Cover Story

Art in transit

What differentiates an Airport? Good design? Modernist interiors? Minimal human interaction? Or could there be a more soulful reason? Nishka Rathi explores how Mumbai’s Chattrapati Shivaji Airport’s Jaya He GVK New Museum creatively expresses its difference



Airports are bustling places, filled with commuters, zipping through corridors, hastily filling forms, impatiently waiting in queues, rushing through travelators for family holidays or for work or to rest at home or to meet old friends or make new ones.
In Mumbai, most international flights leave in the wee hours of the night. That’s the time you usually curl up in bed or think about your 2am friend. It’s never the most invigorating of times and many times after check in, I question my desire to travel. But my recent visit to Mumbai’s Chattrapati Shivaji International airport left me bright eyed with an urgent hope that my flight gets delayed. Why?
Because here I found beauty. There was art in every corner. Naga totems, filigreed wooden facades an ornamental chariot from the 19th century, a vivid rich painting of an akhara, musical water spouts, a wall covered with images of Marathi drama, masks of various hues, shapes and emotions and so much more…I didn’t want to leave so soon without seeing all of it.

This CSIA, Mumbai, gave me a glimpse into my breathtaking heritage and showed me that an airport could be much more than just an efficient pause in my life. It could be my most memorable walk into Indian art.

The vision
In 2009, Sanjay Reddy, Vice – Chairman of GVK, articulated his vision for Terminal 2: an airport that can compete with any global equivalent but retain a sense of place and identity; an airport that celebrates India.
Sanjay Reddy’s grand dream was simple: the airport shouldn’t be a typical steel and glass building. It should resonate with the aesthetics of the region.
Rekha Nair, Head, Jaya He GVK New Museum elaborated: “Jaya He New Museum was perceived out of a belief that an airport as transit point needs to have a cultural awareness.
While many airports across the world stand as impressive structures,

they are guilty of being disjointed with the state’s culture. They give little flavour of the land on which they stand. This perspective led to T2 Mumbai being planned as a very different airport – one known as a place of cultural significance and not just an architectural marvel – to make it a landmark which represents the ‘Soul of a Timeless Nation – which is India’.”
A museum in an airport. Sounds interesting and daunting at the same time because airports unlike museums remain open 365 days a year. There are no national holidays, no breaks for renovation or upkeep and they cater to a huge number of commuters.

The creation
Finding the person who would carve out this audacious and awe-inspiring dream for him was the easy part. Reddy turned to noted scenographer Rajeev Sethi, one of Asia’s leading design gurus.


To get an idea of the number of people visiting an airport visa-vis those visiting amuseum lets look at the Louvre attracts around 7-8 million visitors a year. In contrast around 42 million passengers travel through the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport every year.

He was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1986 for his outstanding contribution to art. Sethi is especially noted internationally for his innovative contribution to preserving and celebrating the subcontinent’s rich cultural heritage.

Keeping Reddy’s vision, he conceptualised the art museum. He said: “The art programme seeks to convert the airport into a spectacular doorway into India. Integrated into the fabric of the city it is located in and initiating the visitor into the experiences that lie beyond its doors. It is also a distinctive narrative of a country of incredible complexity and diversity, living in multiple centuries simultaneously.”

In his curatorial note, Sethi further articulated: “In India, we mark and celebrate every rite of passage, particularly in travel – each threshold and doorway is enriched by ritual, consecrating the journey through it. Our challenge then is to bring this sensibility to the airport, enlivening the kilometres of walls and huge spatial volumes of the Mumbai International Airport with meaning.”
As expected, this concept idea was breathtakingly magnificent in its scope but

painstakingly difficult in its realisation because it included not only commissioned art, but also included acquired artefacts of different sizes and shapes to adorn the walls and passages.

There are totems from Nagaland, doors with tiger motifs sourced from Sikkim, traditional Kerala lamps, stone pillars and huge chariots. There are pieces rescued from defunct private museums, found at scrapyards, treated for termite infestation and rust and all of them conserved to ornament and adorn the T2.

The challenges
Selecting, conserving, restoring and curating this immense collection of 6,000 artefacts was a multi-disciplinary challenge and it brought together a vast team of designers, artists, artisans, architects, art historians, anthropologists, conservators and the best technicians.
They all worked together to interpret India, culturally, aesthetically, historically and socially so that the passengers take away a vivid idea of a nation every time they pass through T2.


Clockwise from top:
From the Layered Narrative section:
Celebrations by Manu Parekh, Warli art aptly titled Spider Web by Rajesh Vangad, Buddhist Pitch by Riyas Komu and Ghulam Muhammad Sheikh’s dreamlike Journey across Time

But that was not all; getting all these artefacts together under one roof was another feat.
Nair describes that as one of the biggest challenges this ambitious project faced. “The big task was to transport these ready artefacts to the site.
The slot wall is 3 km long and about 54,000 sq m. It was to hold 700 tonnes of artwork.
The installation of the same was the most challenging; as it needed to be done simultaneously when the main airport building was also getting ready for operations.”
The curator had a unique approach for the artwork and the artefacts installation as it was just not supposed to hang but had different variations of displaying the artworks and artefacts. The structure was first built as per the specifications given by the curator in sync with the architects and the project engineers.
Installation with the required specifications and dimensions was also a big task.


Blessings and auspicious symbols abound in this space with blooming flowers, lush vines, pairs of birds and animals, cornucopias and sacred geometries.

The major problem was that the work had to be carried out in a limited space. The terminal work was also going on and all the heavy machinery, scaffoldings etc. also had to be taken into account, she adds.
No wonder then that the whole process from conceptualisation to realisation took four years from 2008.

The artists and the art
At Jaya He New Museum you see a mix of artefacts and commissioned art. Here too the art was curated for its beauty and authenticity, not just the popularity of the artist. So, if there are works by famous painters like Manu Parekh, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, Nilima Sheikh, Vivan Sundaram, B.M. Kamath, and textile installations by designers Ritu Kumar, Manish Arora and Sethi himself, in collaboration with other artists, there are also hundreds by unknown or lesser-known artists, both urban and rural.
There are Gond art works of elephants with wings, fish-like helicopters, fire-breathing mythical creatures carrying passengers in their belly; Kantha quilts made by the residents of Mumbai slums, who live just beyond the airport’s borders, and huge idols of Goddess Durga made by artists for puja pandals.
Even these traditional idols were made with modernistic views which depict the goddess’ head and her multiple

arms are in tableau form, while the rest has been interpreted through a painting.
At Jaya He New Museum you will find most of the installations and artwork inhabit various mediums. And that gives the art a whole new dimension.
So, alongside the Durga idols you find patachitra done by the street artists of West Bengal, LED light installations, fibreglass, wood and acrylic paint. Indeed, a true melange of art. This interesting installation also depicts a hydra-headed snake rising above a chaotic city. And this is just one of the many exciting exhibits your eyes will pause at while walking around Jaya He.

The themes
According to Sethi’s design, Jaya He is basically divided into two areas. The first one is called Thresholds of India and it contains six major themes. The other part is viewed by arriving passengers and is called Layered Narratives
Thresholds of India is curated on a central spine-like wall that went from being 10 feet high to 60 feet. The 6 major themes are:

- India Greets uses a wide array of traditional symbolism associated with welcoming and protecting travellers.

Here we have relief carvings on stone tablets, wooden lintels of doorways, as well as intricately painted Orissa patachitra and pichhwais; a red wall with miniature wooden saints standing in a line to bless passengers.
Blessings and auspicious symbols abound in this space with blooming flowers, lush vines, pairs of birds and animals, cornucopias and sacred geometries. Lintels bear images of Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, and Ganesha, the Lord of Beginnings, texts from the Quran and Bible.
The dramatically mesmerising, massive theatrical screenings by Anil Naik and Moreshwar Patil’s can be viewed from all four levels of T2. It recreates backdrops and props popular in Marathi theatre. The renowned Parsi proscenium theatre curtains of Mumbai also add a layer of whimsy with three dimensional sections of stone facades and jharokhas.

- India Seamless is a set of installations from collaborations between contemporary artists and craftspeople from Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Bengal.
There is Desmond Lazaro’s ‘Gopuram – Gods and Goddesses of South India’ a multi-coloured and vivid imagining of a world where the exuberantly vivid images of god’s literally flying off the Gopuram captures your eyes as you go up the escalator.


Enormous three-dimensional aeroplanes flying over a black and white backdrop of an older India is another story in India seamless. Then there is a tribute to Kashmir and its art in Nilima Sheikh and BV Suresh’s panorama ‘Conjoining Lands’. Different mediums like papier-mâché, khatumbund and pinjrakari wood carving and work on glass, ceramic and canvases adorn this mesmerising panorama in soft shades.

India Moves utilises elements of Indian art that represent modes of travel both physical and symbolic. It is replete with painted or carved panels, antique boat heads and boats serenely floating overs schools of scrap-metal fish. There are fantastical flying locomotives and mythical creatures suspended in mid-flight hanging over walls.
N Ramachandran and V Anamika’s ‘Moving Constant’ mixed-media collages was a visual treat in itself. Its exquisitely nuanced sense of chaos and beauty conveyed with the juxtaposition of artistically chosen contemporary and traditional Indian images is a treat for any weary traveller and a wonderful selfie point.

India Elemental has installations of the panch mahabhuta which represent Water, Fire, Space, Earth and Air, the elements of creation. Rajeev Sethi conceptualised it keeping in mind the quintessential Indian tradition of welcome which evokes all of these five senses in honour of the visitor. Bells are rung, lamps are lit, water is offered, incense is burned and the bounty of the earth is shared.

Keeping this in mind, in India Elemental there are stone niches, like the ones we see embedded into the walls of old mansions for housing oil lamps. The element Fire is represented by a collaborative mixed media work by Yogesh Rawal and Kayur Patel. A wall of fire bends and turns along with the wall, which in turn evokes the colours of a raging fire in a rich spectrum of reds, oranges and

yellows with intense blues at its hottest inner centre. In the midst of the fire vintage brass lamps from Kerala and Tamil Nadu are encased in glass installations. That’s ‘Frozen Fire’ a glory of flame tinged art glowing with warmth and heat.

India Global features installations depicting a constantly changing Mumbai and India. A place where old and new coexist, spar and create hybrids. Chandigarh-based artist Nekchand’s world famous figurines built in cement and sand, embellished with mosaics in discarded and found

objects stands as a ready reminder of the Indian idea of jugaad or of making do with less. Charmi Shah’s installation ‘Resilient-Resonances’ speaks of the changing fabric of the city and the loss of old structures.

India’s Silent Sentinels contains architectural symbols of protection in traditional Indian buildings. These and many more are talismans that ward off the evil eye, suggest a sense of security, and greet visitors with generosity and hospitality.


They are the markers that define the boundaries of a village, the gateways of sacred buildings, or the doorways of a home.
This theme consists of large totems sourced from the tribal regions of Indo-Burmese border representing animals and birds revered by the tribes as ancestral guardian spirits, installation of kodis or gables that once fronted the entrances of mansions in Kerala, votive terracotta horses.
Artist Suresh Muthukulam has created a series of triangular planes in the style of the Kerala murals traditionally seen on temple and palace walls.

Layered narratives: Rajeev Sethi designed this keeping in mind the arrivals including those visiting India, transiting passengers or returning home. Intended as an introduction to Mumbai this segment has artwork that reveals a constantly changing and transforming India.
Layered narratives incorporating kinetic elements and interactive technologies are placed alongside moving walkways for the long arrival corridors leading the disembarking passengers to the baggage claim area. These engaging kinetic installations of Bollywood, add multiple dimensions to the passenger’s experience.

My obvious favourite was a painting of young men on a packed train travelling into “Bombay” to become Amitabh Bachchan. The man changed into Amitabh Bachchan in his retro ‘Coolie’ look as I moved on the travellator. But there was so much more too…
The baggage claim area was filled with vibrant art work each one more striking than the other. There are creations by well-known names like Manish Arora, Ritu Kumar, Zhandra Rhodes and Rajeev Sethi.
We asked Nair on the pieces that garner the most attention. “Each art work has its own speciality,” she said. “As they are sourced from various part of the country, each has a storyline of its own. It offers such a broad spectrum of art, history and heritage of a single nation in a public a space. To name a few, whether we speak about “Hawa Mahal” of Rajasthan which is represented in a folded turban or the Tanjore art from Tamil Nadu…Water Installation.”
How could I forget the water installation? When you run your hands through the water gushing from the fountains you can hear music. I stayed glued to this installation for a long time, trying out different tunes and sounds. Just loved this highly interactive and calming space.

Layered narratives incorporating kinetic elements and interactive technologies are placed alongside moving walkways for the long arrival corridors leading the disembarking passengers to the baggage claim area.


Looking AHEAD
The airport now is fully functional and filled with amazing, interactive artwork. That must pose a big challenge for its maintenance and upkeep because unlike other museus, this one is open all the time. There is no chance of ever closing down one section for repair, conservation or maintenance.

How do they manage this?
Explains Nair. “The terminal handles a traffic of 45 million passengers every year. The maintenance work has to go

on in a way that does not disturb any functions of the airport operations. The most challenging bit is to maintain the artefacts. The conservation process is carried out without any hindrance to the passenger flow. The maintenance team is on duty at the site 24/7, 365 days.”
The climate of Mumbai is also a challenge. Constant checks have to be made to maintain the temperature, humidity, and pressure which would keep the artefacts safe for a longer time.

Museum Safari and outreach programmes
Given the immensity and detailed nature of the artwork displayed, it is very hard to get to see all the artefacts and installations, but if you plan in advance you can book yourself and your family a seat at the Jaya He safari.

Jaya He New Museum boasts of a safari programme to better acquaint their travellers with the marvels within the airport.

“We had developed an internship program called “Jaya He Safari,” says Nair. Students from various colleges are trained as captains to conduct guided tours of the museums to the travellers. They are trained in soft-skills, storytelling methods etc. Eventually, Jaya He New Museum intends to be just not a museum but also an institution which can contribute to the process of learning through art by developing educational programmes.
“We celebrate by inviting artists, historians, corporate heads on special occasion such as Museum week, Diwali, Children’s Day, International Tourism Day etc outreaching to the mass spreading the art culture across the city,” adds Nair.

Seeing all this it is no wonder that as the Head of Jaya He GVK New Museum, Rekha Nair, is pleased with the feedback she regularly receives from the passengers. “They connect with a sense of pride, with a sense of awe,” she notes. “With a sense of surprise. Some find it soothing to the eyes. Some share it as a memory or treat it as a pause in the fast pace life. For some it is a destination in itself and they come early to spend some time with art. True to our vision –‘where a passenger doesn’t mind missing a flight being lost in the art work of Jaya He Museum.’”
Just like India the canvas of Jaya He New Museum is limitlessly beautiful and surprisingly engaging.

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