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Air India and the Maharajah Man

Air India and the Maharajah Man

For the Tatas, nation-building meant not only leading the way forward as an industrial force; it meant breaking new ground in almost every aspect of life, from higher and technical education, to scholarship, philanthropy, sports and aviation.

The creation of the Tata Airlines’ mascot is one of many short but inspiring stories in a new book, #TataStories: 40 Timeless Tales To Inspire You (2021), by Harish Bhat. The author has curated an engaging collection of stories about the Tata Group, whose history has often intersected with that of India.

This is the delightful story of one of India’s first marketing wizards, a maverick of the Tata Group, and a close associate and friend of J.R.D. Tata. He’s the man behind the Maharajah, the lovable mascot of Air India: Sorab Kaikushroo Kooka, aka Bobby Kooka. 

Bobby Kooka was recruited into the aviation department of the Tata Group in the year 1938. Tata Airlines was still a fledgling airline service at that time. Many years later, J.R.D. Tata fondly narrated the tale of how he first met the man. 

‘I don’t know how many of you there are here tonight who were in Tata Airlines in May 1938—probably not many—when Mr Kooka first burst upon an astonished air transport world which has never been the same since. On that fateful day in May, Mr Kooka appeared in my office and, having pointed out the deficiencies in the Tata organization, explained how badly needed he was in Tatas to put them right . . . I decided that if there was any place for him in Tatas, it could only be in Tata Airlines. Furthermore, in those days, the chances of survival of Tata Airlines were pretty dim and so it was clear that by employing him there we would be taking little risk of making any permanent commitment.’ 

Bobby Kooka with JRD Tata

Bobby Kooka also recalled this first encounter with J.R.D. Tata in his inimitable style: ‘I was told that I would have to see Mr J.R.D. Tata. I was warned that Mr Tata was a terror. Heart in mouth, I went to his office. He asked me very searching questions, none of which could I answer. He was obviously impressed, so impressed, that within seconds, I was ushered out of the room . . .’

Driving this banter was a brilliant, fertile marketing brain. After spending a few years as secretary of Tata Airlines, Bobby Kooka had decided to give the brand (now rechristened as Air India, with J.R.D. as chairman) a human face that represented India with charm and dignity. At the first booking office of the company, located in Churchgate in Mumbai, he created ‘an oriental potentate, sitting on a magic carpet, smoking a bubble hookah’. This was the beginning of the Air India Maharajah, perhaps India’s very own first advertising mascot that went on to win millions of hearts across the world. 

In Bobby Kooka’s own words: ‘We call him a Maharajah for want of a better description. But his blood isn’t blue. He might look like royalty, but he isn’t royal.’

Working together with Umesh Rao of J. Walter Thomson, the advertising agency, Kooka envisioned with flourish such a lovable symbol of India—a round face, with an outsized moustache, striped turban and long nose. 

After making his first appearance in 1946, the Maharajah was all over the world, in the process making Air India one of the most visible and engaging brands globally. Fifty years before Google even thought of Google Doodles, Bobby Kooka was constantly reinventing the Maharajah—as a lover boy in Paris, a sumo wrestler in Tokyo, a Romeo in Rome, and a guru of transcendental meditation in Rishikesh. The Maharajah was funny, irreverent, up to antics, but always full of India, his proud homeland. He was a friend to every traveller on India’s national airline, and would reach out to them with warmth and hospitality. 

Some iconic Air India posters

Bobby Kooka also extended this ‘Indianness’ to every office of the airline, worldwide. Imagery, dances, paintings and sculptures from India appeared in the offices of Air India in New York, Geneva and London, making the airline a beautiful showcase of the country’s great heritage. This, in turn, attracted many global travellers to make it their airline of choice. The legendary film-maker Muzaffar Ali, who worked as a member of Bobby Kooka’s marketing team for many years, said, ‘For eleven years, I was on a flight, dreaming through the eyes of Kooka and his mentor J.R.D. I was not working for Air India, but for India.’ 

What beautiful words. Not only was Kooka a marketing genius, he was also a maverick who created storms in many teacups in his time. He used to write for the Tata House magazine, editing the last page, called the ‘Tata Patter’, under various pen names including ‘Pestonjee Pepper’, ‘Umslopogas’ and ‘Chief of the Amazulus’. On the page ‘Tata Patter’, he proceeded to, in the words of J.R.D. Tata, ‘play havoc with the whole Tata organization by demolishing the ego and assassinating the character of every Tata director and senior official . . . [also], through Air India hoardings, he demolished and punctured innumerable egos, which placed me at the receiving end of endless complaints from MPs and ministers, including Mr Morarji Desai and Mr Krishna Menon, who were depicted in red pants running a track race with Mr Kripalani.’ 

But nonetheless, J.R.D. Tata provided Bobby Kooka with the required support throughout his career, because he recognized Kooka’s genius, and perhaps also the need for some benign humour in the midst of our daily challenges.

As J.R.D. said at Bobby Kooka’s retirement function in 1971: ‘May you never cease tilting at windmills, at the pretentious, the charlatans, and the hypocrites of the world.’

He also said, ‘I forgive him all the apologies I had to tender on his behalf. I forgive him all the scars that I have borne because of the pleasure, the laughter and the relief from frustration and boredom that he provided to thousands, and perhaps millions, of people.’ 

This immediately reminds me of one of J.R.D. Tata’s key secrets to his success, of which he says, ‘If I have any merit, it is getting on with individuals according to their ways and characteristics . . . to be a leader, you have to lead human beings with affection.’ J.R.D. led the maverick Bobby Kooka with that same human affection, and, in turn, Kooka led the fabulously successful marketing and publicity efforts for the nation’s flagship airline, including the creation and nurturing of the Air India Maharajah.

The book cover and author Harish Bhat

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India. You can buy the book here

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