When sculptor Satish Gupta was asked to disassemble his 12-foot brass-and-copper artwork Surya for a security check at Delhi airport’s newly opened Terminal 3, seven years ago, he was worried. “How do I open up the sculpture?” he wondered. Gupta finally figured out a way. He drilled a hole through the head of the gilded figure depicting the sun god and then a laser optical camera attached to a tube was inserted into its hollow depths. No suspicious objects were found and the artwork wasn’t damaged either.

Gupta’s grand sculpture was cleared for takeoff. Well, sort of. The massive sculpture inspired by 11th century Chola bronzes was actually an installation at T3’s international departure lounge that since then has been towering over thousands of passengers rushing through its cavernous halls. “My brief was to make something which was not religious. That is why I chose Surya or the sun god. It is there in all cultures and represents the cycle of time,” says Gupta.

For decades, airports in India were just dreary old buildings with shabby carpeting and dust-filled halls. Not anymore. Today, some of them are almost like museums or art galleries kitted out with spectacular artwork by some of the country’s leading painters and sculptors. Ever since the government roped in the private sector to modernise airports in the metros some years ago, Delhi, Mumbai, and Hyderabad have emerged as the country’s sleekest airports. Their stunning artworks have inspired the Airports Authority of India (AAI) to give government-run airports an artistic makeover. AAI has adopted a policy that allots 1% of the total cost of developing an airport on installing art that is in line with local aesthetics and traditions.

It has already instituted a design council of 17 designer-architects to scan proposals. Guruprasad Mohapatra, AAI chairman, says that by March-end, many cities will see new terminals that are firmly rooted in the local identity. The new Sikkim airport at Pakyong will look like a pagoda, for instance, and Buddhist symbols including prayer wheels and thangkas will adorn the new Leh airport, the country’s highest commercial airport at 3,256 metres above sea level.

 Painter and cartoonist P.K. Sadanandan’s 15-metre-by3-metremural, last displayed at the 2016 edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, will be installed at the Cochin International Airport’s Terminal 3  
Painter and cartoonist P.K. Sadanandan’s 15-metre-by3-metremural, last displayed at the 2016 edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, will be installed at the Cochin International Airport’s Terminal 3  

“Earlier, we had no conscious policy of promoting art and architecture in our airports. We have now adopted a policy that for all the new terminal buildings we do, we will earmark a certain percentage of the total cost towards embellishing it with local art, culture, and architecture,” says Mohapatra. Investing lavishly on public art in an airport is a well-established international practice. Major airports like Paris and Singapore have for years set aside spaces for art to help travellers unwind. In 2002, Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport opened the world’s first airport art museum, a branch of the famous Rijksmuseum, showing original 17thcentury art by Dutch masters. But India has only recently made art an integral part of its airports. In the past few years, companies such as GMR Group and GVK have invested crores to revamp and develop major airports under a public-private partnership model.

Investing lavishly on public art in an airport is a well-established international practice. Major airports like Paris and Singapore have for years set aside spaces for art to help travellers unwind. In 2002, Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport opened the world’s first airport art museum, a branch of the famous Rijksmuseum, showing original 17thcentury art by Dutch masters. But India has only recently made art an integral part of its airports. In the past few years, companies such as GMR Group and GVK have invested crores to revamp and develop major airports under a public-private partnership model.

The art at Delhi’s swanky T3 is certainly aweinspiring. One of the showstoppers is an installation of a series of giant hands depicting different mudras, or hand gestures, from classical dance, flanked by 675 copper discs. The walls are decked up with paintings by leading contemporary artists such as M.F. Husain and Anjolie Ela Menon, whose works sell for millions in the international market. One work that stands out is Paresh Maity’s gigantic 7-by-800-foot oil-on-canvas spread over 53 panels that celebrate the country’s cultural diversity. A spokesman of Delhi International Airport Limited (DIAL), a consortium led by Bengaluru-based GMR Group which runs the terminal, says art will play an even bigger role in the revamped Terminal 1, which is expected to be functional by 2021. “The kind of spaces people will be seeing in the new terminal, [and] the artworks there will complement and gel with the overall ambience. The experience will be much, much richer.”

Mumbai airport has also invested big bucks on a makeover which includes what it calls India’s largest public art programme. Titled Jaya He, it is a wall of around 3,000 pieces of art that stretches for more than 3 km at Terminal 2, which is operated by Hyderabad-based conglomerate GVK. The ambitious programme has seamlessly brought together designers, artists, architects, and technicians to mount installations that interpret 21st-century India with a narrative flair not seen in any other Indian airport. For instance, the mural Conjoined Lands by Nilima Sheikh and B.V. Suresh, seeks to understand Kashmir’s place along the Silk Route. Rajeev Sethi, curator of Jaya He, believes that an artwork programme has to be integral to the architecture of an airport, otherwise it simply looks like decoration. “One has to think with the architect. One has to work with the architect right from the inception,” says Sethi.

When Hyderabad’s Rajiv Gandhi International Airport (RGIA), operated by GMR Hyderabad International Airport Limited, opened in 2008, the terminal’s design too sought to reflect the grandeur of the city of Nizams. Two years ago, the airport launched an art gallery called Art@RGIA where well-known artists from the region like K. Laxma Goud and Thota Vaikuntam find pride of place. More art installations are expected to be incorporated in the next phase of expansion at a capital expenditure of Rs 2,500 crore.

The question that many are now asking is: Will the revamped and newly built government-run airports also be intellectually stimulating in their artworks? Mohapatra says they will be aligned with the aesthetics of the local landscape. “I will not do a Rajasthani desert landscape in a coastal Odisha airport,” says Mohapatra.