Now boarding: A new journey for Air India’s Maharaja

See how the iconic mascot captured the public imagination in the 1950s, and ushered in an era of non-advertising. “He didn’t say ‘Buy’, he said ‘Howdy’,” says Ivan Arthur, former national creative director at JWT, the agency that created the icon.
Many avatars: The Maharaja dressed up for new destinations and sometimes in tune with pop-culture phenomena, while always retaining his quintessential Indian-ness. His outdoor appearances were so highly anticipated that motorists were known to alter their routes home just so they could see if a new hoarding was up. PREMIUM
Many avatars: The Maharaja dressed up for new destinations and sometimes in tune with pop-culture phenomena, while always retaining his quintessential Indian-ness. His outdoor appearances were so highly anticipated that motorists were known to alter their routes home just so they could see if a new hoarding was up.
Updated on Oct 08, 2021 08:12 PM IST
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ByIvan Arthur

I had the opportunity to frolic with the Maharaja for well-nigh four decades, from the mid-1960s on.

The Maharaja was designed by Umesh Rao, an art director at the ad agency J Walter Thompson, now Wunderman Thompson, in the 1950s — a full decade before my time. It started out as one of many alternative designs for a letterhead requisitioned by Bobby Kooka, commercial director of what was then Air-India International. It was Kooka who looked at that little line drawing and saw it move. That letterhead design became, in his imagination, the embryo of a living, moving, mischievous being, in many ways genetically descended, I believe, from Kooka himself. The line became flesh and dwelt among us.

Like all living things, the Maharaja went through an evolution, taking on the character and genius of the creative people who prompted his capers. To begin with they were the artists of the Air-India art studio under Jal Cawasji. Subsequently and for years after that, JWT art directors SV Waghulkar, Bahadur Merwan, Sudhir Deokar, SR Garud and Subash Sawant left their impressions on the fellow: Bahadur’s mischief, Garud’s coquetry and Sawant’s charm. Deokar freed him from the tyranny of the crow quill and gave him the roundness of the air-brush. The little fellow jumped out of the smudged newsprint of the dailies and onto the outdoor media. Later he made short hops on to the television screen, the most memorable being a commercial that was shot in 15 seconds flat, with Sawant’s fluid line sketch drawn to David Innis’s script.

His gambols in the outdoor media became the talk of the town in five metro cities. In Mumbai, the hoarding at Kemps Corner became so popular that motorists picked this route home from work over shorter ones just to see if there was a new Air-India hoarding up. There was a new one up every week, on which the little rascal would have something to say about what was happening in the city, the country or the world; all of it laced with wit and very often satire; giving rise to giggles, social banter and frequently political ire and censure. Many a hoarding had to be taken down because some minister somewhere couldn’t swallow the Maharaja’s double entendre.

There were just five outdoor hoardings, one each in Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Madras and Bangalore, but those five were as good as fifty thousand. They were invariably picked up and reprinted by the dailies and commented upon; giving them reach and readership many times greater than the eye-ball count of one outdoor site. The hoardings became news items, confounding the mathematics of the media pundits’ reach and OTS (Opportunities To See) figures.

As creative director, I was often challenged with the question “You call this advertising?” A valid question. Most of these hoardings didn’t overtly sell the airline. They didn’t say Buy. They said Howdy. They discussed what was happening. They brought parlour talk and the adda, if you will, into the open. With wit and some bite. So, to the question, “You call this advertising,” I would say, Of course not. This is not advertising. This is Non-advertising. Something we invented. Strangely, it is a good salesman.

Of course, I would not go into the lengthy justification of non-advertising as advertising strategy. I had no time to tell them that non-advertising was part of the Maharaja’s genetic cunning; that when the airline first took to the skies, it carried royalty, the real maharajas of the day; some appropriately turbaned, but most of them from big corporate houses and diamond-studded households. The ticket salesmen would knock on the doors of these first fliers, attired in three-piece suits and a polished accent. They would of course never mix champagne-and-caviar hospitality with vulgar salesmanship. They would be engaged in clever conversation. The hoardings and all other communication had to be an extension of that salesmanship. In which charm, exotica, wit and a sense of fun defined a special relationship

The profile of the flier of course changed with the years and the clever little guy changed as well, donning turbans, caps and headgear of other kinds; wearing everything from bell bottoms to lungis, doing the bhangra; participating in a Kerala boat race. The hard-sell of fares and routes was softened by a seductive charm that was distinctively his and the airline’s.

The Maharaja became the airline’s voice box, its foreign ambassador, corporate spokesman, advertising mascot and, in time, a darling of the masses. Every now and again, his irrepressible character becoming the bane of politicians.

There were times when the Maharaja escaped assassination at the hands of managing directors who came after JRD Tata with the glint of fancy management schools. They wanted to kill this “relic of the past”. They wanted a shiny new modern image for the airline. Each time this was made known, there were choruses of public protest in the form of letters and phone calls to Air-India, advising, entreating and even warning the airline not to commit this hara-kiri. The Maharaja had become a national character, akin to a hero.

Well, they didn’t kill the Maharaja. His foster parents of recent years. They didn’t kill him. They pauperised him. Over the years we have seen him, wearing that decades-old vestment of royalty, hobbling along, hand stretched out, begging for custom. Buy, he pleads, without so much as a howdy. Does he look up to the heavens and say “Father Kooka, where are you?”

Now Air-India is going back to the Tatas, the house that bred him for so many years. Will they take him back? Resurrect his genes? Put the spring back in his step? The question is: Should they? Should they instead dump him with the airline’s rusty old paraphernalia? In that crowded sky today, where airlines are seen as just so much metal with hardly any legroom for courtesy or profit margin; where the din over fares drowns out the voices of refinement, will the Maharaja of yesterday have any place at all? Will the new Air-India engineer new genetics, a new soul for a resurrected airline? Let’s wait and see.

Yes, Tennyson. The old order changeth.

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Sunday, December 05, 2021