Piyo Chai, Suno Kahani

The mascot who taught Bombay laughter

Image Courtesy : Air India

With the recent national airline acquisition evoking much cheer, it’s time to retrace how its chubby mascot was cleverly conceived.

The 1946 inspiration of Bobby Kooka, Air India’s commercial director, was executed with rare flair by the artist Umesh Rao. This creation of the iconic Maharaja involved trying thousands of designs and different girth measures for the closed-eyed, bowing figure. He was originally intended as an overdressed flunkey, not courteous royalty. By the 1960s, the carrier produced some of the world’s best airline advertising.

The billboard fronting the company’s offices had the portly pasha quip, “Nariman had a point and I’ll be on it” – responding to JRD Tata’s 1970 announcement of the new AI headquarters. It showed the Maharaja squat perkily atop the tower soon to boast the country’s first escalator.

With every new tagline hatched, a call rang out from Kooka’s office to Bahadur, the J Walter Thompson artist who rushed on motorbike for a thorough briefing. Next came Creado, the man shimmying up scaffolding to hand-paint what was on paper – a skill lost to public sight around 2000 with the arrival of printed flexes.

Fittingly, when Kooka passed away in 1996, his brainchild mourned: “I’ve lost my voice.”


MEHER MARFATIA

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