Airlines of the past had a glamour that is quite lost in today’s flying experience, what with the long security lines, cramped seats with no leg space, and the unfortunate seating arrangement that makes sure there’s a wailing baby right behind you every time you decide to catch up on sleep in transit.
Though flying back then was more of a privilege than a default mode of travel for most, and was seen as a marker of social status as opposed to convenience, it also carried with it a certain charm of a time gone by, a time that entailed formal attire, gourmet cuisines, and for a short but glorious point in time, a limited edition ashtray designed by the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali exclusively for Air India. It’s an incredulous story, one that renders the reader almost on the verge of disbelief because of its comically random components, but in arguably one of the best collaborations of all time, Air India had commissioned the celebrated artist to create 500 limited edition ashtrays for its international first class only. Inconceivable in today’s day and age, not least because smoking is no longer permitted on board, the unique coming together of India’s national carrier and one of the most famously eccentric artists in the world makes for a most intriguing tale.
That of New York City, an ashtray, and an elephant.
Legend has it, the Air India entourage ran into Dali at an upscale New York City hotel and invited him over. This was back in 1967, a time when Air India was a known art connoisseur, with a vast art collection. Inevitably, their talks turned towards Dali designing an exclusive ashtray for select first class passengers. Dali agreed, and in his signature style, created a surreal ashtray that is more art than utility. Apparently based on one of his previous artworks called Swans reflecting elephants, the ashtray comprised of a “round shell with a serpent around its perimeter supported by two surrealist headstands - an elephant on one side and a swan on the other.”, according to Parsi Khabar.
Interestingly, the most peculiar part of the story isn’t in the commission or the design, but in the remuneration Dali asked for - an elephant. A real, living, breathing elephant that the artist wanted delivered to Geneva. In one of the most bizarre exchanges in living history, the National Carrier decided to play into the whims of Dali and actually ended up delivering a baby elephant all the way to Europe from Bangalore. Apparently Dali had extensive plans for the elephant, one of which included him riding across the Alps on its back. Though none of that came to fruition and the elephant was eventually sent to live out his life in Barcelona Zoo, according to Parsi Kabhar, it remains to this day the most peculiar story to ever surface about about Air India. As for the ashtrays, all 500 of them are scattered around the world, tracing a tale of a spectacular crossover of art ingenuity and cultural heritage.
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