The Maharaja’s new address

Air India’s headquarters being shifted from Mumbai to Delhi (time frame still indeterminate) may be of no more than academic interest to most people. But, for an older generation, this move will be tinged with some regret.

When the Air India building came up on reclaimed land at Nariman Point (this stretched further south up to new Cuffe Parade) about half a century back, it redefined the topography of the city.

Outside the building was the giant hoarding featuring the airline’s mascot, the Maharajah, which in many ways was India’s identity to the world and a source of good cheer to Bombay’s denizens.

Indeed, two witty advertising hoardings and a clever banner have dominated the island city’s public space for years: Air India’s Maharajah hoardings, Amul butter hoardings and Nana Chudasama’s banners on politics and social trends outside his office balcony, just above Not Just Jazz By The Bay at Marine Drive.

Bobby Kooka’s portly and posh Air India Maharajah poked gentle fun at our lives, Sylvester da Cunha’s utterly-butterly delicious Amul ads were on the ball – and not shy of being ribald – as far as current events were concerned while Chudasama’s banner could be pithy, wise, witty and occasionally banal, depending on our understanding or perhaps his mood.

The Amul hoardings, now half a century old, have moved on from Sylvie da Cunha to his son Rahul who nurtures it with undiminished sizzle. Chudas-ama’s banner – started in 1975 during the Emergency – rem-ains uninterrupted by his advancing years and unfazed by the invasiveness of social media.

Alas, the Air India Maharajah has not managed to retain his charm. This lovable figure first made his appearance way back in 1946 when Kooka – handpicked by JRD Tata as Air India’s Commercial Director – and Umesh Rao, an artist with JWalter Thompson Ltd together created him.

“We call him a Maharajah for want of a better description. But his blood isn’t blue. He may look like royalty, but

he isn’t royal,’ the Air India website quotes Kooka on the Maharajah. The ease with which people connected with the Maharajah bore out Kooka’s concept, and the creative genius of the ad makers.

Unaffected by Indira Gandhi’s cancelling of the privy purses, as the joke went, much later the Maharajah alas was sent into retirement as management changes at Air India dumped him and JRD’s beloved Centaur for a rising sun. The PR mistake was detected a few years later but by then perhaps it was too late.

The airline was sinking into a morass of inefficiency and monumental debt. The Maharajah had returned, but this time without any clothes. In recent years, a new taker arrived seeking to take pole position in the skies, calling himself “King of good times”. But unless there is a dramatic shift to the story, he may be no more than a pretender to the throne.


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