We can call him the Maharajah for want of a better description. But his blood isn’t blue. He may look like royalty, but he isn’t royal. He is capable of entertaining the Queen of England and splitting a beer with her butler.” These were the words spoken by Air India’s then commercial director, Bobby Kooka, who, more than seven decades ago, conceptualised the mascot that has come to be one of India’s most loved characters — the Maharajah of the skies.
Air India may be in trouble with its massive losses and a sale that is yet to go through, but generations will remember for a long time yet the Maharajah, with his portly figure, impressive moustache, sharp nose and wardrobe that changed with every city to which Air India was flying.
A king for every kind of citizen
When all airlines offered identical services and there was no concept of special fares and undercutting, advertising was extremely important. However, the Maharajah — sketched by Umesh Rao, an artist at J. Walter Thompson in Mumbai — was not initially conceived as a mascot. He actually made his debut on the in-flight memo pad in the mid-1940s.
Rahul Da Cunha, the man behind another iconic ad campaign, Amul, described the Maharajah as a mascot that “encapsulates everything Air India should be: Indian luxury, hospitality, services and above all, royalty. It is royalty combined with humility. What can be a more iconic symbol for an Indian carrier?”
Back then, Air India was the sole international carrier flying to cities like Cairo, Prague, Damascus, Zurich and Istanbul. And in order to compete with larger companies like Trans World Airlines and Air France, the airline felt the need to symbolise Indian hospitality. Kooka believed a “potentate” to be ideal for that purpose.
“So we expanded the Maharajah image to include ‘the magic carpet service’ and tried to create a distinctive Indian identity for ourselves. The idea was that when you thought of Air India, you thought of the image and the Maharajah’s hospitality rather than the small number of planes we had,” he said in an interview with India Today.
In the decades since Maharajah’s creation, the mascot has effortlessly transformed into “a lover boy in Paris, a sumo wrestler in Tokyo, a pavement artist, a Red Indian, a monk” and so much more, to advertise the many new flights Air India had to offer.
However, it was his very name that drew him into controversy in the 1980s, when numerous politicians expressed their concern regarding the use of a royal figure as the mascot of the national carrier of a country that professed its commitment to socialism. The airline even briefly did away with the mascot in 1989, but this move was met with resounding resistance from various quarters, forcing them to bring back the king of the skies.
Decades later, the debate about the mascot’s royal persona rose again, with PM Modi’s call to replace Air India’s mascot with one that represents the aam aadmi, the common man. In response, the Maharajah transformed himself yet again, this time debuting a slimmer, younger-looking man clad in jeans and jacket and engrossed in his mobile phone — but the quintessential moustache remained.
This change was not met with many positive reviews, but the mascot had an answer ready. “I am overwhelmed by the support I have got for my original traditional attire and style. Just to clear the air. The young image is one of my many avatars to suit the occasion and activity. Yours truly … I remain the mascot of Air India, the way Bobby Kooka created me,” the mascot ‘tweeted‘ from Air India’s official handle.
Maharajah from a more tolerant time
That humour was something that the mascot’s every avatar was known for. The ads featuring him were often quite bold and out there, the kind of area, many feel, India is less likely to venture into in the 21st century.
An image of him dressed in a one-piece as a waitress at a Playboy club advertising flights to New York sparked an interesting conversation on Reddit, with many pointing out the more tolerant times. “We were less prudish about things. This was nothing to feel ashamed of because it was a joke. You could joke about things without hurting sentiments,” one user commented.
Another user noted that the ’80s was when advertising was at its peak. “Post ’90s, everything was all politically correct and proper. I think we’re waaay past the Golden Age of Advertising. Now you try something like this and there’s 100 dharnas in towns across the country.”
But it wasn’t just the humour. The Maharajah, ironically, stood for simpler times, many feel. “Air India used to be a dream to fly with when we were growing up in the 80s, and how proud everyone felt having an airline that could be mentioned in the same breath as Pan Am and such. Nationalisation really was its downfall,” Rishabh Sharma, a Delhi-based hotel industry professional and frequent Air India passenger, tells ThePrint.
Despite the airline’s imminent bleak future, the mascot won’t fade from memory so quickly. As Delhi-based homemaker Ashwini Kapur says, “The Maharajah, with his turban, moustache and that slightly bent stature, is an image so deeply ingrained in our minds. That on a hoarding alone is enough advertisement, Air India’s name is not even required.”