Air India's Maharaja: Memories Of A Beloved Mascot

Clad in a red sherwani and distinctive turban, a plastic model of the iconic Maharaja is an indelible part of the author's childhood memories
A photo of the author (as a baby in his mother's lap) and his family with Maharaja in the left corner
A photo of the author (as a baby in his mother's lap) and his family with Maharaja in the left corner

Air India's fresh announcement about introducing a new livery made me think about its iconic Maharaja mascot, its intriguing ambassador since the 1940s. Thankfully, the airline continued it for the "charm it effortlessly carries." I can't agree more because I am one of those whose eyes have witnessed its allure since childhood. After all, a petite model of it, about two feet tall, has been at my home since the mid-1980s, when I wasn't even born.

Made of solid plastic, Maharaja stands clad in a bright red sherwani with a turban of red and white stripes. The necklace's design is beautiful, and the moustache, as we all know, is big and whirls quite creatively. But this Maharaja's expression of welcome, whose body is slightly bowed with eyes closed and one hand pressed on the chest, touches me and every one the most. The moment it arrived, it was offered a place of prominence where everyone could get a chance to meet: the drawing room.

Interestingly, it wasn't bought but gifted to my very social grandfather by a travel agent in Amritsar, from where it came straight to our village home, not far from the border. Though the Maharaja is silent, everyone, including our guests, instantly connects with it. Even as a child, I vividly remember many guests talking about it, never forgetting to ask where it was bought from. Some spoke about its moustache, while some about its turban – often acting as an ice-breaker between the guests and us. Of course, they did and continue to laud his gesture of welcome!

The author's cousin posing with the Maharaja
The author's cousin posing with the MaharajaRameshinder Singh Sandhu

Over the years, our attachment with it kept growing, so when we shifted to the city in the 90s, we brought him along, placing it again in the drawing room. We kept him on our telephone table for some time, allowing him to absorb many of our tales. Our maids gave him some amusing names. More than a decade later, he came with us again when we shifted to another neighbourhood where we now live. We didn't care how old it had started to look. In this new home, we initially made him guard our drawing-room door, but as we noticed the sun snatching his sherwani's colour, we brought him in, who has called almost every room in the house his home from time to time. A year ago, I placed it next to my writing table from where he watches me, and I watch him as I write or ponder between my lines.

When I open the family albums, I can spot him in many pictures, chiefly the birthday ones, clicked at the village home. The photographer may not have focused on him, but he still stood out on the side as if enjoying the celebrations. He reminds me of home when I spot him at airports or travel offices.

Air India's Maharaja mascot
Air India's Maharaja mascotAir India

From a recent online article I read, I learned that Maharaja originated from the creative minds of Bobby Kooka, the commercial director of Air India, along with Jal Cowasji, the art director and head of publicity. The character debuted in 1946, initially sketched by Umesh Rao, an artist from an advertising agency in Bombay, on an inflight memo pad. But what surprised me more while reading was that Syed Wajid Ali, a late Pakistani industrialist from Lahore, a friend of Kooka, inspired Maharaja's entire look, including the moustache. Besides running his family textile business, Ali was also President of the Pakistan National Olympics Committee for 26 years. Since Maharaja's birth, it has been widely used for Air India's commercials, including posters that have depicted him in various moods, dresses and lively activities.

The face of our Maharaja may have cracked, and its base, which carried the logo of Air India, may have disappeared, but we still can't think of discarding it for the bond we share. Hope Air India, too, will always keep him alive. As I finish penning this sentence, I look towards him, and he seems to pass me a warm smile!

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