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The great Indian art loot: Jatin Das paints a sordid tale of the missing AI painting

Author: Shashi Sunny
Publication: The Economic Times
Date: August 3, 2017
URL:   http://m.economictimes.com/magazines/panache/the-great-indian-art-loot-jatin-das-paints-a-sordid-tale-of-the-missing-ai-painting/amp_articleshow/59891925.cms

Stuffed into a carton, the ‘Flying Apsara’ artwork mysteriously reappeared at Air India. The painting’s creator, acclaimed artist Jatin Das, paints a dismal picture of the sordid episode.

 In early July, acclaimed painter Jatin Das received an email from an artist-turned-art dealer, Pooja Acharya. She was seeking to authenticate an artwork, an oil canvas dating back to 1991. Acharya informed Das that the work was bought from Dhoomi Mal gallery by a certain Sarabjit Singh. The gallery denied having sold it following which Das asked for an image of the work.

 “It was then that I realised this was a painting done for Air India (AI) to be displayed at the Delhi airport many years ago,” recollects Das.

 The artwork in question was an oil painting titled the ‘Flying Apsara’. “I recalled the painting from my 1991 catalogue,” says Das, who wrote to the airline asking for photographs and details of his paintings in the airline’s collection. “I received a reply from the chairman saying no such list existed, but they were working on it. To date, I have not received any list from them.”

Lost an d found

 With Das looking for answers, the national carrier set up an internal inquiry team. Within a week of the complaint, a mystery package landed at Air India’s head office in New Delhi. It contained the artwork that Das had painted. “I was called to the AI office. They said a painting — folded and stuffed into a carton — had been received,” says the Padma Bhushan awardee. “Nobody at the AI office even checked who or where the delivery originated from. It came from a fictitious address in Gurugram.”

 Already disappointed by the negligence shown towards his artwork, Das was further enraged by the state he found it in. “It was folded and it had cracks. The paint was flaking and bits of colour were falling from the folds and dropping on the floor. At least they could have rolled it and packed it in a tube. This is nothing but cruelty to the painting,” he says.

 As the news made headlines, Das says he received another email from Acharya. “In that she finally mentioned a name. She was a retired employee of AI, a former executive director and it seems she had the painting.”

How many more?

 According to media reports, the AI staffer “took” the painting home from her office on her retirement more than 10 years ago and “forgot” to return it. This led Das to a bigger question: how many other high-value “artworks bought with public money are missing or mutilated?”

 “AI has a large collection of art often given to senior bosses for display at their homes. And there is no record available,” says Das. “In 1986, I was commissioned to make six oil paintings by Indian Airlines and it was reproduced as a calendar and given to passengers. After a few years, I wrote to Madhavrao Scindia [the then minister for civil aviation] to ask where the paintings have gone. They were discovered lying in the store with some old furniture.”

A sorry state

 Das points out that the apathy he witnessed concerns not just his paintings, but anything of value in general. “As a nation we do not care,” he says. “Neither about the art of nature like rivers, forests, mountains, nor about man-made art.”

 His biggest grouse: “Everyone, including the media, is only asking me how much the painting was worth then and its value now. No one realises it is not the price, but the value that matters. This is very cheap.”

 “Look at what is happening to architect Raj Rewal’s work [Hall of Nations and Industry buildings] at Pragati Maidan in New Delhi. Surprisingly, even the artist community does not get together on these issues. Even after the matter of my missing ‘Flying Apsara’ appeared in the media, none of my colleagues bothered to call me. So, there is no question of everyone coming together to address this as a larger issue.”

  A disappointed Das isn’t sure whether AI will pursue the matter, but he is confident of one thing — restoring the ‘Flying Apsara’ will be a long and laborious process. “AI has so much art. What has happened with my painting could have happened with other works too….I have suggested the names of a few restorers to them and then I will look at it to see how and if I can save it, but the hurt will remain,” he says.
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