Air-India’s Maharaja: Advertising Gone Rogue

September 9, 2022–February 12, 2023

“Rogue’s Gallery,” published by Air-India in 1977, was a catalog showcasing the airline’s most iconic travel posters produced from 1946 to 1972. The star of these posters was Air-India’s beloved mascot, the Maharaja, alias “the Rogue.” Conceived in 1946 by Bobby Kooka and illustrated by Umesh Rao, the Maharaja was initially designed for an inflight memo pad. Characterized by his oversized mustache, striped turban, corpulent belly, and aquiline nose, the mascot would go on to become the face of the airline and propel the company to the forefront of advertising genius in the mid-20th century.

Air-India established an in-house art studio and also commissioned international artists to depict the Maharaja in all his antics. One of the world’s least-inhibited travelers, the Maharaja developed a reputation for his daring and panache as he adopted different personas in every destination—a snake charmer in India, a monk in Rome, a lover boy in Paris, and even a playboy bunny in New York. The Maharaja, however, didn’t get away without his fair-share of controversy—Air-India was repeatedly asked by prominent international figures to rescind advertisements they found to be shocking or insulting.

Despite the complaints of ill-humored politicians, the Maharaja and his cutting-edge design earned the company a myriad of advertising awards and a loyal legion of fans. While the Maharaja remains Air-India’s mascot to this day, he is most fondly remembered throughout the world for his role in India’s golden age of advertising.

Sophia Williamson is a paper conservator with experience researching and handling Indian miniature paintings. While working at Kapoor Galleries, she cataloged and managed the gallery’s extensive collection of ancient and classical Indian and Himalayan art. She now works as conservation technician with Andrea Pitsch Conservation.

Carly Johnson gained knowledge of Indian art during her time working at Kapoor Galleries, specializing in ancient and classical art from India and the Himalayas. Since her time at Kapoor, Carly has ventured into contemporary art registration and is currently working as Inventory Manager at Marlborough Gallery in New York.

This exhibition was created in partnership with Kapoor Galleries in New York City and the Indo-American Arts Council.

Additional support provided by Mohawk Papers. 



Selected Images

Lithographic poster of the maharaja pointing at the viewer intensely.
I Want You to Fly Air-India, 1968
S. N. Surti
Lithographic poster of the maharaja carrying a mermaid out of the ocean
Air-India/Sydney, 1963
V. V. Shetye
Lithographic poster of the maharaja as a king of hearts playing card
Air-India, 1969
Lithographic poster of the maharaja skiing down a mountain on a bed of nails
Air-India/Europe, 1971
Sheela “Charu” Gupte