How the Maharajah Got Its Wings: The Story of Air India’s Iconic Mascot…

One of India’s most recognisable and loved mascots, Air India’s portly Maharajah with folded hands has held a special place in the hearts of its citizens for years.

“We can call him the Maharajah for want of a better description. But his blood isn’t blue. He may look like royalty, but he isn’t royal. He is capable of entertaining the Queen of England and splitting a beer with her butler. He is a man of many parts: lover boy, sumo wrestler, pavement artist, vendor of naughty post cards, Capuchin monk, Arab merchant…”

These are the words of Bobby Kooka, the man who conceived Air India’s Maharajah nearly 72 years ago. One of India’s most recognisable and loved mascots, this portly figure in regal garb has held a special place in the hearts of its citizens for years.

Here’s the fascinating story of Air India’s iconic Maharajah.

A part of Air India’s campaign to distinguish itself from its peers, the jovial and rotund Maharajah first made his appearance on an in-flight memo pad in the mid-1940s. He was conceived by SK (Bobby) Kooka, who was then a Commercial Director with Air India and sketched by Umesh Rao, an artist at J Walter Thompson in Bombay.

Back then, India was known as the “Land of the Maharajas” and Air India was its only international carrier, flying to destinations such as Cairo, Prague, Damascus, Zurich and Istanbul. So Kooka wanted to create an illustration for Air India’s letterhead that would symbolise graciousness and elegant living.







SK Kooka with Captain V Vishwanath in May 1948 
It was somewhat along these lines that his creators, Kooka and Rao, gave him a distinctive personality, luxuriant moustache, aquiline nose and the quintessentially Indian turban. Eventually, the regal figure became Air-India’s mascot for its advertising and sales promotion activities.

For the next few years, the Maharajah was ingeniously used by India’s national airline to introduce new flight routes. His funny antics and quirky puns also allowed Air India to promote its services with subtle humour and unmatched panache.

For instance, one of the posters from Air India’s “retro collection” shows the Maharajah as a Russian Kalinka dancer to advertise its flight to Moscow. Another one shows him on a speedboat surfing in Australia with the boat replaced by two mermaids. Yet another one shows him being carried as a prey, hands and feet tied, by two lions in the jungles of Nairobi.

Here are some iconic posters that show the Maharajah in his quirky avatars, looking quite at home in famous locations around the world.

              Photo Source: Air India on Imgur.

   As such, the Maharajah came dressed in various garbs, but his trademark twirly moustache and his roly-poly stature remained — until 2017 when he lost of a bit of his flab and traded his traditional attire for blue jeans, trainers and a low-slung satchel to align himself with the modern times.

Unsurprisingly, the Maharajah has won numerous national and international awards for Air India for originality in advertising and publicity.

Interestingly, at one point in time, the mascot’s regal connotations triggered a controversy with politicians expressing doubts about using such a symbol to represent a nation with socialist aspirations. As a result, Air India did away with the Maharajah in 1989. But there was such a hue and cry from various quarters that the popular mascot had to be brought back.

In fact, during these years, Maharajah stickers and dolls were common in most middle-class Indian homes, even those where air travel was considered a luxury!


                                                                       So like all great men, the Maharajah has had his critics. But the millions of travellers who love him far outnumber them. For many of them, the inimitable mascot is a real person, almost like a friend who reaches out with warmth and hospitality, even to the farthest corners of the world.

As Rahul Da Cunha, the ad man behind the equally iconic Amul India campaign, once said,

“The Amul girl and the Air India Maharaja are the most brilliant characters ever created. The Maharaja encapsulates everything Air India should be: Indian luxury, hospitality, services and above all, royalty. It is royalty combined with humility. What can be a more iconic symbol for an Indian carrier?”


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” A Bad Prank by a Pax on Board …. It Went Wrong For the Crazy Pax anyway …”

A man has been arrested over an incident on an Air India flight.

A man has been arrested over an incident on an Air India flight. Source: Getty Images 

A PASSENGER attempts to chat up a flight attendant, but she resists his “charms” and walks away. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turns out, a lot!

Yousuf Sharif, 35, allegedly sparked hijacking fears on board an Air India flight from Dubai to Hyderabad, India on Tuesday. And it was all because of a very bad prank he decided to play on a flight attendant, the Times of India reports.

Sitting in business class, the Indian resident asked the crew member if she would take a selfie with him on his phone. He also asked if he could photograph the cockpit.

“He was requesting the crew member to pose for a selfie and tried to engage her in a conversation, to which she objected,” Police officer T Sudhakar, who works for Rajiv Gandhi International Airport, where the plane landed, told local news website the DeccanChronicle.

Police allege the man had been trying to flirt with the staff member and when she refused to talk to him, he decided to scare her with a hijacking prank.

“When the air hostess rejected his request and started walking away, Yousuf told her that he will hijack the flight,” Deputy Commissioner of Police Shamshabad AR Srinivas said. “She immediately alerted the pilot.”

The man was questioned once the flight touched down, no charges have yet been laid. has contacted Air India for comment.

He allegedly threatened to hijack the plane as a prank. Picture: Stefan Krasowski

He allegedly threatened to hijack the plane as a prank. Picture: Stefan Krasowski Source: Flickr 



Do you Know That the Largest Air Evacuation in History was done by India …?

When thousands of Indians were stuck in Kuwait during Gulf war, the Indian government executed the world’s largest air evacuation mission ever. The operation continued for almost two months and managed to airlift over 1,70,000 Indians. Here is all you need to know about the amazing effort!

Air India might be largely known today for delayed flights and poor service. But did you know that the largest air evacuation in the history of mankind was executed by the much aligned national airline of India? In 1990, the Indian government airlifted over 1,70,000 Indians from Kuwait with help of 488 flights in just 59 days. Air India entered into Guinness Book of World Records for the civil airline that had evacuated the most people till date.

Why the evacuation?

During the Gulf war in 1990, when Saddam Hussain invaded Kuwait, the Iraqis took over the city in a few hours leaving the entire country in a state of terror. This included the fairly significant Indian community there as well. While the Kuwaiti royal family escaped to Saudi Arabia, the general population suffered great tragedies and loss. The responsibility came on the Indian government to safely evacuate the Indian community from Kuwait and hence, the largest air evacuation mission took shape.

“We did not use the word ‘condemn’ in our statement [about the Iraqi attack], for two reasons: one, we were concerned about our nationals there; second, we still believed that there was some scope for a negotiated solution to the problem. We were keen to play a role. If we condemned the development openly, it would have been difficult for us to deal with Iraq,” said K.P. Fabian, former Ambassador of India who was head of the Gulf Division of the Ministry of External Affairs during the First Gulf War.

What made it difficult?

Evacuating the Indian community from Kuwait was not an easy task. People were not ready to leave behind everything they had spent their entire lives earning in Kuwait. They underestimated the gravity of the situation and were reluctant to leave their well-settled lives.

Also, many people living there did not have valid travel papers as they had handed them over to their employers who were either missing or dead.

“Meanwhile, another problem was brewing. One set of Air India crew was stranded in Kuwait, having flown in a flight earlier. The Air India pilots and staff threatened that unless we got this crew out, they would ground the flights. The threat was indeed serious. As per Ministry of Overseas Indians (MOIA) annual report 2012-13, there are over 25 million overseas Indians across the globe and whenever need arises, it is the government’s responsibility to bring back the country’s citizens safely. Not only just the evacuation during Gulf war, Indian government has successfully executed many such missions. It was decided that the Foreign Minister should go to Baghdad and Kuwaitand urgently arrange repatriation of our nationals” said Fabian.

Also, Indian people took shelter in various schools and other buildings in various parts of Amman. They had to travel from various places to the Amman airport. It could not be predicted when these people would arrive and due to this, flights got delayed a lot. The crew had to stay on duty for a much longer time than the stipulated duty hours which created a lot of tiffs.

How did they do it?

Indian government officials went to Kuwait to meet Saddam Hussain and get him on board the arranged repatriation of Indian nationals.

“We conveyed our official viewpoint and also our plans to evacuate our nationals. He listened to our views and repeated his known position, and agreed to facilitate the repatriation of our nationals,” said Fabian.

As the help reached on August 14 (12 days after the invasion had taken place), Indian citizens were angry as they were expecting a quicker intervention by the Indian government. But, the then Foreign Minister I.K. Gujral quickly brought the crowd under control and in no time had them shouting “Bharat Mata ki Jai”.

Initially, a few military aircrafts were arranged to evacuate the elderly, women and children. But due to a lengthy air space clearance procedure, this did not seem like a feasible solution. So the government turned to Air India for assistance.

You should have seen us. We were operating out of a hotel room in Amman with very little space and carrying out all our operations from there,” MP Mascarenhas, who organised the operation as the airline’s regional director in the Gulf & Middle East, told Scroll.

The Indian Air Force deployed its IL 76 aircraft for a steady communication link between Kuwait and Delhi government officials. The situation was severe and required immediate help and attention. The Kerala government came forward and dispatched food items for the Indian nationals in Kuwait.

“My suggestion was that we needed to first pick up mothers with babies, other children, women, sick and old people. And also, on the basis of some kind of distributive justice, we needed to select people from every region,” said Fabian.

There were far more people to be evacuated than expected. But, the coordination and team work of the people on the mission managed to evacuate all the Indian nationals out of the country. There was also a Pakistani Airline crew stranded in Kuwait and they wished to be evacuated by Indian aircrafts. On humanitarian grounds, the Indian officials agreed.

The successful operation that started on August 14 1990, continued for almost 2 months and created history, finally coming to an end on October 11.

Other notable achievements

This was not the only successful evacuation and heroic act by the Indian government. “Operation Sukoon” in 2006 by the Indian Navy was another great operation to evacuate Indian, Sri Lankan and Nepalese nationals, as well as Lebanese nationals with Indian spouses, from the conflict zone during the 2006 Lebanon War. Four naval ships – INS Mumbai, INS Betwa and INS Brahmaputra and oil tanker INS Shakti – executed the successful operation.

Another successful evacuation “Operation Blossom” took place in 2011 when mass protests against the military broke out in Libya. Around 8,000 Indians were evacuated with help from Indian Navy’s INS Jalashwa (an amphibious transport dock ship) and a destroyer INS Mysore – both these ships together could carry around 1,200 people at one go – and the fleet tanker the INS Aditya.

The Indian government has time and again proved that it leaves no stone unturned in bringing back its people safely to the country in times of distress anywhere in the world. Kudos to all the heroes who have showed immense courage and humanity in the toughest of times.

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