Air India's woes just don't seem to be ending. After an in-principal nod by the Union Cabinet for disinvestment due to its Rs 52,000-crore debt, the national carrier is now embroiled in a Rs 750-crore lost art scandal.
According to an India Today report, Air India has been commissioning and collecting artwork from the country's top artists since JRD Tata's time, back in 1932, when it was called Tata Airlines. The carrier's extensive collection, at one time, was 7,000 pieces strong, and boasted of renowned artists such as Jatin Das, MF Husain, Arpana Caur, Anjolie Ela Menon, VS Gaitonde and KA Ara.
Unfortunately, at present, only 3,500 of the paintings can be vouched for, between Air India's Mumbai headquarters and offices in other cities. The value of the missing paintings was initially pegged at Rs 200 crores, but in an interview with India Today, former civil aviation minister Ajit Singh claimed that their estimated value was actually Rs 300 crores. According to latest reports, the figure has now climbed to over Rs 750 crore.
The issue of the missing paintings came to light when artist Jatin Das was approached by an art curator, Pooja Acharya, on behalf of someone called Sarabjit Singh to authenticate one of his paintings, India Today reported. When Das asked to see a photo of the painting, he realised it was a piece called 'Flying Apsara' he had created for Air India in 1991. Das was told that the painting had been acquired by the current owner from a Delhi art gallery about 20 years ago.
Das has now written to Air India CMD Ashwani Lohani asking for an inventory of all his works with the airline, along with photographs, for his personal archives, reported Times of India.
A PTI report quoted Das as saying, "indifference, negligence and theft" were responsible for his paintings reaching the open market. While Das does not know the exact number of the pieces he created for Air India and the erstwhile Indian Airlines that later merged with Air India between 2007 and 2011, he confirmed that he was commissioned six pieces by Indian Airlines, which were later reproduced in a calendar.
Responding to Jatin Das's concerns about his missing paintings, Lohani told Times Now, "The allegations made by Jatin Das are serious in nature. We will be investigating the matter internally and in the next few days will come out with a report." India Today also quoted Lohani as saying, "The matter was being looked into and the entire inventory of the artist's works would be made available to him."
Air India has also issued a press release saying that the company has been engaged in an audit of its artwork since March 2016, expected to be over by September 2017, after which the entire collection will be available for public viewing.
While Das has refused to put a monetary value on the missing paintings, claiming that the issue was about apathy towards art not money, TOI reported that his cheapest works are pegged between Rs 1.2 to Rs 1.5 crores.
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