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Unveiled: peacock of a terminal

Mumbai, Jan. 10: It must rankle with Mumbai that it doesn’t figure among the top 100 airports in the world.

A Skytrax survey of 12 million fliers that covered 338 airports around the world last year shows that only three airports in India make the cut: Hyderabad’s Shamshabad airport, the Indira Gandhi international airport in Delhi and Bangalore’s Kempegowda international airport.

On Friday, Mumbai and airport operator GVK finally got the opportunity to storm the charts after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inaugurated the spanking new Terminal 2 at the Chhatrapati Shivaji international airport here.

“I hope that Terminal 2 will turn Mumbai into one of the world’s best airports,” Singh said.

He said the new terminal was a design marvel — it’s the only one in the world that has given 3km of wall space to a gigantic collection of Indian art, murals and artefacts that travellers will be able to gawk at when they zip in and out of the airport.

Singh said it was even more amazing that it hadn’t compromised on efficiencies and state-of-the-art systems — an achievement that was all the more remarkable because Mumbai is one of the most severely land-constrained airports in the world. It is the only one of the 11 major international airports in the country that is forced to use intersecting runways that badly hampers flight operations and leads to flight delays.

It’s bad enough that the airport is built on one of the smallest land parcels amounting to about 1,500 acres. But even that space is badly encroached upon by squatters in the slums that fringe the airport.

The four-storey Terminal 2 is itself built over a very small area of about 50 acres but you wouldn’t know that when you step into the sprawling arrival lounge.

Spread over an area of a little over 4.39 lakh square metres, T2 has been designed so that the airport can cater to an estimated 40 million passengers annually. It currently caters to 32 million passengers a year.

But there was no official word yet on when the terminal would start full-fledged operations. It was supposed to start this month but is likely to be pushed back to the middle of next month.

“We could have been just another spanking new, glass and chrome airport,” said G.V. Sanjay Reddy, vice-chairman of the GVK group. “But we thought differently.”

The big theme that runs through the terminal is that of a peacock feather. The eye of the feather is the main motif. “Think of it as a white peacock. We chose it because it’s the national bird.”

The second design element is the lotus. There are 1,000 chandeliers encased in a corolla of lotus leaves in different stages of bloom. “We chose the lotus because it grows everywhere — even in the dirtiest ponds. Somehow, that seemed appropriate for Mumbai,” Reddy said, hinting at the squalor that surrounds the airport and which you probably won’t miss even if you take the six-lane elevated road that allows easy egress to the city’s Western Expressway and should cut down travel time by about 30 minutes.

Reddy said he wanted to blend the modernity of an airport terminal with the passion for ancient Indian art, which is why he picked Rajeev Sethi, the grizzled-grey haired art curator to unearth artists and craftsmen from the four corners of the country for one of the most magnificent collections of Indian art.

“The Louvre is the world’s biggest art museum and it gets only 9 million visitors every year. We figured that with 40 million travellers going through this terminal, we would give travellers something that they have never seen before,” Reddy added. “It was a crazy idea to start with and the only one who could pull this off was Sethi.”

“This collection was built with Indians in mind; we wanted to give them a sense of the rich heritage of Indian art that many have never seen before,” he added.

So, what’s on the walls? Called Jaya He (taken from the national anthem), the first section in arrivals corridor consists of a series of commissioned art works that “map the city as a layered narrative”, says Sethi. The second section is a wall running like a central curvilinear spine, designed to direct and control circulation of passengers through the terminal. The innovative museum houses 7000 artefacts produced by 1500 artists and craftsmen.

 “I wanted the wall itself to become the artwork,” adds Sethi. So, the canvases are overlaid by objets d’art or doors of old havelis, creating a massive chiaroscuro of modern and ancient art. The walls given over to the artwork are massive – almost 45 feet high.

It can get a bit kitschy as well: there’s a set of slowly-gyrating columns that from afar look as though are overlain with glass beads. Look closely, and they are finely painted crown caps. Another mural is a stab at art from recycled products. So, there’s a map of Mumbai made out of old, discarded green-coloured printed circuit boards, making it all so Andy Warhol-ish.

How much did it cost? The investment in T2 is believed to have soared to Rs 9800 crore against an initial projection of Rs 7542 crore. But Reddy said it was still the most-cost effective airport in the country on a per-passenger basis. “Don’t ask us how we did it; it’s a trade secret,” he added.

The state-of-the-art T2 It will be able to accommodate 9,900 passengers during peak hours. It has a 7-lakh sq ft area of retail space, lounges and travel services.  It has 37 travelators, 48 escalators and 72 elevators to aid those who hate lugging their luggage around sprawling airports.

Of the four-level terminal, level 1 will be used for ground transportation and 2 for arrivals. Level 3 will have domestic security and retail space, while level 4 is meant for common international and domestic check-ins, international security and retail.

With 272 skylights, glass curtain walls and multi-level light wells, the airport is bathed in natural light during the day. “We are saving about 23 per cent of energy because of this,” Reddy added.

But the most prominent element are 30 wine-stemmed, peacock-themed columns – called pods – that hold up the massive roof.

“Each pod can take the weight of 50 elephants,” said a GVK official, standing in front of a mock-up design of T2. We are opening only one arm of the terminal. The second one will open later.”

That’s when a crazy thought strikes me. If there are 30 pods and each can hold up 50 elephants, then you could technically have 1500 elephants dancing on the roof.

The elephant is a commonly-used metaphor for India – and the Elephant is dancing after all.