When Terminal 2 of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, operated by GVK, was opened in early 2014, the art collection was presented as one of its most compelling features. Now more than a year later, it is interesting to revisit the terminal to assess the success of the ambitious art programme.
The initial impetus to acquire art came from Sanjay Reddy, Managing Director of Mumbai International Airport Pvt. Ltd. and his wife, Aparna (Pinky), who understood that art could be a powerful way of introducing aspects of a complex culture such as India’s. They were also aware of the fragile state of many of the traditional crafts in the country. Committed collectors themselves, the Reddys reached out to one of India’s greatest art personalities of the last half century, Rajeev Sethi.
“We met Rajeev at a time when the new terminal was yet to be constructed,” recalls Sanjay Reddy. “Art displays are a common feature at many airports around the world. We aimed for more. Our objective was to create something that would be steeped in India’s culture and stand apart from all other airports. We wanted Rajeev to conceptualise and curate an entire museum within the airport that would reflect the depth and range of Indian art, a museum so captivating that people wouldn’t mind giving their flight a miss.
Moreover the collection would need to be supported by the architectural framework of the terminal. It was a colossal task that called for crystalclear vision and creative genius and Rajeev delivered, like only he can, surpassing our expectations and possibly his own. We, and Indian art, have a lot to thank him for.”
It is difficult to overstate the impact that Sethi has had both nationally and internationally in promoting the arts of South Asia and, in particular, the dying traditions of India’s master craftsmen. His eye for quality is unparalleled and with the kind of spaces available at Terminal 2, coupled with enviable resources, the result was always going to be a significant statement as to the state of the arts in India in the first quarter of the 21st Century.
An acquisitions spree began around 2011 and would, ultimately, result in a collection numbering over 5000. These works were gradually collected together in Mumbai where art conservation consultant Anupam Sah and team were in charge of assessing items for necessary conservation work. The collection is primarily object-based and spans a vast spread of the subcontinent’s art history. The organising principle that Sethi employed was the idea of Thresholds, a potent symbol for an airport situated, as it is, at a threshold between India and the rest of the world.
In the four years that it took the terminal to be fully realised, the art team worked closely with artists and craftsmen to complete artworks that were, in many cases, very complex to produce. Full mock-ups were produced in order to assess the viability of individual pieces. Now that some time has passed since the opening of the terminal, it is heartening to note that the vast bulk of the artworks remain in perfect working order.
The first area to be completed was in the arrivals section of the Terminal and consisted of a number of large format works that run alongside the many travelators. Here contemporary artists such as Vivan Sundaram, Samit Das and Meera Devidayal have conceived of works that talk in general to the idea of India in all its heterogeneity.
In the terminal, Sethi, in the guise of a scenographer, has designed the layout of the art collection in the manner that sets are designed for the theatre. The challenge here is that vast walls, in height and width, are encountered over multiple levels. Accordingly, each of Sethi’s scenes are densely installed with works, at least some of which can be enjoyed from whatever the vantage point of the viewer. The artwork is now all but installed and a new, exciting, phase is about to begin under the stewardship of Yamini Telkar, who has recently been brought on as head of the Jaya He GVK New Museum.
This is a space inside the terminal that has already seen three exhibitions, including ones focusing on the traditional arts of Bengal and one on Gond painting from Madhya Pradesh. Telkar also oversees the art shop that sells a multitude of specially commissioned works by the craftsmen involved in the initial acquisitions period. This ongoing involvement is in the aim of providing sustainable employment for these communities.
“India is home to several old art forms, many of which have been confined to the specific communities or regions of their origin for decades,” Telkar observes. “However the country itself is opening up to international audiences on several fronts, art included, and there is a wonderful opportunity to bring talented artists into global limelight by giving contemporary expression to traditional art forms. It’s a large part of the work we do here. The underlying objective is to share this magnificent collection of art with the people of India and the world beyond this airport.”
Telkar hopes to increase awareness of the airport’s art collection and activities through bringing groups — in particular school children— to see the works. In terms of outreach, she has already organised several talks in south Mumbai around topics, and with speakers, specific to the ongoing exhibitions at the airport gallery. There are also plans afoot to present aspects of the collection in spaces connected with more local forms of transport, perhaps at bus terminals or train stations.
Underpinning all of the art related activity at Terminal 2 over the last four years is the idea of ‘reconnecting’. The team at the airport rightly believes that art has the ability to reconnect audiences with the best of a culture. They hope that this idea will appeal to Indian nationals and non-Indians alike. It is undoubtedly the case that they have been successful in the first phase of the life of the art collection. The key now is for the Jaya He GVK airport collection to reconnect with the audience that resides in the city it calls home.