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Mumbaiwale: An exhibition of rare Air India memorabilia

Wave to the Maharajah. And keep your seat-belt on. Next week’s show of Air India memorabilia combines history, aviation and nostalgia

Updated: Mar 12, 2020 13:49 IST

By Rachel Lopez, Hindustan Times

This image, from 1988, shows Air India’s Chief air hostess, Colleen Bhiladvala arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport. She is met by fellow AI flight attendants displaying the Company’s new uniforms. There were different styles for first class and for different aircraft. (HT FILE)

Maharajah of the Skies – An Indian Heritage

What: An exhibition of photographs of objects in the Air India archives
Where: Nehru Center, Worli
When: Thursday, Feb 13 to Sunday Feb 16. 9.30am to 7pm.
Entry is free
More information:

What will become of Air India? While companies edge close to making bids to buy it, a brighter side of the national carrier goes on display next week. Maharajah of the Skies – An Indian Heritage opens at the Nehru Center in Worli on Wednesday. It’s a collection of photographs of Air India-related memorabilia, amassed over 87 years, stored in an archive at the company’s Nariman Point headquarters, and never shown before.

Entry is free. But as with a flight, arrive early and give yourself plenty of time. The show is spread across 125 panels and includes images of Air India’s specially commissioned art works, iconic posters, diaries, in-flight menus, sales letters, coasters, luggage tags and other rare artefacts from a time when flying was glamorous and no one skimped on legroom. Curator Meera Dass and designer Huzoor Choudhry cover the company’s origins; its founder, JRD Tata; engineers; service missions for sports, culture and rescue; branding; and even their cargo division. Here’s what to know before you go.

India’s first international flight, is commemorated on a stamp. ( HT FILE )

Air India is more than an airline. Its history goes back to 1932, when JRD founded Tata Airlines, flying the first single-engine de Havilland Puss Moth, full of mail, from Karachi to the Juhu aerodrome, and then onward to Madras. The airline was incorporated into Air India after World War 2. But Tata was always involved. He was on board the Malabar Princess in 1948, Air India’s first international flight, which flew from Bombay to London via Cairo and Geneva, with 35 passengers. “It landed on time,” says Uttara Parikh, one of the show’s coordinators, who worked for the airline for 32 years and retired in 1999. “Mr Tata was so meticulous about punctuality, he told everyone they could set their watches by the landing time.”

The show is a branding bonanza. With Air India, you couldn’t escape Air India. Motifs, art and design covered every aspect of the company, from local and international posters, envelopes and souvenir calendars, down to themed luggage tags, and matchbooks whose matchstick heads were shaped like the Maharajah. “It was an attempt to showcase what Air India stood for,” says Dass. Bhanu Athaiya styled one calendar as miniature paintings in 1983, just before she went on to collect an Oscar for her costume design on the film, Gandhi.

Posters represented India abroad ( HT FILE )

But it started with art.The company’s unusual art collection – a staggering 8,000 works – came about when in 1956, Air India paid Rs 87.60 for six paintings of Indian women by a young artist called B Prabha. Those images went on menu cards and other promotional material. Foreign travellers were floored by the new visual signage. “Their reaction sparked the idea to create a collection,” says Parikh. Eventually, global offices started displaying contemporary art too. “We also fly,” Bobby Kooka, the company’s commercial director, would often joke. “It showed that Air India thought of itself first as a cultural organisation,” says Parikh.

Bombay was the mothership. The art studio set up on the 18th floor of the Air India building, was the place to be. Calligraphers would hand-paint dates on the calendars, flight attendant uniforms – resplendent Indianwear – would be designed, and decor for the glamorous 747s would be worked out. They even produced a manual on how Maharajah iconography was to be displayed.

Salvador Dali designed an ashtray. The Spanish artist created a shell-shaped green-enamelled porcelain and bisque work, with a serpent around its perimeter and swans at the bottom, in 1967. It was for Air India’s first-class guests. In exchange, Dali asked for a baby elephant. Parkh was tasked with procuring one. The Byculla zoo didn’t have any, so she got one from the Bangalore zoo and flew him to Dali, who named the animal Saras.

Other big names have collaborated too. Among the photos in the show are 12 advertisements that New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno created for the airline. There are also photographer Margaret Bourke-White’s images of sari-clad Air India flight attendants, which were shot for Life magazine.

There’s been an in-flight wedding. In 1994, the family of jewellery baron Lakshman Popley chartered an Air India flight from Bombay to Ahmedabad, so his son Dilip could tie the knot 26,000 feet in the air.

There’s a museum online too. Piyush Khaitan, who maintains the exhaustive memorabilia resource site, says Air India was “truly the ambassador of India”. Its legacy now lies in the former employees and collectors who hold on to its history. Khaitan built his collection from the ground up, sourcing from raddiwallas to auction houses abroad, and “pestering Air India old-timers for keepsakes”. His favourite item is a collection of 300 beer coasters dating from 1948 to the present. “Each is a result of painstaking effort by artists in the Air India design studio,” he says. The site sparks joy worldwide. “People send me greetings, reminiscences and artefacts. It is such a wonderful feeling hearing from them.”


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