Back in the sixties, flying was so much more than a means of travel. It was a privilege enjoyed by the swish set, who were treated to on-board amenities sourced from luxury brands, wined and dined on in-flight gourmet meals, and were served by cabin crew decked in designer wear. Why, if you flew Air India, and were important enough, you could even end up owning a limited-edition ashtray designed by world-famous artist Salvador Dali!
In the 1960s, Dali was arguably the most famous artist in the world. Primarily a painter, his artistic repertoire, which ranged from the bizarre to the controversial, included sculpture, graphic arts, design, architecture, film and photography.
With his characteristically flamboyant moustache and ostentatious demeanour, Dali, then in his 60s, was showing no signs of slowing down – either in producing art extraordinaire or living the fabled life of an eccentric genius. The Spanish artist lived by his motto, something he had famously said in 1940: “I try to create fantastic things, magical things, dream-like things. The world needs more fantasy. Our civilization is too mechanical. We can make the fantastic real, and then it is more real than that which actually exists.”
When Dali was commissioned by Air India to design an ashtray for the airline, the words of this eccentric genius did indeed come true.
During the glorious age of flying, the ‘Maharajah’ – Air India’s endearing mascot with his oversized moustache, striped turban and aquiline nose – was flying high, real high. In the early 1960s, the airline acquired its first Boeing 707 and became the first Asian carrier to introduce a jet craft in its fleet before it went on to become the world’s first all-jet airline. Considering its pitiable, debt-ridden state today, it is hard to imagine India’s national carrier being at the top of the chain when it came to on-board luxury. And yet it was.
In 1967, when top executives of Air India met at an upscale hotel in New York City, the entourage ran into Salvador Dali. The hotel was his favourite haunt. The airline officials invited him over and requested the Spanish surrealist to create something for Air India that they could gift as a souvenir to a select few of the airline’s most-valued clientele. It might seem incredulous today but, in its early years, Air India was a formidable art connoisseur and owned an enviable collection from across the world.
Dali agreed to design a limited-edition ashtray, the first time an artist of his stature had been commissioned to design an objet d’art for an airline. And he promised them a unique design, which, in his words, would be a ‘Double Imagery’.
And unique it was! Made of white, unglazed porcelain, the body of the ashtray was shaped like the outer cover of a shell. It was draped by a serpent, which was inspired by one of Gala’s (Dali’s partner and muse from 1929 when the artist was 25, till her death in 1982) bracelets, the same one she was wearing in the portrait Galarina that Dali had painted in 1945. The sculptured ashtray stood on three surrealist legs, on one side was a swan flanked on each side by an elephant head.
From the early 1930s, Dali had begun mastering his art of ‘double imagery’, an effect by which, without the slightest figurative modification, an object takes on an entirely different appearance when flipped or turned upside down. The Swan-Elephant ashtray was a brilliant testament to Dali’s genius, where the textures and shapes of the elephant would morph into those of the swan and vice-versa when viewed from different angles. Thus, the inverted swan transformed into an elephant and the elephant head, when upturned, became a swan. Incidentally, the design of the ashtray was based on a work Dali had created in 1937, titled Swans Reflecting Elephants.
As if this wasn’t fantastic enough, there’s more.
When Air India asked Dali to name his fee, he simply asked for an elephant!
To the utterly bewildered Air India officials, he said, “I wish to keep him in my olive grove and watch the patterns of shadows the moonlight makes through the twigs on his back.”
The airline executives thought he was joking but Dali was dead serious. And why not? Those familiar with his work would know that elephants and ‘melting’ clocks are the two of the best-known elements in his art. The elephant was a recurring theme in Dali’s paintings, and he often depicted them with elongated, spindly legs carrying heavy obelisks on their backs.
The deal was struck, and in one of the most outlandish exchanges in art history, a two-year-old elephant was flown across from Bangalore to Geneva by Air India. The calf, named ‘Big Baby’ was accompanied by a mahout or keeper. After the Customs formalities were completed and the baby jumbo arrived in Geneva, it was boarded on a special truck for the 700-km journey from Geneva to Cadaques, the small Catalonian town where Dali lived in those days.
Guided by his mahout, the elephant was delivered to Dali’s residence. After that, he was walked up to a glass stage, while the town’s folk sang and danced in a celebratory mood. The mayor of Cadaques declared a three-day holiday to honour the arrival of the Indian pachyderm. The joie de vivre continued for the three-day carnival that was marked by a colourful procession in the town, which drenched in fun, frolic and festivities over those three days. Pink champagne, Dali’s favourite beverage, flowed freely and guests were served ‘Sherpa Tea’ – a special fusion drink made from wine and Indian tea.
Dali named his newly-acquired jumbo Surus, after Hannibal’s mythical war elephant. The Carthaginian war hero had always fascinated Dali and the Spanish painter had made a watercolour based on the famous conquest of Roman forces by Hannibal in 218 BCE, when he had set out to invade the mighty Roman Empire by way of a little-known overland route through the Alps.
This crossing of the Alps with elephants has remained one of the most remarkable feats in military history, and Dali wanted to retrace Hannibal’s footsteps, albeit without military motives. The story goes that he was seriously considering crossing the Alps with Surus but Gala convinced him otherwise. Surus was spared the trouble and it stayed happily in Dali’s garden till it grew too large to stay there and was transferred to Barcelona zoo in 1971.
Strangely, this remarkable event was not widely reported and was dismissed in a few lines in Air India’s in-house journal. The number of Dali ashtrays varies widely in different reports but it appears that more than 800 of them were crafted by Limoges, the high-profile, France-based porcelain maker. They were gifted to Air India’s valued patrons, including Prince Juan Carlos (later crowned King of Spain in 1975).
Today, these art objects are largely untraceable, lying in private collections. Oddly, it is not widely known that such a collectible even exists. However, a few pieces do appear on online auction sites now and then; your one chance to acquire a Dali, and a souvenir of something even more surreal – a piece of Air India’s glorious history!
Cover Image: Salvador Dali – https://www.artspace.com/
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