Sunday, August 06, 2017

'In return, Senor Dali would like a baby elephant'

Afew weeks ago, shortly after an article tracing the vast Air India art collection appeared in Mumbai Mirror, a former chief commissioner of income tax Prakash Dubey wrote to the paper about a rather unexpected encounter with Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali’s work that could be traced to the national carrier. In 2013, Dubey visited Figeures, the birthplace of Dali, in Spain. “I was having lunch at one of the oldest restaurants there.

Duran was a restaurant Dali visited frequently. On a wall, there were newspaper clippings and my attention was drawn to one which had an Air India maharaja logo. It turned out that it was an article on the airline commissioning Dali to design an ashtray for it. I was intrigued,” he narrates, as he settles into a chair at a south Mumbai club. “When I got back I tried my best to find out more.

I reached out to several of my friends from Air India. Unfortunately, after struggling for a month all that I could get was a small mention in their house journal.” A chance meeting with his pal Chota Chudasama, the former public relations officer at Air India’s New York, Mexico and Canada offices, at a party, helped Dubey piece the puzzle together. Chudasama indeed had one of 500 limited edition ashtrays at his home in Carmichael Road. “We were partly responsible for making this happen,” says Chudasama, looking at the unglazed porcelain ashtray.

“Dali used to visit this one hotel in New York often and stay there. During one of our Air India meetings we invited him over, and that is how the conversation of him creating something for us began.” The story traces back to five decades ago. Documentary filmmaker Gulserene Dastur, whose father Nari Dastur was Air India’s regional director for Europe, recounts, “Jot Singh, who was in charge of the publicity and PR cell in Europe, was also responsible for asking Dali to create a work of art for Air India.

As a result, my parents and Jot Singh became very friendly with Dali and his partner Gala.” Air India’s former manager for Spain, Portugal and North Africa (Tunis- Morocco-Algiers), Dial V Gidwani, is currently based in Chicago.

The magic of India inspired Dali to create the unusual ashtray. Dubey describes, “The design was in the shape of a round shell with a serpent around its perimeter. It is supported by two surrealist headstands — an elephant on one side and a swan on the other.” This unusual piece of art was presented to art lovers and friends of Air India globally.
Thus, the swan upside down becomes an elephant’s head inverted and elephant inverted becomes a swan.” However, when asked about his remuneration, “Dali said, ‘An elephant!’, says Dastur. “Gala promptly added, ‘and $10,000’. Mum asked him why on Earth he wanted an elephant, and he said, ‘Because, dear lady, I wish to keep him in my olive grove and watch the patterns of shadows the moonlight makes through the twigs on his back.’” The Air India staff thought he was joking. “But he was serious,” says Gidwani, laughingly.

“Air India flew a two-year-old elephant from Bangalore, accompanied by a mahout (keeper), to Geneva. The elephant (Big Baby) was trucked to CadaquĆ©s, where it was personally received by me and cleared through customs at 3 am. The mahout then guided the elephant to Dali’s house.”
06/08/17 Reeema Gehi/Ahmedabad Mirror