Even as M.F. Husain, who died in London last week, is being hailed as a legend of Indian art, 42 of his paintings — which together form an iconic mural titled ‘Freedom' — are lying far from public view in less than ideal conditions: piled on top of each other without proper protection in a small storage room near Terminal 3 of the Indira Gandhi International Airport here.

Four years ago, they were unmounted from Terminal 2 where they were hardly visible. GMR — the private partner in the running of the airport — promises that they will be on the walls of the swanky T3 by the end of the month.

It's been a story of careless handling from the beginning. Three years ago, when the ambitious new international airport was getting ready, veteran artist Anjolie Ela Menon spotted a couple of unprofessional handlers or porters carrying the mammoth paintings — as large as 8x10 feet — just as they would carry any normal cardboard item.

“I saw [them] shifting Husain's paintings of Indira Gandhi [titled “Indira”] with extremely dirty hands and totally uncovered. I shouted at them and asked where they were taking them so carelessly,” she recalls. “They replied: to a ‘safe place'.”

A GMR spokesperson says they are still being kept in “safe custody.”

GMR, a major infrastructure company, has been responsible for the airport's expansion, modernisation and management in association with Delhi International Airport Limited (DIAL).

When The Hindu made enquiries after Ms. Menon expressed her concerns again recently, GMR gave it access to the room — approximately 13x15 feet — in New Udaan Bhawan near T3 where the paintings lie piled one over the other, and alongside each other with barely any walking space between them. They are wrapped in standard bubble sheets.

One of the key paintings — portraying the three moods of Indira Gandhi — is stuck to the wall with a bubble sheet for protection on one side. The rest is open.

The GMR spokesperson says the paintings have been sent for restoration to an art consultancy, artink.

A representative from this consultancy, Renu Rana, says: “We got these paintings for restoration in December 2007. They had superficial damage like paint had peeled off from some works, and some needed proper cleaning. We worked on them intermittently and sent the restored works back in different lots by the end of 2009.”

Restorer K.K. Gupta, who had worked on the paintings in association with artink, says he had also given GMR tips on how to keep them “safe.”

“The proper method to keep such valuable paintings is to wrap them in acid-free paper along with thin white cotton sheet and then wrap in bubble sheet. Keeping any painting directly under a bubble sheet causes damage to them. In case, any painting is kept only in the bubble sheet, they should not be kept in such condition for more than four months.”

He adds, “I told them that the worst enemy of art work is humidity and dust. So, the AC should be on 24X7 in the room where the works are kept. If AC goes off, or switched off, works are most likely to get humid. And that especially after restoration, they should keep the works vertically and not horizontally as it affects their texture adversely.”

Cut to the storage room. The acid sheet couldn't be seen on most of the paintings, nor the cotton cloth. They are wrapped in bubble sheet and kept horizontally and piled one over the other. The room has no ventilation either, though it has proper lights and has an air-conditioner too.

The GMR spokesman has an explanation, “Some DGCA officials whose visit was long pending here, came to see these works yesterday. We ‘unwrapped' them in a separate room and showed them. They were satisfied with their condition.”

Mr. Gupta is not too happy. “I think after unwrapping the works for the DGCA officials they might have piled them best according to their wisdom. But it is highly disappointing if they have kept them piled on one another and horizontally,” he says.

In fact, the room where the works are being kept is low-ceilinged, which means the paintings could not have been kept vertically anyway.

While the restoration of the paintings was complete in 2009, and T3 itself was inaugurated in July 2010, no home has yet been found for Husain's work.

“We have been trying to locate places where we could mount them. We have now finalised one,” said the GMR spokesperson, promising that the mural would be remounted by the end of this month.

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