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Storyboard | Who knew that Air India’s Maharajah was born on the corner of a letterhead?

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Air India, Tata and HTA – advertising veterans share stories of working on the iconic brand in its golden age.

Storyboard | Who knew that Air India’s Maharajah was born on the corner of a letterhead?
In the corridors of Wunderman Thompson which in its earlier avatars was Hindustan Thompson, J. Walter Thompson and JWT (and I had the fortune of working in each of these avatars spread over 19 years), many stories are told about the fantastic relationship between HTA and its client Air India in the days when JRD Tata was still at the helm of Air India.
We have heard that the symbol of the Maharajah was once drawn on the corner of a letterhead by HTA artist Umesh Rao. Bobby Kooka, then commercial director of Air India, a good friend of JRD Tata plus the Chairman of HTA saw the huge potential in it and the rest is history.
According to Ivan Arthur, former National Creative Director of HTA, who has worked extensively on Air India ads, there were some unwritten rules to drawing the Maharajah: “He cannot open his eyes, he cannot open his mouth and he cannot be shown with a bare head – the turban or some headgear must always be there.”
Come to think of it, have we ever seen the Maharajah’s bare head? Mercifully not. But in the later years when the Tata's were no longer a part of Air India and HTA no longer handled the business – some artists did draw the Maharajah with his eyes open. And what a change of personality was evident! Instead of a suave and regal Maharajah, he looked more like a fat, sleazy, old uncle. Those unwritten rules sure did need to be followed.
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Ivan also says that though it was never put down formally anywhere, every person working on the business knew instinctively that everything done for Air India “had to carry its DNA – a double helix of exotica and charm.” The Maharajah had it, the cabin crew had it, the advertising had it. And even the people handling the business at Air India appear to have had it.
Prabhakar Mundkur, former Senior Vice President, HTA who handled the Air India business for many years, remembers Mr. S.S. Dabholkar of Air India very fondly. He always wore a bow tie and drove to the office in a Magnum 35. He and Ms. Uttara Parikh also of Air India, were very appreciative of good work and often came to the HTA offices in Laxmi Building to check out work being done to tough deadlines - unheard of in those days when it was always the agency that went to the client’s office.
Air India was started by JRD Tata in 1932 as Tata Airlines, it was nationalised 1953, but JRD was its chairman till 1977 and high standards continued to be maintained.
In keeping with practices followed by all government organisations, a certain percentage of all new hires had to be from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. These bright-eyed new hires from the far corners of the country may have been uneducated in the ways of the world when they joined, but they underwent rigorous training at Air India – and by the time they were done, they could tell every variety of wine and cheese from the other – and each one embodied the values that Air India stood for.
All of India is waiting with bated breath to see if Air India will become a part of the Tata family again. Perhaps because somewhere deep down, we all yearn for a return to those gracious days when the double helix of charm and exotica were a part of the airline’s DNA.
Nandita Chalam is former senior vice president & executive creative director, JWT. Chalam is also a lecturer on Advertising & Marketing, Xavier Institute of Communications.
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