Of Salvador Dali, Air India and Ashtrays

`In return, Señor Dali would like a baby elephant’

 Air India might be struggling to stay afloat at this moment and piece its art collection together, but once upon a time it had legends such as Salvador Dali on its roster

Article by Reema Gehi | Times of India

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A few weeks ago, shortly after an article tracing the vast Air India art collection appeared in Mumbai Mirror, a former chief commission er 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.“

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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 mak ing this happen,“ says Chudasama, looking at the unglazed porcelain ash tray. “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 (TunisMorocco-Algiers), Dial V Gidwani, is currently based in Chicago. Over a phone call, the nonagenarian shares, “In Spain, Air India reached out and connected with the upper echelons of Spanish society.One of these connections was Salvador Dali. It was the first time that an artist of Dali’s stature had designed an object d’art for an airline.“

Dali, explains Gidwani, presented Air India with a unique design, which he called `Double Image’. 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. One such piece was also presented to Prince Juan Carlos of Spain (now King of Spain) in 1967.

Incidentally, the design of the ashtray was based on a work Dali had produced in 1937, called Swans Reflecting Elephants. In his own words: “The reflection of the elephant appears to be a swan and the reflection of the swan appears to be an elephant. That is what I have done for the ashtray. 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 Cadaqués, where it was personally received by me and cleared through customs at 3 am. The mahout then guided the elephant to Dali’s house.“

Dastur learnt from her mother, “Originally, Dali had a project to cross the Alps on his back, but the more practical Gala put a stop to that idea, and Surus (named after Hannibal’s war elephant) was brought to Cadaqués by truck, and walked up to a glass stage, where the bewildered villagers danced around him in celebration.“

Gidwani adds, “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 Bombay to take part in the festivities.“

Eventually, Surus grew too large and cantankerous to be kept on the grounds, and Dali, it is said, lost interest. Surus was sent to Barcelona Zoo in 1971. “I was away at boarding school during that time, but I still remember mum’s glow of happiness and joy when she told me about it,“ says Dastur with a smile.

The ashtray pieces, meanwhile, are scattered around the world.Gidwani’s nephew, theatre producer Ashvin Gidwani, has one in his possession. “This ashtray is a slice of life dwelling in the beauty of creative genius. It tells a story of love, culture and heritage,“ he remarks.“And it is kept safely in our locker, as all priceless items should be.“