The swish set: Malavika Sangghvi on the life of the early Air-India airhostess

They’d be in Rome one day, Fiji the next, an extremely rare lifestyle for the time. They brushed shoulders with the rich and famous, lived in the best hotels. The job wasn’t easy, the training was exacting. But it was a life like no other, say women who did the job in the airline’s heyday.
They were a key calling card of the then-much-sought-after airline. The gracious Air-India airhostess was referenced, elegantly, even in its advertisements. (HT Archives) PREMIUM
They were a key calling card of the then-much-sought-after airline. The gracious Air-India airhostess was referenced, elegantly, even in its advertisements. (HT Archives)
Updated on Oct 09, 2021 03:06 PM IST
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By Malavika Sangghvi

Glamorous women serving lobster hors d’oeuvres; a dinner service that included silverware, starched napkins and a dewy yellow rose; caviar served as it should be, with a medley of capers, parsley, onions and egg; flutes sparkling with Moet et Chandon; ashtrays designed by Dali, as giveaways; and the exquisite rustle of handmade silk saris and Hermes scarves… at a time when international air travel was finding its feet and people were just getting their heads around the term “jet set”, there was scarcely anything more alluring than Air-India’s “Maharaja service” and “palaces in the sky”.

Long before the world was introduced to the mystique of the Singapore Girl, JRD Tata’s Air-India had more or less captured the public imagination with its mix of business and leisure, its spot-on timeliness, its impeccable in-flight service, and its flock of swan-necked airhostesses drawn from some of the country’s most elite families.

“To get into Air-India as a hostess was as good as winning a Miss India crown. They were coveted, feted and glorified,” the late designer Wendell Rodricks said a few years ago, when I spoke to him for an article I was writing on the subject for Vogue India. “In those days, being an airhostess was the pinnacle of success. Only the most refined women got the job, picked by Bobby Kooka and groomed by the legendary Colleen Bhiladwala.”

The list of women that pursued this career at Air-India is impressive by any standards. Maureen Wadia, Parmeshwar Godrej, Sakina Mallya, Sundari Feroz Khan, Sunita Garware, Nina Pillai, Shobha Jeetendra Sippy were all A-I airhostesses at one time.

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Air India crew members, 1946. ‘From safety to culture and etiquette to the nuances of different wines and cheese, we had to know it all, says former chief airhostess Colleen Bhiladwala. (HT Archives)
Air India crew members, 1946. ‘From safety to culture and etiquette to the nuances of different wines and cheese, we had to know it all, says former chief airhostess Colleen Bhiladwala. (HT Archives)

“We didn’t know it then but we were the original supermodels of India,” says Wadia, founder-publisher of Gladrags magazine and wife of industrialist Nusli Wadia. “Flying in the ’60s were the best days of my life. I got to live in the most beautiful cities of the world and in some of the world’s best hotels, even though we couldn’t afford to eat in them.”

About £2 a day was all each hostess got as their outstation allowance, so it wasn’t perfect, but it was an especially rare joy in those times to be spending four days in Rome or Beirut, then five days in Perth and two days in Fiji, she adds.

“Hostesses with A-I went through very vigorous training. From safety to culture and etiquette to the nuances of different wines and cheese, we had to know it all,” says Bhiladwala, who went on to become chief airhostess and was once known as prime minister Indira Gandhi’s favourite in the sky. (“She was always well-mannered. All she wanted was to be left alone.”)

Those were the days when the airline was a top pick. Boxer Muhammad Ali, TV host David Frost, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and actor Al Pacino flew Air-India, as did, of course, JRD Tata himself, in his favoured Seat 4A.

There was a camaraderie and fellowship that many of the women still talk about. ‘I made lifelong friends in my A-I flying days,” says Jyoti Khanna, aunt of filmmaker Karan Johar. “When we were posted outstation, we would cook chicken masala and biryani for each other when we got homesick.” (HT Archives)
There was a camaraderie and fellowship that many of the women still talk about. ‘I made lifelong friends in my A-I flying days,” says Jyoti Khanna, aunt of filmmaker Karan Johar. “When we were posted outstation, we would cook chicken masala and biryani for each other when we got homesick.” (HT Archives)

There was a camaraderie and fellowship among the crew that many of the women still talk about. “I made lifelong friends in my A-I flying days,” says Jyoti Khanna, aunt of filmmaker Karan Johar. “There was a great support system and bonding between us, especially when we were posted outstation and would cook chicken masala and biryani for each other when we got homesick. But the thrill of travel, adventure and newfound independence was undeniable,” she says.

Chatura Samarth, sister of actresses Nutan and Tanuja, and an airhostess from 1968 to ’74, says she absolutely loved her job. “I could work an eight-hour flight and dance all night without a problem. I even got to see the most exquisite ballet performances at the Kremlin theatre and the Russian Circus in Moscow,” she says.

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Of course it was not all wine and roses. For all its glamour, the women had a difficult job and things could get ugly. Samarth recalls a VIP passenger, the head of state of an African nation and a personal guest of Indira Gandhi, travelling first class and throwing his food tray at her in anger.

She was so shocked, she says she fell to the ground, shaking. But however angry and humiliated, she knew she had to return to her other passengers and do her job. “Soon enough, the purser said that the passenger wanted to apologize and would not eat unless he could do that,” Samarth recalls, “so finally I served him and it all ended well.”

At work, 1971. Through uniform changes, new launches and a changing world, the impeccable hospitality of the airline in those early years was a constant draw.
At work, 1971. Through uniform changes, new launches and a changing world, the impeccable hospitality of the airline in those early years was a constant draw.

Wadia remembers being one of the few hostesses selected immediately after her interview. “Three months later I was told that I had to meet Bobby Kooka and the chairman, JRD Tata. Evidently this was routine. Still, it was the most frightening day of my life.”

But life has its ways. In later years, Wadia says both men would become good friends, as would Thelma Tata, JRD’s wife. “When my second son was born, JRD was his godfather, and Nusli and I named our boy Jeh,” she adds, smiling. “Who knew that baby Jeh would one day start his own airline [Go Airlines] too?”

Indeed, who knew? And who knew that 43 years after he was dismissed by the government as chairman of his beloved airline, JRD’s successors would once again be at its helm? Indeed, life has its ways, and few as delightful as when it comes full circle, as it has in the case of the Tatas and Air India.

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Monday, October 25, 2021