Turn the clock to 1967. Pin Spain on the world map. And imagine this conversation.
Air India official: “Mr Dali, how much would you charge for designing an ashtray for the airline?”
Salvador Dali: “An elephant.”
Gala (Dali’s partner) chirps in: “And $10,000”.
Air India official: “An elephant. Why?”
Salvador Dali: “Because 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 porcelain ashtray designed by Salvador Dali for Air India. Photo courtesy: Prakash Dubey.
This is not an imagined conversation. It actually happened 51 years ago. Maybe the exact words were not uttered but Prakash Dubey, former Chief Commissioner of Income Tax, can sew the sequence of events that led to Dali designing the porcelain white/blue ashtray for Air India. Titled Double Image, it has two surrealist headstands — an elephant on one side and a swan on the other.
The inside of the porcelain ashtray designed by Salvador Dali for Air India. Photo courtesy: Prakash Dubey.
Over a phone call, Dubey narrated how during a meal at Duran restaurant in Figeures (Dali’s birthplace), he noticed a newspaper clipping with the Air India Maharaja logo emblazoned on it. Intrigued, he spent several months and made countless phone calls to trace the ashtray and the forgotten story behind it.
And yes, Air India kept its promise and sent a two-year-old elephant and a mahout to Dali’s home in Cadaques as the promised remuneration!
A photograph of Salvador Dali in Pargas Art Bank, Finland. Photo credit: Preeti Verma Lal.
An elephant? That’s tame. Salvador Dali had a pet anteater that he walked on the streets of Paris. He was certain that his drooping moustache was an antenna that received alien signals. He once filled a Rolls Royce with cauliflowers and drove around town. He created a ‘cologne’ of his very own. No roses or musk in the phial. A pongy cologne made of boiled water, fish glue, goat manure and aspic oil. He sure must have smelt like a ram.
That was Dali. Eccentric. Whimsical. Capricious. Quirky. Supremely gifted as an artist. And a man of many whims. I thought I had counted all his idiosyncrasies until I stumbled upon Les Diners de Gala, a 1973-erotic cookbook by Dali in which he calls first courses “the supreme lilliputien malaises”, meats are “the sodomised starter-main dishes” and ‘I eat GALA’ is a section devoted to aphrodisiacs.
For long, Dali lived in Madrid’s Palace Hotel. Photo credit: Preeti Verma Lal.
Outside Paris’ Bastille station, I had walked the step where Dali once walked his anteater; in Westin Palace Madrid, I snoozed in the room where a then-unknown Dali checked in; walked through a Dali Sculpture Garden in Stiges; and stared at a Dali bronze girl at the entrance of MGM Macau.
Too many Dali encounters for a lifetime, I thought. Wasn’t enough, I presume. On a frosty day in Pargas (Finland), I bumped into a Dali-reincarnate. “Salvador Dali is not dead. I am his reincarnation.”
A page from Dali’s erotic cookbook published in 1973. Photo credit: Preeti Verma Lal.
I froze on the threshold of Art Bank when its owner Ted Wallin leaned and murmured Dali by my ears. In Art Bank’s Salvador Dali Private Collection, Dali (the real, not the reincarnate) loomed in a black/white photograph and a bronze Venus’ breasts could be opened as drawers; one could sit on gigantic red as a clock melted on a tree branch.
Replica of furniture designed by Salvador Dali in Pargas Art Bank, Finland. Photo credit: Preeti Verma Lal.
Everything in Art Bank was so surreal. So was Wallin. With a curly pouf, ruby red shirt buttons, silver ornament on the coat collar, a colossal ring burdening his middle finger.
Dali sculptures in Stiges, Spain. Photo credit: Preeti Verma Lal.
“You know, Dali has reached a fourth dimension. One day, Dali told me that I should arrange the room as if it were his,” Wallin muttered. Again. He has never met Dali. Neither have I met the real Dali. On a frosty day, it was a self-proclaimed Dali-reincarnate that I met. Or, was he really a Dali apparition?
Preeti Verma Lal is a Goa-based freelance writer/photographer.