Air-India is thinking of selling its art collection, one of the finest treasures in India. A rough estimate by officials is that its monetary value may be around Rs 350 crore. This will be financially insignificant to a company which has a debt of Rs 43,777 crore and accumulated losses (in the last five years) of Rs 27,700 crore. So why are they selling the family jewels?
It must be, primarily, the plebeianism of the government mind. That was what reduced Air-India from the proud flag-bearer it was in J.R.D. Tata's days to the icon of incompetence it became in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats. That was also what took some of our universities and institutions like Lalit Kala Akademi from glory to ignominy. It takes quality to produce quality. For many years now the quality that made India bright and beautiful has been on the decline.
It was quality that helped Air-India rule the air waves in the early days. JRD's professionalism – after all, he was India's first licensed pilot – made the airline respected. Commercial Director Bobby Kooka's flair made it beloved. Kooka was one of the movers behind the art collection. The frontline collector was Jal Cowasji, Air-India's publicity chief. He was a recognised art connoisseur and was encouraged by the management to buy and commission works of art. Air-India's offices in the leading cities of the world became famous for their specially-commissioned murals by Indian artists.
Naturally Air-India became a patron of the soon-to-be-celebrated masters who constituted the Progressive Artists Group of the 1950s Bombay. People like M.F.Husain, K. H. Ara and B. Prabha would be given free tickets in lieu of paintings. Air-India also collected antiques, old clocks, jewellery and studio photography.
The general public got a taste of the treasure in 2008 when Air-India brought out a coffee-table book (Mapin Publishing) with 201 colour illustrations and analyses by four experts. It is a feast of a book. But it was also a sad reminder – that only a couple of generations ago we had cultivated minds that could think of collecting and preserving such exquisite achievements of the human imagination, and that we have lost it.
What we have instead are destroyers. They flourish in a cynically corrupt political environment, as is evident from the continuing Lalit Kala Akademi scandal. This 58-year old institution has held no exhibition since 2003, there is no inventory of works, many works have disappeared and diversion of funds is rampant. The main culprit is known and has been publicly named. The Akademi's last chairman, Ashok Vajpeyi, issued a long order in 2011 relieving the man, Secretary Sharma, of his post. The Legal Department of the Ministry of Culture cancelled the order and reinstated Sharma.
An acting chairman took over for a period of six months ending July this year. This was Balan Nambiar who not only endorsed Vajpeyi's assessment of the Secretary but went public about it. Saying that the Akademi's main problems were “dishonesty, cheating, mismanagement and swindling of finances”, Nambiar described the Secretary as “the one individual who has systematically destroyed the Akademi over the past decade. His ten years as the Secretary is the worst period of the Akademi”.
Ashok Vajpeyi is a distinguished poet and critic whose reputation as a culture administrator is enhanced by his experience as a civil servant. Balan Nambiar is an internationally renowned multimedia artist. How is it that such authorities are upstaged by petty wirepullers and their petty godfathers in the Ministry of Culture? How is it that the Minister of Culture has no eyes to see what all others see? Why is it that the Vajpeyis and the Nambiars of today, like the JRDs of yesterday, are cast aside for parasites to prosper?
To ask such questions is like asking why Suresh Kalmadi was kept at the helm of Commonwealth Games even after he had shamed the country before the eyes of the world. The answer to all questions is the same: We are like that only.