Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Why Air India gifted Salvador Dali an elephant

Flights may just be just a mode of transit today. But, back in the 1960s, flying was a lifestyle. Passengers puffed Havanas and enjoyed caviar and Champagne, Stewardesses sported designerwear and amenities were supplied by Hermes and Christian Dior. In the Golden Age of Flying, no expense was spared. And while India’s national carrier may be reeling under debt and up for sale now, Air India was once at top of the chain when it came to luxury. It was perhaps the only airline that gifted ashtrays designed by Salvador Dali! And it was definitely the only airline that paid for it in elephant!

In 1967, Jot Singh, the then public relations officer of Air India, happened to meet Salvador Dali in New York City. Air India, by then, was a vast collector of art. Singh asked Dali to create something for the airline. The Spanish surrealist obliged and designed a small unglazed porcelain ashtray with a shell-shaped centre and a serpent around the perimeter supported by two surrealist headstands–a swan on one side and elephant on the other. Beautiful. When it came to fees, Dali asked for an elephant! Why? “ I wish to keep him in my olive grove and watch the patterns of shadows the moonlight makes through the twigs on his back,” he is reported to have said.

The carrier obliged and flew a two-year-old elephant from Bangalore to Geneva. The little jumbo was then transported by truck to Cadaques, where Dali lived. Its arrival was celebrated with much pomp. Apparently, the mayor declared a three-day holiday and there was a special parade organised at the plaza.

What happened to Dali’s elephant?
Dali had big plans to ride across the Alps with it, somewhat like Hannibal. However, none of that materialised. The mammal grew too big and eventually Dali lost interest. So, it was taken to Barcelona Zoo in 1971.
28/01/20 Conde Nast Traveller
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