Air India Maharajah: An Anachronism or Timeless?

11 Oct,2021



By Prabhakar Mundkur


Prabhakar MundkurThe tirade against the Maharajah is almost as old as that against the airline itself. The Air India top management, the aviation ministry and their new advertising agencies have been wanting to do away with the Maharajah for almost 30 years now. The agency HTA* that created him and nurtured him, even lost the Air India business after handling it for over half a century, maybe because they were the creators of the Maharajah.


It is really a wonder he has survived this long. He doesn’t look the same, he doesn’t speak the same language that he spoke years ago when I handled the business, he has lost his unique sense of humour and wit, he is completely out of touch with current affairs, in fact he is a mere shadow of his former self and he might as well have been executed than allowed to linger like this on a ventilator. He was born on the corner of a letterhead, and he has gone back to being there, making me wonder if he might also be buried there.


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Most people who have this point of view don’t understand that he is not just a Maharajah. He is a mascot who embodies the soul of Air India. Only his garb is that of an Indian prince. When he was conceived, he was meant to stand for everything that Air India stood for. Just like well-travelled Indian royalty that could speak authoritatively to both India and the world. Also, the Maharajah was not just the Maharajah. He took many shapes and forms disguised for the country he was meant to represent.


Sawant, one of the Creative Directors at HTA who could draw the Maharajah in 15 seconds. was so inspiring that HTA once created a film, by making Sawant draw the Maharajah in real time, with a camera following his talented hands.


K ‘Bobby’ Kooka, the Commercial Director of Air India, is once known to have said: “We call him a Maharajah for want of a better description. But his blood isn’t blue. He may look like royalty, but he isn’t royal.” Famous for having conceived the Maharajah along with Umesh Murdeshwar Rao of JWT in 1946, the Maharajah is one of the oldest mascots in the world. Kooka was later Chairman of Hindustan Thomspon Associates*) and watched the Maharajah and Air India advertising grow in stature and popularity.


Ivan Arthur, earlier National Creative Director of JWT, and now educator and author, when asked about the Air India advertising, said: “Conceived as a letterhead design, the Maharajah broke the fetters of the line drawing and became flesh with a personality and DNA of his own: the double helix of gracious exotica. That DNA did not permit him to stand in the street corners of conventional media and tout his destinations like a cheap ticket salesman. His famous romps on those hoardings were not advertising. They were non-advertising: parlour talk, one-liner points of view, camaraderie, provocation and good humour, all of which did not ask you to buy an Air India ticket. In fact, in many of the hoardings, he refused to have the Air India logo as sign-off. He was the sign-off. He was no commercial mascot. He became a national figure. Much loved and respected.



The Maharajah dies a 100 deaths


Come the ’80s, however, frequent changes to the Chairman of Air India position resulted in the Maharajah dying a 100 deaths. Air India chiefs were keen to kill the Maharajah in lieu of something new and more contemporary. One such case was when in the late ’80s one Air India chief hired Landor, the well-known design firm, to redesign the logo of Air India in 1989. An airline identity change is one of the most expensive identity changes for any industry because it involves repainting all the aircraft, the livery, the ground vehicles and every signage in every country. But Air India went through all that bravely, eager to dump both the Centaur, which was their logo for the longest time and the Maharajah who was accused of not being in tune with the times. Rajan Jetley, then Managing Director of Air India, had said in defence of the new logo: “It is a public statement of change and a product exercise in the classic marketing sense.”


Air India’s new identity created by Landor


This was painted on the tail of the aircraft and the Boeing 747 Rajendra Chola became the first aircraft to carry the new logo and the livery. This facelift is known to have cost Air India $35 million back in 1989. But the public started questioning the change, immediately missing their familiar brand Air India. Questions were also raised in Parliament about the change of identity. But in spite of the identity change, the Maharajah seemed reluctant to leave the brand and its advertising. For every one person who didn’t want him, there was a loyal fan who wanted him back.


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Changing a brand’s identity is not an easy task. It is easy to say the Maharajah is an anachronism for those who don’t understand the Maharajah and the brand. Colonel Sanders who died in 1980 is still a part of the KFC logo. The Marlboro cowboy first made his appearance in 1954 while the cowboy era ended in 1885 at the end of the American Civil Revolution. They are not anachronisms. They are timeless just like the Maharajah. As Piyush Pandey, Chairman of Ogilvy is known to have said to Economic Times last week: “The Air India Maharaja stands for India. For any brand, any mascot, any logo, any identity is as meaningful as what they do with it.”


With the Air India brand firmly with the Tatas, one wonders what the future of the Maharajah might be? Considering that the Maharajah is a crucial part of Air India’s brand equity and having worked on the brand, I can only hope that he will be re-incarnated.


*now Wunderman Thompson

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