Hardly anybody knows that the Maharaja’s famous moustache was modelled by Bobby Kooka after his good friend Syed Wajid Ali, Wajid Sahib was quite a flamboyant, larger than life personality in demeanour and lifestyle.
This is the delightful story of one of India’s first marketing wizards, a maverick of the Tata Group, a close associate and friend of JRD Tata; Bobby Kooka, the man behind the Air-India Maharajah. Bobby Kooka joined the aviation department of the Tata Group in 1938, the same year in which the fledgling Tata Airlines, India’s first commercial airline service, began to fly.
Many years later, JRD Tata would fondly narrate the tale of how he first met the man. “I don't know how many of you there are here tonight who were in Tata Airlines in May 1938 -probably not many- when Mr. Kooka first burst upon an astonished air transport world which has never been the same since. On that fateful day in May, Mr. Kooka appeared in my office and, having pointed out the deficiencies in the Tata Organisation, explained how badly needed he was in Tatas to put them right … I decided that if there was any place for him in Tatas, it could only be in Tata Airlines.
Furthermore, in those days, the chances of survival of Tata Airlines were pretty dim and so it was clear that by employing him there we would be taking little risk of making any permanent commitment.”
After spending a few years as Secretary of Tata Airlines, Bobby Kooka decided to give the brand now re-christened Air India, with JRD as Chairman - a Human Face, that represented India with charm and dignity. At the first booking office of the Company, located in Churchgate in Mumbai, he created “an oriental potentate, sitting on a magic carpet, smoking a bubble hookah.”
This was the beginning of the Air India Maharajah, perhaps India’s first advertising mascot who went on to win millions of hearts across the world.
Here is how Bobby Kooka described the Maharajah. “We call him a Maharajah for want of a better description. But his blood isn’t blue. He might look like royalty, but he isn’t royal.”
Working together with Umesh Rao of J. Walter Thomson, the advertising agency, they created this loveable symbol of India – a round face, an outsized moustache, striped turban and long, sharp nose. After making his first appearance in 1946, the Maharajah was soon all over the world, and in the process, he made *Air India* one of the *most visible and engaging brands globally*. Fifty years before Google even thought of its frequent Google-doodles, Bobby Kooka was constantly reinventing the Maharajah to suit topical themes - as a lover boy in Paris, a sumo wrestler in Tokyo, a Romeo in Rome, and a guru of transcendental meditation in Rishikesh. *The Maharajah was funny, irreverent*, up to antics, *but always full of India,* his proud homeland. He was a friend to every traveller on India’s national airline, reaching out with warmth and hospitality.
Bobby Kooka also took forward this “Indianness” to every office of the airline, worldwide. Indian imagery, dance, paintings and sculpture appeared in the offices of Air India in New York, Geneva, London and elsewhere, making *the airline a beautiful showcase of the country’s great heritage*. This, in turn, attracted many global travellers to make this the airline of their choice.
The filmmaker Muzaffar Ali, who worked in Bobby Kooka’s marketing team for many years, says – “For eleven years, I was on a flight, dreaming through the eyes of Kooka and his mentor JRD. I was not working for Air India, but for India.”
But if Kooka was a *marketing genius*, he was also a maverick, who created storms in many tea-cups, in his time. He used to write for the Tata House magazine of the time, editing the last page called the “Tata Patter”*, under various pen names ranging from Pestonjee Pepper to Umslopogas, Chief of the Amazulus. On this page, he proceeded to, in the words of JRD Tata, “play havoc with the whole Tata organization by demolishing the ego and assassinating the character of every Tata Director and Official. Through Air India hoardings, he *demolished and punctured innumerable egos*, which placed JRD at the receiving end of endless complaints from MPs and Ministers, including Morarji Desai and Krishna Menon, who were depicted in red pants running a track race with Mr. Kripalani.”
But nonetheless, JRD Tata provided Bobby Kooka with the required support throughout his career, because he recognized Kooka’s genius, and perhaps also the need for some benign humour in the midst of our daily challenges. As JRD said at Bobby Kooka’s retirement function in 1971 – “May you never cease tilting at windmills, at the pretentious, the charlatans, and the hypocrites of the world.” He also said - “I forgive him all the apologies I had to tender on his behalf. I forgive him all the scars that I have borne because of the pleasure, the laughter and the relief from frustration and boredom that he provided to thousands, and perhaps millions, of people.”
This reminds me of one of JRD Tata’s key secrets to his success, of which he says – “If I have any merit, it is getting on with individuals according to their ways and characteristics …to be a leader, you have to lead human beings with affection.” JRD led the maverick Bobby Kooka with that same human affection, and, in turn, Kooka led the fabulously successful marketing and publicity efforts for the nation’s flagship airline, including the creation and nurturing of the wonderful, timeless "Air India Maharajah".
Allan Tramontana - Recovery during the expedition to the crash site of Air-India flights on Mont Blanc.
Mr. Allan Tramontana is a Policeman by profession and an Amateur historian, treasure hunter of every kind. He lives in France and has being going on expeditions since 2017, 3 or 4 times each year on the Bossons glacier on Mont Blanc (The Bossons Glacier is one of the larger glaciers of the Mont Blanc massif of the Alps) .
Interestingly, Mont Blanc is where two successive crashes, first the Lockheed Constellation L-749 “Malabar Princess” VT-CQP, under the command of Captain A Saint, crashed 200 metres from the summit of Mont Blanc, killing all 40 passengers and 8 crew on board. The aeroplane was located on 5 November 1950 and the second crash was Air-India Boeing 707 VT-DMN “Kanchenjunga” flying from Bombay to New York on 24th January 1966 under the command of Capt. J.T. D’Souza, crashed into a rock shoulder called “Rocher de la Tournette” on Mont Blanc at 15,400 feet in thick cloud while on approach to land at Geneva. After the crash wreckage was strewn over a wise area in Glacier.
Mr. Tramontana was on an expedition at the crash site, when he discovered the wreckage which believed to be from the crash of Kanchenjunga and found pieces of engines, tires etc., which were scattered along the length of the glacier and with the movement of glacier, some material has come out during the thaw and other small pieces have fallen lower under the glacier, with the water that flows.
It was the 12th June 2020, when whole world was witnessing the never seen before pandemic caused by Covid-19 virus and every one was at home to protect themselves from this virus , Mr. Tramontana was on his usual expedition on the Bossons Glacier and during this expedition, he has discovered pieces of a “Diplomatic Bag” of the “Ministry of External Affairs” having many newspapers, journals, official letters to the Indian Embassy in Washington. He had also able to find the image of the clothes & airplanes parts including an engine that was recovered on 4th July 2020 by the French Gendarmerie.
These are pieces of history which will keep coming up and creating a keen interest in this subject for the researcher, historian and collector around the world.
We would like to thank and acknowledge Mr. Allan Tramontana for his kind gesture to share the images with us from his discovery and allow us to put it on our blog.
Shariar recounts his wonderful experiences while working with Air-India over the years
Shariar Karim, has served India’s national carrier Air-India with dedication for 38 years and 4 months, of its golden era, making him one of the longest serving Cabin Crew in the history of Civil Aviation in India. He has flown around the world with distinction as an In-Flight Supervisor and has been selected 26 times to operate V.V.I.P. flights for Kings, Presidents and Prime Ministers. He has also excelled as an Instructor, training Cabin Crew for flight duties, conducting Management Seminars for Executives, as well as motivating employees through Corporate Training Programmes all over India.
He introduced a package of ten innovations that took Air- India’s In-flight Service to a different level. A Gold Medalist and winner of several merit awards for excellence in service and teaching, he was nominated for the Prime Minister’s ‘Shram Award’.
Through his innovative and creative talents, he had conceptualized, choreographed and conducted a series of unique simulated ‘Flights of Fancy’ along with Bollywood stars, for socially deprived, physically challenged and terminally ill children. These flights won the hearts of many and received wide acclaim in the press and media for their noble contribution to social service.
He has composed many poems for Air-India’s special flights which have been printed in their International Magazine “Magic Carpet” and has compiled and published his lifetime’s works, "ODYSEY - AI Milestones and Memories". He is occasionally posting stories from his published book on social media. Some of his posts are listed below in PDF Form.
Venkat’s wonderful experiences flying Air-India International and other airlines in the 1950s to 1980s.
Dr. Venkatasubban, known as Venkat to friends and family, has over 40 years’ experience as an aircraft designer in India, USA and Canada, at HAL, Bombardier, Raytheon-Hawker-Beechcraft, Bell Helicopter, CIRRUS Aircraft and Terrafugia. He is a Fellow of The Royal Aeronautical Society of the UK, a Raytheon Engineering Fellow, and a Hawker-Beechcraft Engineering Fellow.
Venkat grew up in Malaya and other parts of South East Asia and travelled frequently to and fro between Madras to Singapore and other destinations in the region. He has been kind enough to share some memories about his flying experiences in the early days. In fact, one of the great joys of maintaining this website is that I get to hear from so many interesting persons who visit. They all have their unique experiences and memories of the golden era of Indian Civil Aviation and Air-India. So, when Venkat wrote to me, I requested him to pen his memoirs for our blog, and he was kind enough to oblige. I can tell you all for sure that reading this account will bring tears of happiness and nostalgia to your eyes. I have read, and re-read this a few times already.
On a more personal note, I must apologise for the big gap in posting on my blog, but hope to get back to the rhythm of a story each month soon. So, dear reader, click here to read this fascinating story.
The Maharajah & The Silver Kris
Over time we become increasingly aware about aspects of our behaviour that adversely affect our health and the eco-system around us. Even in the early history of Air India, this is very evident. The airline prided itself in high quality gifts to passengers and business contacts. Often in the 1950s all the way through to the 1970s, these were cigarette lighters and ash trays. You can see images of these elsewhere in our website as well (https://www.airindiacollector.com/gifts-and-souvenirs.html).
Over time the airline became more aware of the ill-effects of tobacco, and participated in a campaign to create awareness of the harmful effects of smoking.
The poster itself was released in July 1977, and was ironically sponsored by the Cigarette Manufacturers Association. In classic Air India style, it features our Maharajah, and a touch of humor consistent with his unique personality.
Bobby Kooka himself was a bon vivant, and enjoyed his smoke, so this is hardly surprising. What is amazing is the transformation of the image of the airline from one that prided itself in promoting smoking into one that promoted awareness of the harmful effects of tobacco.
This story does not end with smoking alone. Kooka himself was an avid hunter, and it is not surprising that in the early years the airline glorified this bloody sport.
In June 1969 the airline published it’s Shikar (hunting) poster
A product of the Air India art studio, this is an adaptation of an old Indian Miniature painting. This version shows our Maharajah on horseback, out for Shikar (hunting), and his attendant is spearing a tiger to death. At one time, Shikar was considered a royal sport. The Maharajah on Shikar made an appearance also on the cover of the January 1967 timetable.
There is another depiction of a hunt, on the cover of the June 1967 timetable. In perhaps the most unforgivable depiction of our maharajah, this one has him hunting using a long barrel rifle, and an innocent deer is the unfortunate victim. One cannot help but shed a tear at this sight. There is nothing sporting or manly about such a shameful act.
However, the airline did finally redeem itself. Kooka himself was closely associated with the World Wildlife Fund in his later years, and Air India released a series of posters encouraging protection of the animal species. Here are some of the wonderful creations that were to follow.
Maurice Wickstead served with Air India at London Heathrow Airport roughly between 1971 and 1982, having arrived there from Trans-Canada Airlines and Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS). In his own words, “ ir India was a great outfit to work for, oft times chaotic, but great fun and the camaraderie developed there has lasted well beyond our tenure, since many of us although now a lot older, have remained in contact for all these years.”
Subsequently he embarked on a new leisure time 'career' as an aviation author, specializing in airline and air transport history. Most of his output over the last thirty-odd years has been directed towards international aviation magazines on a regular basis, and also has two small books on the history of the Douglas Dakota and a complete history of every British airline company since 1919. to his name. More recently, he has had published the histories of Air India, Indian Airlines, Pakistan International, together with a history of every (as far as he could discover) Indian airline. Currently under construction is the story of Biman Bangladesh. In fact, he has been in and around aviation all his life - from making model aeroplanes to aircraft spotting at Heathrow in the propeller era hey-dey and in retirement, with light aircraft and the local flying club.
Among the items in his collection of ephemera are a 1941 Tata timetable, a number of AI Annual reports dating from early post-war.
The three-part series on the history of Air India was was published in Aviation News (Dec 2003-Feb 2004). His in-depth study of the history of the airline, and passion for Air India is evident in his writings. He has been prolific writer and has published several magazine articles for various major UK and US aviation periodicals. 'British Dakotas' was published ,around 1985, followed by 'European Dakotas' in 1988, both were limited production runs by a small-time publisher and one would be very lucky to find copies for sale these days. Similarly, around five years ago, he authored a complete condensed history of every British airline company since 1919 - again this was a small run brought out on DVD because of the text size.
My talk and exhibit at the J.R.D. Tata Memorial Trust annual symposium
This annual event is a wonderful coming together for so many former Air India employees of all ranks and station. They bring with them their own personal memories and experiences, and it is such a pleasure to interact with them. This year the Trustees invited me as a guest of honour, and the theme for my talk was A Tribute to J.R.D. Tata, The Magic of the Maharajah. I tried to highlight the wonderful creative work done under the stewardship of Mr. Tata, and the creative genius of persons like Kooka and Cowasjee. Much credit also goes to the talent at the Air-India design studio, and their agency, JWT (now HTA).
In it’s early days, the airline had small budgets, and had to compete against aviations giants like PanAm, BOAC, KLM, Air France and Lufthansa. The approach they took was to stand out and be different in their advertising and communication which they built around the personality of the Maharajah. This was a highly successful strategy, and the airline found favour with Indian and foreign passengers, and became profitable and fast growing in no time. The Maharajah persona was a unique blend of charming, fun loving, chivalrous and sometimes mischievous. He had a special kind of charm and chutzpah, and often got away with a lot. I also spoke incidents when various persons in India abroad took offence moments when this got Mr. Tata in trouble. It is to his credit that he did not allow this to affect the creative freedom his team enjoyed. All these incidents were touched upon in a humorous manner, and the illustrations projected brought back nostalgic memories to the audience.
I also exhibited 12 frames of Air-India artefacts related to the Maharajah theme, all dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. The exhibit was much appreciated by all who visited, and many suggested a permanent exhibit for the same. I displayed old airline posters, several sheets from the iconic 1964 calendar, decals, coasters, timetables, print advertisements, etc. Click the link here to see the entire exhibit. What I have in my collection is but a small fraction of the great work done by the airline. I can only hope that Air-India finds a way to preserve and display this proud legacy. This is a national treasure.
Vivek Matthai and me at the event.
Just about two years after I set-up my website on Air-India Collectibles (www.airindiacollector.com), I have now launched my next website on Indian Airmails (www.indianairmails.com). This will allow me to post and share information on the subject, and images of airmail covers etc. I had started by posting a section on aerophilately on my previous web-site which I have now moved to the newer one. The two sites have been cross linked extensively so that some sections like the blog, resources page and useful links page are common.
There is a more serious objective I had in mind as well. I have found very high quality documentation around Indian airmails related to the pre-World War II era (1911-1939). There are several sources for this and I have listed many of them on my resources page. During the World War II era (1939-1945), there is also a lot of information, but also glaring gaps exist. There is relatively less, and one may argue, a disappointing level of information in what is also a very interesting period of post-World War II airmails history. I would break this up into two parts, pre-nationalisation (1945-1953) and post-nationalisation (1953 onward). During the pre-nationalisation period there were as many as a dozen different airlines that carried airmails, and the routes, postmarks, rates and other details are not easily available in a single place. The post-1953 are again has been sadly neglected by postal history and airmail collectors.
This website will over time attempt to fill this gap. One of the advantages of a website is that it allows you the freedom to keep adding (and correcting) information as you come across it. This is a feature I intend to exploit to the fullest measure. I have started by uploading information on the most fascinating Air-India, 8 June 1948 Bombay-London service, and also on the sister and predecessor airlines, Tata Sons (Aviation Division), Tata Airlines, Air India Ltd. I have also uploaded information on Indian Airlines which was formed after nationalisation in 1953. There is a section on Indian Zeppelin mails. This is not a widely collected field, but one that I personally enjoy tremendously. It includes mail flown on a Zeppelin or catapult mail service that has an Indian postage stamp, or is addressed to an Indian destination.
I hope you will enjoy visiting the sites as much as I have enjoyed building them.
Celebrating Air India's First Boeing 707 Flights from Sydney and Perth
I recently happened to acquire two very interesting hand painted covers, both from 1962, that commemorated the Air India First Flight from Sydney to Bombay on on 9 May 1962, and from Perth to Bombay on 3 October 1962.
Until introduction of the Boeing 707 on the Sydney route in May 1962 the Sydney service was operated by Air-India using Lockheed Constellations and first started on 5 October 1956. The Sydney cover has the hand painted Maharajah, and the violet oval Air-India first flight cachet. It is franked with an Australia 1'6 shilling postage stamp, and has a Sydney 9 May 62 postmark. Flight AI-407 departed Sydney on Wednesdays at 11.00 hrs and made it's way via Darwin (technical halt), Singapore, Bangkok and finally arrived at Bombay 23.40 hrs the same night, providing convenient connections for the onward Air-India flight to various European destinations, and on to London and New York. The aircraft here was the Nanga Parbat VT-DNZ.
Darwin was abandoned as a technical halt upon introduction of Perth as a commercial halt on this service starting October 1962. AI-407 now departed from Sydney at 10.35 hrs every Wednesday, and flew via Perth, Singapore and Bangkok, arriving Bombay at 23.40 the same night, facilitating the same western connections as described above. This cover has similar 1'6 shilling franking, and is postmarked Perth 3 October 62, and has the violet oval Air-India First Flight cachet. The hand painted design here is a map of Australia and India depicting the Perth-Bombay connection. The artist has left out the intermediate stops in the drawing.
Both covers are a treat, and I've never seen them before. Not sure how many of these were hand-painted, or who the artist was, but the artist's passion surely stands out. His initials R.W.B. are clearly visible in the bottom left corner. Delighted to add them to my collection.
The First Flight from Karachi to Madras by Tata Sons Ltd., Aviation Department on 15 October 1932 was historic in many respects. In a sense it marked the birth of Indian Civil Aviation in the true sense. The schedule was arranged so that the mail arrived from Croydon on the incoming flight the previous evening at Karachi, and was picked up by the Tata service to depart early the next morning. After stops at Ahmedabad and Bombay, the flight halted overnight at Bellary, and continued the next morning on to Madras. J.R.D. Tata piloted the first flight from Karachi to Bombay, and Neville Vintcent onward to Madras.
This event is also very special to Airmails collectors, and there are many beautiful and exciting items to be collected here. I had prepared a 5 frame exhibit which I displayed in Melbourne 2017 and you can see it by clicking the link here.
This cover is perhaps unique, and I always use this expression with some amount of trepidation. It was handcrafted by Stephen Smith, and is a Type 1a and Type 2 combination cover. This is special for a variety of reasons; Handcrafted by Stephen H. Smith - only known example to me; Only example of mail from Britain to India using Tata souvenir covers; One of the very few examples of registered mail from Britain carried on this flight.
This Registered Mail cover was postmarked Notting Hill, London on 5 October 1932 and arrived in Karachi on 14 October by IE 185, and then flown from Karachi, where the boxed First Flight cachet was applied, to Bombay reaching the same day, and then onward by surface to Calcutta, where it was delivered on 17 October.
Here I will update you on additions and changes to the web-site, and other interesting information about