1970; and M.F. Husain (1915–2011) for the Air India International reservation office in Geneva in the mid 1950s.
    In the 1950s, the airline also came up with the idea of producing unique annual wall calendars, featuring prestigious and desirable works of art to create a distinctive image of Air India, especially abroad. The Hungarian painter Nena von Leyden (1910–1964, wife of Rudi von Leyden), who had lived in Bombay since 1949, created one of the first. The calendars, which represented the broad spectrum of Air India's art and artefact collection, were discontinued in 1990.
    The airline’s commercial department under Bobby Kooka began to buy art at a time when art was not yet seen as an investment. Trained graphic artist and avid art lover Jal Cowasji, Air India´s publicity officer, visited art galleries, exhibition openings and art studios and bought works by both renowned and new artists who have since made names for themselves. Cowasji also collected old clocks bought at Chor Bazaar, as well as textiles and Indian artefacts. Today the collection consists of 40 000 pieces of art and artefacts, ranging from antique stone statues and bronzes to delicately chiselled wooden panels, antique clocks and Indian costumes. Air India has one of the largest corporate collections of ancient and contemporary Indian art. Most attractive is the vast collection of canvases by artists working in Bombay between the 1950s and 1970s. The Progressive Artists’ Group is well represented, spearheaded by 18 paintings by F.M. Husain. What started with an advertisement poster for Air India and a mural in Geneva in the mid-1950s turned into a fruitful collector-painter relationship.
    Often, a work of art was added to the collection in exchange for a plane ticket given to the artist. The works of art presented by Air India in the form of murals and canvases in various Air India offices around the world, as well as calendars and other communication and information material (e.g. menu cards, timetables, coasters) generated a showcase for contemporary Indian art, above the clouds and on the ground, worldwide.
    Fuelled by founder JRD Tata's philosophy that all booking offices should represent India, the primary reason for Air India collecting art was branding. V. Thulasidas, then chairman and CEO of Air India, wrote in 2008, “Inspired by the wealth of our cultural heritage, it was decided to build up prestige and goodwill internationally by creating a truly national character for the airline. With this in mind, the search for authentic Indian masterpieces began.“ (Air India 2008, 8)
    Air India, along with the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Tata Companies, and the TIFR, became one of the largest corporate art collectors in Bombay.

    Word Count: 1387

  • 87, Mahatma Gandhi Road, Fort, Bombay (now Mumbai).

  • Advertisement in Marg Magazine with the first Air India poster by Walter Langhammer in 1946 (Page from Marg vol. 1, no. 2, January 1947 has been reproduced with the permission of The Marg Foundation, Mumbai, India).
  • Air India poster commemorating the first international flight London–Geneva–Cairo–Bombay, by Walter Langhammer, 1948 (Air India, poster no. 3, 1973. Photo: Margit Franz 2010).
    The Centaur as the Air India International emblem on the roof of the (new) Air India Building at Nariman Point (© Margit Franz, 2010).
    First Air India Mural Triumphant Aerial Return of Ram & Sita from Sri Lanka. “The spacious lounge at Air India new premises in Bombay. The colourful mural was executed by Shiavax Chavda, the well-known artist" (Marg, vol. 1, no. 4, July 1947; reproduced with the permission of The Marg Foundation, Mumbai, India).
    Jal Cowasji (middle) and gallery owner Kekoo Gandhy (far right) in Chemould Gallery, 1960s (Digital Photo Archive Margit Franz; © Gandhy Archive, Mumbai; All Rights Reserved).
    Air India poster by F.M. Husain, mid 1950s (Air India 1973, no. 28, Photo: Margit Franz 2010).
  • Air India. The Rogue's Gallery. Air India, 1973.

    Air India. The Air India Art Collection. Mapin, 2008.

    Anonymous. “Air-India to Dedicate Its Kennedy Terminal Today.” The New York Times, 5 February 1964, p. 22. Accessed 30 March 2021.  

    Chatterjee, Ram. Bendré: The Painter and the Person. Bendré Foundation for Art and Culture & Indus Corporation, 1990.

    Franz, Margit. “Transnationale & transkulturelle Ansätze in der Exilforschung am Beispiel der Erforschung einer kunstpolitischen Biographie von Walter Langhammer.” Mapping Contemporary History. Zeitgeschichten im Diskurs, edited by Margit Franz et al., Böhlau 2008, pp. 243–272. Academia, Accessed 14 March 2021.

    Franz, Margit. “Graz – Wien – Bombay – London: Walter Langhammer, Künstler und Kunstförderer.” Historisches Jahrbuch der Stadt Graz, vol. 40, edited by Bouvier, F., and N. Reisinger, Stadt Graz – Kulturamt, 2010, pp. 253–276. Academia,ünstler_und_Kunstförderer. Accessed 14 March 2021.

    Franz, Margit. Gateway India: Deutschsprachiges Exil in Indien zwischen britischer Kolonialherrschaft, Maharadschas und Gandhi. CLIO, 2015.

    Gehi, Reema. “How the Maharaja Became an Art Lover.” Pune Mirror, 16 July 2017, Accessed 10 March 2021.

    Gehi, Reema. “Inching Closer to Divestment, Air India Invites Public to Retrace History through a Photo Exhibition of its Art, Artefacts and Textiles.” Mumbai Mirror, 13 February 2020, Accessed 14 March 2021.

    Gupta, Gargi. “Distress sale?” Business Standard, 24 January 2013, Accessed 14 March 2021.

    Gupta, Gargi. “First Ever Exhibition of the Air India Art Collection.” DNA, 17 August 2013, Accessed 10 March 2021.

    Johnson, Thomas. “#IndianMastersRetrospectiveExhibition Featuring Paintings and Sketches by Artist #ShiavaxChavda Friday, December 21, 2018 to Sunday, January 6, 2019.” 19 December 2018, Johnsonthomasoncinema, Accessed 14 March 2021.

    Khaitan, Piyush. “M.F. Husain and his Air-India Creations.” 13 September 2016, Air-India Collector, Accessed 2 March 2021.

    Khaitan, Piyush. “The Birth of India's Greatest Art Collections.” 23 July 2017, Air-India Collector, Accessed 2 March 2021.

    Nath, Aman, and Jay Vithalani with Tulsi Vatsal. Horizons: The Tata-India Century 1904–2004. India Book House, 2005.

    Ramanath, K.R. “Another Exciting Story to the Maharajah's Greatness: A Keen Supporter of Indian Contemporary Art.” South China Morning Post, 8 June 1973, p. 43 (ProQuest Historical Newspapers: South China Morning Post).

    Word Count: 382

  • Archival records from a personal interview between the author and Jal Cowasjee, Mumbai, 5 May 2007.
    Archival records from personal interviews between the author and Khorshed and Kekoo Gandhy, Mumbai, 30 April to 3 May 2003; 18 to 22 January 2004; 26 April to 12 May 2007; 13 to 15 October 2008; 24 October 2010.
    Air-India Collector,
    Air India First Flight Covers, Posters, Postcards, Coasters, Luggage Labels & Tata Flight Covers,
    Marg, Marg Publications,
    Private Archive Margit Franz, Sinabelkirchen.

    Word Count: 72

  • Margit Franz
  • 1946
  • Bombay
  • No
  • Margit Franz. "Air India." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 13-09-2021.
  • Open Studio Evenings by Käthe and Walter Langhammer

    The painter Walter Langhammer and his wife Käthe built an informal infrastructure to promote local avant-garde artists and regularly invited them to Open Studio Evenings at their studio.

    Word Count: 29

    University / Higher Education Institute / Research Institute

    The TIFR is one of India’s premier scientific institutions. Inside its buildings, scientists ponder over path-breaking ideas. Also, within its hallowed walls is a fine collection of modern Indian art.

    Word Count: 31

    Rudolf von Leyden
    GeologistAdvertisement SpecialistJournalistArt CriticArt CollectorCartoonist

    The advertisement expert, Rudolf von Leyden, became a major art critic and art historian in Bombay in the 1940s, advocating an urgent need for modernism in art in post-colonial India.

    Word Count: 30