The career of Abdul Aziz Raiba is one of those ironical asides that add spice to the story of Indian modern art. Born in 1922, he was a contemporary of the Progressive Artists Group and as acclaimed in the 1950s and 1960s, having won medals of the Bombay Art Society. However, as the reputation and prices of MF Husain, FN Souza and SH Raza started to rise, that of the 91-year-old artist who lives eve today in a one-room tenement in Nalasopara fell by the wayside. Until last year, when the contemporary art market 'rediscovered' Raiba through a large exhibition organised in Mumbai. Raiba, however, remains a little known, little seen artist. 'Air India Salutes Indian Masters', the exhibition inaugurated yesterday at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi has three paintings by Raiba, works from the 1950s and 1960s when he was at the height of his powers.
The show, which is the first exposition of the national carrier's vast collection of art collected over six decades from the 1950s onward, has many such gems waiting to be discovered by those interested in modern Indian art. There are all the familiar greats — Husain, Raza, KH Ara, VS Gaitonde, Anjolie Ela Menon, etc — but there are also many now obscure artists such as Raghav Kaneria, now only known in art-history departments but highly thought of in their time. There are also others such as obscure Piraji Sagara whose paintings are powerful enough to evoke curiosity besides a host of other now-famous names like NS Bendre, KK Hebbar, Badri Narayan, Laxman Pai, Shanti Dave, SG Vasudev, GR Santosh, Manu Parekh, Ghulam Mohammed Sheikh and Arpana Caur.
The Air India collection is one of the most important collections of modern Indian art because in the early decades after independence, when it was being put together, Air India was the only source of patronage for impoverished artists. The rajahs had ceased to have the means to fund artists and the art 'market' had not yet take off. At this time, the national carrier not only bought paintings but also commissioned works to adorn its offices in India and abroad, to print on its calendars, posters, covers of in-flight menu cards, timetables, exclusive giveaways and other publicity material. "It was meant to be a support for Indian artists and never intended as a form of investment," says Uttara Parikh, who was part of the commissioning team at Air India in the 1990s.
Rajeev Lochan, NGMA's director and an artist himself, remembers that it used to be a matter of pride to be in the Air India collection. "I am proud to say that my first painting, when I had just graduated, was sold to Air India," informs Lochan. Senior artist Paramjeet Singh remembers that Air India had picked up one of his paintings from his first group exhibition at the Jehangir Art Gallery. "But they say they can't find it," says Singh. His wife, Arpita Singh's large canvas called 'Flight', however finds pride of place among the 66 paintings and five sculptures chosen to be exhibited at the NGMA.
Many a times, Air India did not even have to pay for the paintings. As V Thulasidas, former chairman and managing director of Air India, wrote in his preface to a book published in 2008 on the collection: “Often, a work of art was added to the collection in lieu of an air ticket to the artists because, during this period, art did not really have any commercial value." Husain too has spoken about this to art-historian Yashodhara Dalmia: “They would take the paintings and give free air tickets in return. As a result, the artists could travel to Czechoslovakia, Hong Kong, Paris. I did about four or five trips.”
Since last year, when the fear of Air India going bankrupt brought the art collection valued at hundreds of crores into the limelight, the national carrier has begun to give thought to what to do with it. In March this year, around 15 paintings of B Prabha, the leading woman artist of the 50s and 60s, travelled to Paris as part of an exhibition to commemorate International Women's Day. Incidentally, Prabha was the first artist Air India bought and three of the six paintings from that first purchase are included in this exhibition.
Speaking at the inauguration of the show, Air India's chairman Rohit Nandan revealed that the works had not been evaluated yet, but there's a proposal to house them permanently at the NGMA. But for now show is likely to travel to the NGMA's centres in Mumbai and Bangalore and also to other cities, in alliance with the Indian Council for Cultural Research.