The artist at work in her studio
A set of water colours by artist B. Prabha marked the start of the Air-India
art collection in the early 1950s.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Thus started Air-India's art collection, now the nations greatest collection of art, artefacts and other historical objects outside a museum. it was in the early 1950s that B. Prabha had come to Bombay having studied at the Nagur School of Art, and enrolled here at the Sir J. J School of Art. She had produced a series of 6-8 water colours, quite small in size, and themed on Indian Women. These were the first paintings purchased by Air-India and for a mere eighty-seven rupees and eight annas each.
The paintings were used to adorn the covers of in-flight menu cards, and then displayed at the airlines London booking office. Even as recently as 1995, when the London office was refurbished, these paintings were carefully re-framed and prominently displayed there.
B. Prabha (1933–2001) was a major Indian artist who worked mainly in oil, in an instantly recognizable style. She is best known for graceful elongated figures of pensive rural women, with each canvas in a single dominant color. By the time of her death, her work had been shown in over 50 exhibitions, and is in some important collections, including India's National Gallery of Modern Art. Prabha started working at a time when India had few women artists; her inspiration was Amrita Shergil. She was moved by the lives of rural women, and over time, they became the main theme of her work. In an interview with "Youngbuzz India," she said:“I have yet to see one happy woman.”
Before moving to Bombay she studied at the Nagpur School of Art. She was a graduate of the Sir J. J. School of Art, alma mater to many of India's great contemporary artists. In 1956 she married artist and sculptor B. Vithal, who died in 1992. Prabha came to Bombay as a struggling artist, with little money "Rs2 and 11 paise. She sold some pieces of jewellery to raise funds. She and her artist husband were aided by friends who gave them a place to stay and by others who stored their art-work. Her first exhibition, while she was still a student, set her on the path to success when three of her paintings were acquired by eminent Indian scientist Homi J. Bhabha. (biographical information source: Wikipedia)
Undoubtedly, one of India's, and perhaps the world's leading contemporary artists, Hussain's work for Air-India must have been treasured by the airline. Very similar objects as in the poster were used to design the Air-India timetable of April 1963. This was almost 7-8 years after the poster was printed. So, it would be an understatement to say that I was bemused when I saw what they did to the artist's work in the timetable. One of the characters the artist painted, the drummer, has had his head replaced with that of the Maharajah!
I am still in shock, and all I can say is that no one but the Maharajah would have the courage to do something like this. There is one part in me that wants to smile broadly at his gall in pulling this perhaps innocent prank; and another part that is absolutely horrified at how such a liberty could be taken with the master's work.
Judge for yourself, but do remember: he is our Maharajah and all his indiscretions are forgiven.
Top left: The mid-1950s Air-India International travel poster with puppet like cut-outs by M. F. Hussain. Catalogue # 28, size 72 x 101 cms.
Top right: The April 1963 airline timetable with similar characters, but the drummer's head has been replaced with that of our Maharajah.
She has also carefully preserved some examples of her work and has kindly permitted me to post images of these. These include hand painted work-in-progress examples, Printers Proofs etc. of scarves that were gifted as promotion items, menu cards, wine lists etc. Nargis spent 3-4 years at Air-India International before relocating to London to build her career in Advertising.
Here are some examples of her work. On the top left, we have a hand painted design for a scarf. On the top center we have a printers proof of the menu card design which has the artists name signed just below the right hand of the woman. On the top right is another hand painted design of a Poster design. This poster was used to promote the new Slumberettes introduced in the Lockheed Super Constellations acquired by the airline in 1954.
I have added here a link to my Dropbox account for you to enjoy all the lovely items she has preserved.
Post Script: Very nice article appear in Conde Nast Traveler Magazine on May 11, 2018 about Nargis Wadia and her stint in Air-India. Click here to know more.
I recently acquired a travel poster produced by Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) promoting services to India which was part of a larger series of similarly themed posters they issued around the same time. These posters are not dated, and the image on the lower right is of the only information printed on the poster.
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