It is safe to say that for anyone who grew up in India in the decades following the 1950s, Air-India’s Maharaja was a very familiar face.
The airline’s potbellied, beloved mascot was instantly recognizable with his curling, oversized mustache, aquiline nose, striped turban, and serene, placid expression that can only be dubbed ‘resting Maharaja face.’
The Maharaja — meaning emperor— who was also known as “the Rogue,” was first conceived in 1946 by Bobby Kooka, Air-India’s commercial director, and illustrated by Umesh Rao, an artist at J. Walter Thompson Ltd., an advertising agency in Mumbai that worked very closely with the airline. While the Maharaja — who remains the airline’s mascot to this day — was first designed for an in-flight memo pad, he went on to become the star of a series of promotions launched by Air-India. A new exhibition at Poster House in New York titled “Air-India’s Maharaja: Advertising Gone Rouge” — created in partnership with Kapoor Galleries — delves deep into Rogue’s Gallery, a catalog published by Air-India in 1977 showcasing the airline’s most iconic travel posters produced between 1946 to 1972, an era that is now recognized as the golden age of advertising in India.
“The golden age of air travel (roughly the 1950s through the ’70s) produced some of the most beautiful and beloved posters in aviation history,” said Angelina Lippert, chief curator and director of content at Poster House. “None, however, were more fun, and, in many cases, more daring than the work produced by Air-India.” After seeing many of these posters on display at Kapoor Galleries, Lippert realized they would be the perfect partner for Poster House in creating an exhibition that explored the history of this memorable campaign. “It was really one of the first, if not the first, non-Western designed mascot to obtain a global, iconic status,” continued Lippert. “So, while the compositions are cheeky and a delight to see in person, I hope visitors walk away with a new appreciation of the brand’s amazing history.”
Founded in 1932 by businessman and aviation pioneer J.R.D Tata, Air-India grew into the flagship international airline of India by 1948, just a year after India’s independence. The airline then turned to the wit and humor of Kooka and Jal Cowasji, the airline’s art director and publicity chief, to create an enduring campaign to not only launch and promote Air-India’s international flights, but to craft an overarching brand image for the company.
“When Air-India started its international flight services, it had to compete with long-established airlines such as PanAm and Air France that dominated the India-UK sector and had much larger advertising budgets,” said Sanjay Kapoor, co-curator of the exhibition, and the director of Kapoor Galleries in New York City. “Therefore many thought that it was a bizarre idea to even think of being a key player on the already well-established route.” In an effort to capture the then young India’s character and to visually distinguish itself from the other players in the industry, Air-India adopted the emblem of the Maharaja — a uniquely Indian symbol of both luxury and hospitality; taking a stereotype about India and then turning it on its head. “As he entered the global stage, the Maharaja became a face of not only the airlines, but also of the new country itself,” said Kapoor.
Soon after Kooka and Rao imagined the Maharaja, he became the headlining act of a series of campaigns and posters, seen traveling to the hottest destinations in the world. A daring, irreverent shape-shifter who had a new look for each city he traveled to, the Maharaja would be caught in hilarious, often bizarre situations — rescuing a mermaid on a beach in Sydney, skiing down icy mountains in Europe in nothing but a turban and underwear, or selling risqué pictures on a seedy sidewalk in Paris.
“When Bobby Kooka first introduced his creation, the Maharaja, to me, I felt an instant rapport between us,” wrote Cowasji in the opening note to Rogue’s Gallery in 1973. “I noticed the Maharaja was a little shy and that he didn’t make many public appearances. But I also saw a great potential in him and began to feature him in our forthcoming attractions, with top billings. Soon, very soon, he became the star performer he was destined to be, and today — the image of an entire airline is built around him.”
Cowasji and his team of designers in Air-India’s in-house art studio created a series of inventive, often provocative posters. In one, the Maharaja turns into a snake charmer in Rome, but without any serpents to enchant at hand, he makes do with his dinner: With his melodious tunes, he charms strands of spaghetti into forming the words “Rome” above his head. In another, he’s seen dressed up as a Playboy Bunny, serving drinks to a young Hugh Hefner, founder of Playboy magazine, and his then assistant and girlfriend, Cynthia Maddox.
“The sexual impropriety suggested by the Maharaja’s costume here perfectly encapsulates the bawdiness that was so fundamental to his personality,” said co-curator Carly Johnson. “The Maharaja was ultimately able to behave in ways that no other national icon would even consider. His cartoonish absurdity, roly-poly figure, and unabashed personality made him simply too unintimidating for his actions to be taken very seriously, thus enabling him to push the boundaries of sexual conduct within advertising.”
While his daredevilry added to his charm, Air-India also garnered many critics for choosing the symbol of a king or a raja as its mascot, at a time when post-independent India was integrating its many princely states into a unified democratic government, ultimately rendering royalty as a thing of the past. Despite accusations that he presented a false and retrograde image of India, the Maharaja prevailed. “We call him our Maharaja for want of a better description. But his blood isn’t blue. He looks like royalty, but he isn’t royal,” Kooka once said of the mascot.
The sharp humor and the boldness of Air-India’s campaigns led to a paradigm shift in the industry. Punctuated with satire and irreverence, the campaigns consistently capitalized on their shock value, giving rise to a new brand of advertising unlike anything India had seen before. This new visual language was underscored not only by the Maharaja’s many guises and antics, but also by the succinct, outrageous copy that often accompanied his image. Ultimately, what truly distinguished the cheeky, intrepid campaigns was the airlines’ concept of poking fun at its audience rather than paying deference to it.
Most importantly, however, Air-India inserted the Maharaja into real-world dialogues, allowing him to interact with the public in a novel way. “On his billboards, the Maharaja could be seen commenting not only on Air-India’s newest destinations, but also on Nixon’s politics and even the Queen of England’s pregnancy,” said co-curator Sophia Williamson. “As a result, he became a real person to many of his fans, one whose opinions on politics and current events were subject to just as much discussion as those of any public figure.”
In spite of his popularity, the Maharaja’s unconventional escapades often stoked controversy, irking certain politicians and world leaders. In 1956, Air-India released a Paris poster that featured lettering inspired by the legs of cabaret dancers. The Maharaja, whose head dots a lowercase “i,” is shown ogling the dancers’ legs — a classic example of the mascot’s bawdy humor.
“I made the poster after my first visit to Paris, when we went to the Crazy Horse salon, a popular nightclub,” said Nargis Wadia, a designer of the then in-house art studio, who went on to become one of the most prolific names in the Indian advertising industry. Wadia’s poster ruffled a few feathers in the Indian parliament, and had to be recalled and modified to replace the Maharaja’s head with a simple circle. (The Paris poster, along with another one for a Prague route was sold for INR 10 Lakhs at a Sotheby’s auction in 2018). While this poster — along with many others — struck a few nerves both within India and internationally, it did not impact the airline’s approach. “We wanted to make a splash as Air-India was a nascent airline and they were competing with American and British carriers,” Wadia once said in an interview. “The brief given to our studio was to let our hair down and do anything international in flavor.”
Throughout the decades, Air-India also commissioned many international artists and designers to create posters and objects, reflecting the versatility of its visual vocabulary. David Gentleman used woodcuts to create an illustration of the Maharaja as a beetroot — his roots, stretched out below him, form the “routes” of Air-India, labeled with the various destinations offered by the airline; Tomi Ungerer brought his humorous and erotic gaze to a series of posters, in one case, depicting the Maharaja as a naughty putto, caught in a racy situation between a gentleman in a top hat and the painting of a nude lady at the Louvre. (In one of its most high-profile artistic collaborations, Air-India commissioned Salvador Dalí to produce a decorative object in the form of an ashtray supported by swans that, when turned upside down, resembled elephants. In a bizarre exchange for the project, Dalí requested — and received — a baby elephant).
By the mid-70s, Air-India’s creative peak was slowly coming to an end. “An onslaught of unsatisfactory services, degrading public perception, insufficient aircraft utilization, and dearth of revenue funds trickled down to the corporation, and eventually led to the demise of its advertising campaigns,” said Kapoor. While the golden years of the airline’s advertising gradually dimmed, the campaigns it created during the span of those few decades have stayed as crisp, clever, and witty as they once were — held together by a turbanned maharaja who is equal parts mascot and masterpiece.