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".
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.
Undoubtedly, one of India's, and perhaps the world's leading contemporary artists, Hussain's work for Air-India must have been treasured by the airline. Very similar objects as in the poster were used to design the Air-India timetable of April 1963. This was almost 7-8 years after the poster was printed. So, it would be an understatement to say that I was bemused when I saw what they did to the artist's work in the timetable. One of the characters the artist painted, the drummer, has had his head replaced with that of the Maharajah!
I am still in shock, and all I can say is that no one but the Maharajah would have the courage to do something like this. There is one part in me that wants to smile broadly at his gall in pulling this perhaps innocent prank; and another part that is absolutely horrified at how such a liberty could be taken with the master's work.
Judge for yourself, but do remember: he is our Maharajah and all his indiscretions are forgiven.
Top left: The mid-1950s Air-India International travel poster with puppet like cut-outs by M. F. Hussain. Catalogue # 28, size 72 x 101 cms.
Top right: The April 1963 airline timetable with similar characters, but the drummer's head has been replaced with that of our Maharajah.
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