Maharaja musings with Nargis Wadia

The Paris Air-India poster from the Fifties is iconic enough but it has a more interesting tale behind it… Note the dot sitting above the ‘i’ saucily made up of a pair of blue-legginged legs. That circle originally contained the face of the Air-India mascot, the Maharaja, eyes merrily a-twinkle. It was designed by Nargis Wadia, then a visualiser in her early 20s with Air-India, and it went on to create quite a hullabaloo. “When I started designing the Paris poster, I had just returned from a trip to Paris, on a free trip garnered after a year of working with Air-India,” laughs Nargis, as she reminisces the time she visited the Crazy Horse salon nightclub along with an artist friend. “I was quite amazed to see these leotards and fluorescent legs being kicked up to the skies! That was my inspiration for the Paris poster.”

However, once the poster in question rolled out, it ruffled many feathers in Parliament, no less. “They demanded to know how we could have the Maharaja, the mascot of India, in such a compromising position!” The first run of prints had to be recalled and modified but today, 65 years later, it is generating interest all over again, having tickled the attention of Sotheby’s Managing Director, and being included in its inaugural auction in India, called Boundless India.If the Maharaja got ‘naughty’ in Paris, Nargis had him transformed into a puppet in traditional costume for the poster promoting Prague. “In those days there used to be a lot of street entertainers and gorgeously costumed folk dancers who would travel the world. I combined the puppet show as well as the costumes,” she shares about the poster which also became very popular at the time.

Maharaja musings with Nargis Wadia

Those were the early heady days of Air-India, which had originated as Tata Air Services founded by the legendary J R D Tata, and became a public limited company in 1946. For young Nargis, who had opted for Commercial Arts on the advice of her forward-thinking mother, it was a chance to work with “very creative people like Mr Bobby Kooka and Mr Jal Cawasji, the stalwarts of Air-India.” She also had the opportunity to meet with the man himself, J R D Tata on several occasions to discuss design. “It was a new airline and it wasn’t structured that you couldn’t meet the bosses or anything like that,” she points out.
Despite chuckling that she was “a bit of an iconoclast,” Nargis has no hesitation dubbing JRD “one of the finest gentlemen one could come across.” She recalls her first meeting with him: “Now here I was in my early twenties, going to see him in the building opposite ours… Entering the corridors, you would get a bit awestruck by the thought that you would be meeting Mr Tata. But the minute the door was opened, he got up from his desk to welcome me, and there was I got very self-conscious because I had paint on my fingers! I wished I had spruced myself up a little more! Then he would offer tea and the sandwiches from the Taj…”

Maharaja musings with Nargis Wadia

She remembers him being very easy to talk to “but he was very careful about the Air India image, which had to be elegant and special to stand out.” She learned that when she was once showing him some rough designs. JRD pointed to the logo which was stuck in its designated space, saying, ‘Miss Khambatta, you have stuck the centaur such that his arrow is pointing slightly downwards. Now that won’t do!’ She demurred, ‘Sir, this is just a rough design’. ‘No, that doesn’t matter, you can never have it pointing downwards!’ he repeated. “He was so particular. He had no airs, just a very easy, free-flowing relationship with the staff. Not that they were backslapping people or anything like that. It was all very correct but it was still not rigid,” she explains.

Today, after winning recognition for her talent, bagging prizes, being featured in international Design Annuals and even being the first woman in India to set up her own ad agency, Nargis is grateful for her “Capricornian habit of preserving everything,” Sotheby’s agrees.

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