Air India and the Maharajah Man
The sale of Air India (back) to the Tatas is likely to go down as an epic moment in India’s political economic history, partly because of the political will for the divestment of an asset as state entrenched as this one, but also the history of the airline itself, having been nationalised from the Tatas in the first place. But this piece is about the creation of the Air India (or the Tata Airlines) mascot, “one of many short but inspiring stories in a new book, #TataStories: 40 Timeless Tales To Inspire You (2021), by Harish Bhat”.
“This is the delightful story of one of India’s first marketing wizards, a maverick of the Tata Group, and a close associate and friend of J.R.D. Tata. He’s the man behind the Maharajah, the lovable mascot of Air India: Sorab Kaikushroo Kooka, aka Bobby Kooka.
Bobby Kooka was recruited into the aviation department of the Tata Group in the year 1938. Tata Airlines was still a fledgling airline service at that time. Many years later, J.R.D. Tata fondly narrated 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 organization, 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.’
….a brilliant, fertile marketing brain. After spending a few years as secretary of Tata Airlines, Bobby Kooka had decided to give the brand (now rechristened as Air India, with J.R.D. 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 very own first advertising mascot that went on to win millions of hearts across the world.
Working together with Umesh Rao of J. Walter Thomson, the advertising agency, Kooka envisioned with flourish such a lovable symbol of India—a round face, with an outsized moustache, striped turban and long nose.
After making his first appearance in 1946, the Maharajah was all over the world, in the process making Air India one of the most visible and engaging brands globally. Fifty years before Google even thought of Google Doodles, Bobby Kooka was constantly reinventing the Maharajah—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, and would reach out to them with warmth and hospitality.”