The museum of departure


The museum of departure

In 1967, Guy Debord, a Marxist theorist, writer and film-maker, wrote a book titled The Society Of The Spectacle. Developing the concept of the spectacle, Debord traced the evolution of modern society, showing how authentic social life had been replaced by its representation.


That premise can be one metaphor for India’s largest art project, the Jaya He museum at Terminal 2 (T2) of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. It is an extraordinary creative and commercial collaboration between Rajeev Sethi, one of Asia’s leading design gurus, and the vice-chairman of GVK Power and Infrastructure Ltd, G.V. Sanjay Reddy. GVK runs the T2.

The only such trans-disciplinary, multi-arts space involving the work of 1,200 artists of different persuasions and regions, and curated by Sethi, Jaya He is a scenography exhibit. It has been mounted all over T2, from stand-alone artefacts, some dating back to the 11th century, to new artworks and huge installations (some on walls as high as 18ft) with architectural elements.

The first leg of this museum, which took more than six years to create, was opened to travellers in January last year. The remaining two levels will be opened gradually, starting this month.

Sethi, who gave us a personally guided tour of the museum, calls it an assimilation of “layered and seamless narratives”.

The museum blurs the boundaries between tangible-intangible, rural and urban, tribal crafts and fine art, painting and sculpture, industry and agriculture, home and commerce—mixing living traditions with historical legacies. By speaking of places, periods, people, materials and skills, it offers a robust socio-economic account of an India that has its roots in creative and cultural industries—many of them marginalized even today.

“Representation” has been an enduring term in Sethi’s decades-long work with design. A globally acclaimed scenographer, 66-year-old Sethi’s seminal career includes associations with a range of South Asian artists, Washington’s Smithsonian Institution museums and the role of World Bank’s prime mentor (2000-04) for the development of crafts and design industries in developing countries.

His work on epitomizing India through design symbolizes both struggle and triumph. Representing our crafts and culture without the hierarchies of class, caste, gender and economics—his long-term emphasis—in the absence of consistent government support or sufficient private patronage, has remained a struggle. Despite all that, being able to memorably push these very ideas through international and local festivals, exhibitions, books, policy interventions, programmes and associations with museums abroad has been a triumph.

Jaya He, though, would not have been realized if Reddy hadn’t been on a personal quest to understand how a country must be “represented” at an international airport. The engulfing, yet signature-less modernity of Dubai and Shanghai airports had become exercises in rumination for him. “When we won the Mumbai airport project—designed to handle 40 million passengers a year—I was most excited about such a fabulous opportunity to showcase our exquisite art, craft and designs at a scale never attempted anywhere in the world,” says Reddy. He emphasizes that it was not about corporate social responsibility (CSR) obligations but his personal passion, a give-back to India from GVK. “Indian art and design became the essence of our overall terminal design to make T2 the modern gateway to India,” adds Reddy.

In 2009, Sethi was commissioned to ideate, curate, plan and execute this open museum. Sethi is the founder trustee of The Asian Heritage Foundation, the CSR wing of Rajeev Sethi Scenographers Pvt. Ltd, the company he founded in 1998—both these organizations were involved in the work on Jaya He.

Divided into three broad sections—Seamless India, Layered Narratives and Baggage Acclaimed—the museum has more than 5,500 objects and 134 art installations.

While informs passengers about the artworks they can see at their gates of arrival or departure, the six finer classifications of the museum help deconstruct it better. “India Elemental”, based on the panchmahabhuta or the five elements, is linked to the Hindu myth of creation and the foundation of Ayurveda. Bronze and stone lamps, an antique stone sprouting water, cosmological diagrams, mud architecture and shrines, and flying locomotives signify air, water, earth, fire and space.

“India Silent Sentinels” has sculptural elements featured on the thresholds of traditional homes, step wells and religious architecture. “India Global” represents India in the making, with new forms, materials and ways of being in riveting hybrids.

“India Greets” is a tableau of doorways, façades and porches sourced from various parts of the country. There are artistic symbols of welcome and protection—lotuses, sacred geometries, angels, ancestral figures and celestial guardian figures. “India Seamless” has four installations, from Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Bengal, depicting the myths, histories and popular culture of these regions through collaborative projects. “India Moves” traces the journey of the body and the soul. Antique boats, bullock carts, elephant howdahs and palanquins speak of modes of transport both mundane and festive, while temple chariots and padukas (ancient footwear) evoke the living traditions of deities.

Sethi’s astute and gentle commentary on how he wove the strains of human existence, philosophy and emotions, using metaphors of arrival and departure—for instance, the significance of a white peacock that flies (it’s a kinetically propelled artwork) across and above installations—made the tour an exercise in understanding design as bricolage—where anthropology meets design thinking.

“There are seven shades of white in India,” says Sethi. All seven have been used for the white interiors of this modern airport. Sethi says he worked on the sketches for more than six months before starting the work of curation and assemblage.

Nothing is just a straightforward depiction of an art form, skill, textile, material, element, colour or practice. Everything—whether it’s a tribute to Indian maritime history; the Tanjore paintings of Tamil Nadu; or the late poet Kaifi Azmi’s verses embroidered on white minaret-like textile installations by Mijwan artisans—has been reimagined and reinvented.

Digital effects, kinetically powered movements, LED lights, digital kiosks enabling travellers to view the full map of Jaya He, terminals that suddenly seem to open into one of India’s old, narrow galis (lanes) make you feel like Alice in Wonderland.

In the Atelier Of Ephemera, an arresting work, huge idols of Goddess Durga are being made by artists (including a small boy whom Sethi had befriended in West Bengal) for puja pandals. While the goddess’ head and her multiple arms are in tableau form, the rest has been interpreted through a painting. By using patachitra (cloth-based scroll painting) done by the street artists of Birbhum, Chandannagar and other places in West Bengal, LED light installations from the studios of Krishnanagar, fibreglass, wood and acrylic paint, this installation also depicts a hydra-headed snake rising above a chaotic city. Curiously, one of the snake’s heads is that of a poet (Rabindranath Tagore in redux?), another that of a policeman, the third that of a god, and the fourth that of a thakur (landlord).

If there are works by famous painters like Manu Parekh, Gulammohammed 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 is a fascinating, multi-coloured Cheel Gadi Haveli with painted façades and carved frescoes. All over it are curious visual anecdotes. An artwork by Indore-based artist Bhupinder Singh shows an assemblage of 1,001 small acrylic boxes with painted images inside.

“When we emerge from a crowded place, we don’t remember the details, we just remember the crowd, and that’s what I tried to capture as this is an airport. Even when we experience the city, we remember its chaotic aspects, not its details, when we reach home,” says Singh, explaining his work.

There are spectacular representations of Hindi cinema, Naga weaves emulated through painted and emulsified lugdi (old cloth) for wall tapestries, Kantha quilts made by the residents of Mumbai slums, who live just beyond the airport’s borders, and an 18th century Palitana patta textile painting that depicts sacred Jain pilgrimage sites. A gigantic wall installation called Faces And Facia stands out. From ancient architecture and jharokhas (overhanging enclosed balconies) to myriad faces from Indian cinema and history depicted through pop paintings or sculptures—the Rani of Jhansi, B.R. Ambedkar, Madhubala, Raj Kapoor—it resembles a mystical house.

“This was an opportunity to work with artists from other sectors and outside the hierarchies of the art world. For someone like me, belonging to the Baroda school, who was trained to think outside the art-craft divide, this was a very rewarding experience,” says Nilima Sheikh, who worked with B.V. Suresh and Kashmiri artisans on a work called Conjoining Lands. It shows painted papier mâché on board, Khatamband relief wood marquetry, Dal Gate pottery and Pinrajakari trellis and walnut-wood carving.

“Its sheer scale, and the chance to work with artists and artisans from Srinagar with a collaborative impulse, was very gratifying,” says Sheikh. This work was first exhibited in Kashmir in association with the Delhi-based Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage. There, says Sheikh, it attracted many people from the crafts community.

Every participating artist, artisan group and art form has been named in the signage.

Accompanied sometimes by Reddy and his wife Pinky, Sethi travelled across the country for ideas, objects, people, stories and narratives. “I visited junk shops, curio shops, homes of craftspeople…by the roadside and in private collections. From the 50,000-odd artefacts I discovered, I selected 6,000. Special site-specific installations were commissioned to about 1,200 artists of different disciplines which were then assembled,” he writes in his curatorial note.

These collections were stored in a project office that spanned 20,000 sq. ft. A 40-member team of art conservators and restorers worked on objects that were damaged or distressed. A collections management agency (The Research Collective) supervised the unpacking, measuring, weighing and photography of each artefact. Every piece was catalogued on a custom-designed software with information on its dating, provenance, history, stylistic and technical features; collated by trained art historians, anthropologists and ethnographers. “A museum project team then coordinated with our design, engineering and construction teams tasked to build one of the largest terminals in the world. This programme was being put in place simultaneously with the construction of T2, which made it even more complex,” says Reddy.

A hundred films document the making of Jaya He. Thirty-six of these are available on the digital interactive kiosks at T2. Sethi is also working on a large book with curatorial notes and photographs for a printed documentation of the project.

Mumbai, of particular significance in this case, has been interpreted in multiple ways—with paintings showing crumbling houses, photographs of cheerful, enterprising slum children, the conflict between urban spaces and spaces of the mind, a kinetic painting of young men on a packed train travelling into “Bombay” to become Amitabh Bachchan, depicted in his Coolie avatar. The name of an artwork called Mumbai Once Bombay makes the dozen dichotomies clear.

This museum, though, is not just about aesthetic excellence. It makes an exceptional case for art in the public domain. It cuts through long-held academic classifications—modern, revivalist, minimalist or post modern—in art and design, mixing them all. It builds a case for Intellectual Property Rights, totally ignored when it comes to the skilled poor. It holds up the intangible diversity of our cultural industries—by merging class, caste, gender, disregarding hierarchies within art and doing away with stereotypical visual symbols.


Most significantly, it provokes a larger debate on public-private patronage of art. It raises issues of the near total absence of inventively curated, suitably housed and faultlessly maintained museums in our country—public or private. And certainly, on museum practices in the ones that exist currently.

It may also be a reminder about the seldom implemented 1972 provision by the then ministry of works and housing to divert 2% of the total expenditure on every public building towards art as corporate social responsibility. While Sethi estimates the expenditure-investment at Rs.160 crore, the GVK management refused to divulge exact figures. “All project costs have been reviewed and approved by the financial regulator. Almost all artists have contributed to this prestigious project at concessional rates,” responded Yamini Telkar, head of the museum at Jaya He, on email.

All the same, Jaya He, which now has multiple teams of curatorial, technical, merchandising, restoration and maintenance professionals, stands out as a model for art-related CSR.

Especially so because it also points to solutions for the future livelihoods of the skilled poor. Sethi describes it as “raising the self-organized sector from irrelevance to inclusion”. Among Jaya He’s outreach plans are three museum stores (for now) at the airport—a direct business-to-consumer initiative, where ingeniously-designed merchandise inspired from the exhibits has been put on sale. Exhibitions, pop-up shows, art residencies and live art performances are among the other outreach plans.

Despite all this, pertinent questions remain for art in the public domain outside this airport. The cultural and art fraternity, the Indian rich—individuals as well as corporate organizations—who can patronize art but do it very selectively, if at all, and the government have a great deal to answer for. An airport is, after all, a restrictive space even though it is a gateway for a cross-section of people. So while the team at T2 is in the process of assessing whether a section of the museum can be erected outside for visitors who accompany travellers, and Reddy says he intends to carry this work to bus stands and railway stations, the access at present is obviously limited.

“A proverbial directory of all known crafts skills of India was consciously an attempt, but I would like to believe there will be many more additions—not just here but elsewhere,” says Sethi. His words reiterate why the Jaya He museum should be used as a compass to bring India’s crafts and cultural industries to open spaces and into public discourse.