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Airport Art

By bringing art to Mumbai airport—and no ordinary art at that—GVK has made it inclusive and less intimidating, says the curator Rajeev Sethi

Published: Apr 1, 2014 11:45:37 AM IST
Updated: Apr 17, 2014 01:51:29 PM IST
Airport Art
Image: Prasad Gori for Forbes India
Mumbai airport Terminal-2 curator Rajeev Sethi stands in front of Sharmila Samant’s ‘Heptad the 7th’, which uses 500 kg of bottle caps to portray seven vahanas of female deities

Over time, the new airport terminal in Mumbai will witness millions of journeys. But there will always be one that precedes them all—through a canvas that captures the creative output of a hundred artists and artisans. Disparate murals, paintings, pottery and sculptures are unleashed without the restraint of frames and the divisive hierarchy of high art and low art, but united by an aesthetic that is unabashedly India. Within the confines of Terminal-2, dung art meets digital art and GR Iranna crosses path with Gulammohammed Sheikh.

Two thousand objects of art are on display at the Rs 5,500 crore terminal, which began international operations in February this year. By 2015, when the domestic sector is estimated to become operational, the collection—christened ‘Jaya He’, meaning Glory to Thee—will have more than 5,000 pieces on display. “It is not a museum, it is a programme. One that will not remain static, but constantly evolve,” curator Rajeev Sethi tells ForbesLife India.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and the near-silent terminal prepares itself for the rush of passengers during peak traffic hours. For now, the 64-year-old curator is the most active person on the floor.

Sethi was commissioned by GVK Power & Infrastructure, which has a 50.5 percent stake in Mumbai International Private Airport Limited, a consortium responsible for the development and upkeep of the terminal.

The inception of ‘Jaya He’ began four-and-a-half years ago, when vice-chairman of GVK Sanjay Reddy visited Sethi at his studio in Delhi and proposed a deceptively simple idea: Art in the airport. A collection that was not an indifferent afterthought, but supported by the architectural framework of the terminal. Reddy wanted Sethi to create and curate a museum for a terminal that had yet to be constructed. “He came to me and said, ‘Let’s do something with the airport. Let’s make people feel that it is not Shanghai. That it’s not Dubai. That it is entirely India’,” says Sethi, who sees the collection as a cohesive installation.

Sethi’s own journey with art, architecture and performances spans nearly four decades, his aesthetics shaped in the early years when he worked with Pierre Cardin, and was mentored by designers Ray and Charles Eames. He was the scenographer for the 2002 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, ‘The Silk Road’, that brought together artists from 22 countries.

For ‘Jaya He’, Sethi wanted a wall. And he got 3.2 kilometres of wall space spanning the terminal’s four levels at a height of 60 ft, from the skylight to the floor. “It was initially a wall with a few niches designed by architects who said that we could fill it in with art and objects. I said, ‘Why don’t you just give me the whole wall so that I can do whatever I want?’ So rather than buy objects and display it like a museum would, I turned it into a sculpture. I wanted to create a seamless experience,” he says.

With the wall as a bulwark, ‘Jaya He’ is a voyage from the arrival corridors titled, ‘Layered Narratives’, and the departure area, ‘Thresholds of India’. The third section, which has yet to be unveiled, is ‘Baggage Acclaimed’. According to the website, there will be 10 installations for 10 carousels with a focus on textiles and costume. There will also be bags.
‘Layered Narratives’ is an honest representation and celebration of Mumbai interpreted by 24 artists, some of the more prominent exponents of contemporary Indian art such as Vivan Sundaram, Riyas Komu, Manu Parekh and Gigi Scaria.

Vivan Sundaram creates a city out of garbage in ‘Trash, Fash, Bash’. Baiju Parthan’s ‘Hope’ is a journey through Mumbai’s roads. Padmashri awardee Gulammohammed Sheikh’s ‘Journey Across Time’ uses maps in a mobile mural to evoke a sense of time elapsed and distance covered. ‘City Outgrows its Gates’ by Gigi Scaria is a multimedia installation, a wall with six gates made from aluminium fabricated sheets.

Airport Art
Image: Prasad Gori for Forbes India
Kerala artist Suresh Muthukulam’s mural draws on traditional Indian themes

The very construct of an airport makes it easily susceptible to becoming a wasteland, a no-man’s land that engenders no feeling of ownership or belonging, where people are reduced to zombie cattle-like movement. Where time elapsed is measured in steps taken from entry to exit. Art in the arrivals corridors destroys this apathy through movement. The section, says Sethi, is determined by the morphology of the building itself where travellators get very close to the wall. In a documentary on the making of ‘Jaya He’, he says: “I was attracted by the kinetics of people moving so close to the wall, and wondering if the wall could move, adding a layer to the narrative.” Screens that look like aircraft windows allow viewers to see themselves, and kinetic elements serve to amplify the sense of movement. Panels use illusions so that images appear and disappear as you move past them.

The bulk of the art work is in the departure zone, ‘Thresholds of India’, with 70 installations and approximately 2,000 antiques, divided into six themes: India Elemental, India Seamless, India Greets, India’s Silent Sentinels, India Moves and India Global. Like a kaleidoscope, a passenger gets a different view at each boarding gate.

If ‘Jaya He’ is a passage through India, it is also a depiction of Sethi’s journey from inception to creation. “The credit belongs to Sanjay and the commitment of the GVK team,” he says. In the first year, Sethi and a team from GVK, sometimes accompanied by Reddy, went around the country meeting artists and unearthing antiques. “At the back of my mind I knew what I was going to do, but at the time it was alphabets. We coined the words later.” Letters of the alphabet became words, and words coalesced into coherent sentences that often highlight the discordant heritage of India and Mumbai. A social commentary that does not hesitate to expose the underbelly of the city.

A section of ‘Thresholds of India’ is a huge quilt woven by women who live in slums around the airport precinct. Sethi says that whenever he passed the area, he’d see mounds of patchwork cloth drying on the barbed wire fence that demarcates the airport from the slum. “It would be a kasuti from Karanataka, or a great kantha from Bengal or a gudri from Rajasthan. These women had the skill to very ingeniously take their old saris and rags, and weave it together in indigenous styles. But we can’t just put a gudri (quilt) as an exhibit. It had to have an architectural dimension, so we made the biggest ever,”
says Sethi. A part of the quilt is crafted with patches of blue cloth, much like a swathe of blue tarpaulin slums.

In hollows along the gudri, Chandigarth artist Nek Chand Saini’s sculptures represent three gunas or universal qualities of nature: Sattva (purity), rajas (passion and energy) and tamas (inertia). Saini, who is India’s most famous waste artist, uses pebbles, stones, glass fragments and other discarded items to make art out of nothing.

Sheila Gattani layers light in ‘Sleepless Sentinels’ to convey multiple metaphors for a city that never stops. Parvathi Nayar uses the pointillist technique in ‘Mumbaikar’s Spirit: A Story of Flight’.  It flows into Akshay Kishore Rajpurkar’s patina of Mumbai created from computer chips, green interspersed with patches of brown that mourn the loss of mangroves.

Airport Art
Image: Prasad Gori for Forbes India
The curator standing in front of artwork created by Gond artist of Madhya Pradesh

This is not ornamental art. “There is a deep commitment to a narrative, a concept that goes beyond being just beautiful. Art has to jostle the viewer’s sensibilities,” says Sethi.

 ‘India Elemental’ links the panch mahabhutas—the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and space to the five senses of sound, touch, sight, taste and smell. “In the act of doing the namaskaram, we connect the elements to welcome you in a wholesome way. All of us, and whole of us, welcomes you,” says Sethi.  

There are giant wind chimes that break into harmony every 20 minutes, angels with musical instruments, traditional temple lamps rescued from a defunct private museum in Kerala encased in glass that look like giant blocks of ice.

The wind chime installation was serendipity, says Sethi. Years ago, when he was in Puducherry hunting for a doorbell for his house, he met a Swiss artist who worked with local craftsmen to make wind chimes. “I met him before ‘Jaya He’, but I knew I wanted the wind chimes to look like wings of an angel. We changed the scale.”

A musical waterfall with a glass floor and aqua blue tiles created by ceramic artist BR Pandit is an ode to the power of water. The installation was conceived by Sethi and director Shekhar Kapur in a nod to his film Paani. Architects worked with ceramic artists, sound engineers and hydraulic engineers “to make the water sing”. (At the time of writing this piece, the section was closed to the public, and will be functional in three months.)

Auspicious motifs such as dwarpalas (pairs of male guardian figures that flank a Hindu shrine), Kerala kodis (gables with sloping roofs), and totems from Nagaland mark points of entry and departure.

‘Jaya He’, however, is silent on India’s modern masters. Amrita Sher-Gil, MF Husain, Francis Newton Souza do not get a wall. “Budget,” says Sethi. Money. In India, the bond between creativity and public space is fragile and tenuous, and is threatened by the high cost of art.

“When Sanjay first discussed the idea with me, he said, ‘Rajeev, I don’t really care if people miss their flights as long as they are enjoying themselves’. I said this man is utterly crazy, and the kind of man I’d really like to work with. I told him, ‘I’m on.’”

GVK hopes to strengthen the connection between viewers and artists through guided tours, mobile apps, and touchscreen information kiosks that have already been installed. The GVK team is also working to transform the ‘Jaya He’ website into a portal where viewers can contact artists and artisans. “This is just the initial phase of the art programme.  We have 40 million people going through our terminal,” says Karthi Gajendran, president-project development, GVK. “It’s a phenomenal number of people, more than any museum anywhere in the world. We want to invoke in them a sense of pride when they see India through this lens. By doing that we want to raise awareness and promote artists and craftsman. The west side [international wing] of the terminal is fantastic. The east [domestic] is magic.”

This is not art that wants to intimidate, overwhelm or bore viewers, but seeks recognition in motifs that Indians will identify with. Art deco columns, Bollywood and Amitabh Bachchan, Marathi theatre, a party in the clouds and even kushti (traditional Indian wrestling). It’s a pastiche of living heritage.

(This story appears in the March-April 2014 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Venkat

    Interesting PR but what is unabashedly India when all this is enacted in the urbs prima of Indis ! Brick walls do not a prison make nor do frames confine a picture as long as aesthetics is married well with ambience and context. Fabulous airport but the Art does not redound well with such agoraphobic ally empty spaces ! Gluck, Anjali Thomas, you have a Pyrrhic victory on hand....

    on Apr 7, 2014