Friday, May 11, 2018

The lady who took Maharaja to the world

He’s been there, done that. Over the last 72 years, the Maharaja has travelled to far corners of the Earth. From Canada to Brazil to Fiji. He has sold “naughty pictures” on the streets of Paris, ogled at women at Bondi, and nearly became bushmeat in Nairobi. If the world’s most famous airline mascot were to thank someone for all his travels (perhaps some Suntory from Duty Free?), he can thank Nargis Wadia.

In 1955, when Wadia joined Air India’s in-house art studio as a designer, the Maharaja was used only for corporate branding. You would see him at Air India’s booking offices, on stationery, coasters and other material, but not much elsewhere. Then came the brief to take him public and international. “We’re starting a new flight. Go design something,” was the cue. What followed was a series of posters that would go on to define Air India, and position it as an international airline of class.
Over the next three years, Wadia and team went on to create cutting-edge artwork that won her several international awards, but more importantly, gave Air India the lift it was looking for in the international market. Among her more famous works were the posters for Switzerland, Germany and Air India’s reclining seats—or slumberettes. But it was the one for Paris that would make heads turn—or roll, quite literally.

It was a clean, minimal poster with the typography inspired by the cabaret dancers at the Crazy Horse Club in Paris. Beautiful legs in colourful leotards, with the Maharaja’s turbaned head crowning the letter ‘i’. It was sheer brilliance—even Jal Cowasji, who headed Air India’s publicity department, and Bobby Kooka, the man who created the Maharaj, would agree.

But the wit was lost on many at home, and Wadia’s poster created a furore in the Parliament. “This is an insult to the nation, they said. They wanted it taken down,” she recalls. After much back-and-forth, a compromise was achieved—if the poster was to stay, the Maharaja had to go. And thus rolled out a sanitised version, an unintentional allegory for the mindless controversy. “I was heartbroken,” the artist says. A few months later, Wadia would go on to win the first prize at the prestigious Commercial Artists Guild awards for that very poster. It was a vindication of her work. Not that she needed any—Wadia was creating one iconic poster after another, using mix-media, including origami to fashion some of the artwork.

Back in the day, Japan Airlines was creating some good designs, but by far the best work was coming from Air India, Wadia says.  The team was led by Cowasji, himself a connoisseur of art. “Air India’s offices then had Husain, Gaitonde and Rawal. Jal brought in a lot of art into the environment,” Wadia recalls. “It was a very progressive team, right from JRD [Tata] downwards.” Wadia remembers JRD as a thorough gentleman, with an immaculate eye for detail. Though not always right.

“We were working on the new interiors for Air India. Our references to Boeing had a strong Indian flavour, and their designers did a great job with the mocks,” she recalls. Wadia and team spent three days setting up the ‘cabin’ for review. On the day, JRD trooped in with wife Thelma, looked at the designs and rejected them outright. ‘What’s with the peacocks,’ he said. ‘We need an international look.’

“Then, he turned to me and asked what I thought. I said ‘It looks great, fantastic’,” she says. “ ‘Really? I don’t think so,’ he said and walked off. And so, we had to change it all,” she says. “I still think he was wrong,” she chuckles.
11/05/18 Salil Deshpande/Conde Nest Traveller