Sunday, October 10, 2021

A tale of Salvador Dali, 500 ashtrays for Air India and a baby elephant

Flying in the 1960s was nothing like what it is today; it was a privilege enjoyed by the swish set, who were treated to on-board amenities sourced from luxury brands, and enjoyed fine dining along with the best of wines.

In 1968, keeping in mind the luxury to be afforded to flyers, Air India got Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali to design an ashtray exclusively for the airline.

The story may sound unbelievable, but it is arguably one of the best collaborations of all times when Dali accepted the proposal and created 500 limited edition ashtrays for the company's first class international flyers.

Legend has it that people from Air India ran into the famous artist in 1967 at an upscale New York City hotel and invited him over. Their talks culminated with Dali agreeing to the ashtray idea and in his signature style, created a surreal ashtray.

Made of white, unglazed porcelain, the ashtray composed of a shell-shaped centre with a serpent twined around its perimeter. It was supported by two surrealist elephant-heads and a swan. These supports were based on Dali's double-image effect.

The master explained: "The reflection of an elephant's head looks like a swan and the reflection of a swan appears to be an elephant. This is what I have done for the ashtray. The swan up-side-down becomes an elephant's head and the elephant inverted — a swan."

What was even more incredulous than the design was Dali asked for as remuneration — a baby elephant.

You read it right: a real, living, breathing elephant was the artist's payment for the ashtray designed, which needed to be delivered to the artist in Spain.

Wierdly enough, Uttara Parikh, the then Air India deputy commercial director bought one from the Bangalore zoo and then flew it to the artist.

The elephant (Big Baby) was then trucked to the small town of Cadaqués, cleared through customs. The mahout, who accompanied the elephant, then guided it to Dali’s house.

The mayor of Cadaqués declared three days of holiday to celebrate the arrival of the elephant. There was a special parade that was organised at the plaza and a special drink that was prepared with wine and Indian tea, and pink champagne (Dali’s favourite) was served. An Indian astrologer was flown from Mumbai to take part in the festivities.

Reports state that Dali had grand plans for the elephant; one of which included him riding across the Alps on its back.

According to Parsi Khabar, those plans didn't fructify and the elephant was eventually sent to live out his life in Barcelona Zoo.

And what happened to the ashtrays?

As per reports, they are scattered all over the world as they were gifted to valued patrons, including King of Spain Juan Carlos.

Some of the ashtrays are lying in private art collections. Oddly, not much is known of their presence, but a few do appear on online auction sites now and then.

If one could get their hand on it, not only would be possessing a Dali artwork, but also a souvenir of Air India's glorious history.

09/10/21 FIrst Post

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