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Flying on the wings of Air India nostalgia

A transportive collection of Air India artefacts lets you travel beyond place and time

A vintage Air India coaster by Air India Collector.

These days, the ticket to elsewhere lies in tapping through Facebook memories or surfing the internet. And for those filled with nostalgia for days past, there may be little to match’s memory-laden trip of the glory days of India’s first airline.

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The website founders, Piyush Khaitan, managing director of the fintech company NeoGrowth Credit, and Vivek Matthai, a dairy consultant, are avid philatelists who started collecting Air India memorabilia about eight years ago. Today, their hobby has resulted in a unique collection of posters, calendars, timetables and much more from 1948 to the 1970s, the “golden age” of Air India.

It all started with their interest in air mail. In a Zoom call, Bengaluru-based Khaitan, 63, begins the story with a 12 anna postage stamp issued by Air India on its maiden international flight to London in June 1948. To ensure the exclusivity of the occasion, the stamp was valid for just that one flight. “It was a unique event in world philately. No postal jurisdiction in the world has done something like this till date,” says Khaitan. India was a newly independent nation and this was its first international flight. The stamp, therefore, holds deep significance.

Vivek Matthai and Piyush Khaitan (right)
Vivek Matthai and Piyush Khaitan (right)

Stories like these fill the website. “Air India’s art studio has some great work by people like Bobby Kooka and Umesh Rao,” says Khaitan. Kooka, commercial director through much of the airline’s “golden age”, created its iconic mascot, the Maharajah. Umesh Rao was the artist at advertising agency J Walter Thompson who sketched the mascot and gave life to Kooka’s creativity.

Apart from associating the Maharajah with travel in the visuals on labels and stickers—enjoying mishti in Kolkata, riding a donkey in Addis Ababa and kissing a lady’s hand in Paris—Kooka was known for his wit; he used satire as a response to criticism. “There was this one time when Air India was accused of ‘polluting Indian minds with Western culture’ for an artwork that had a kiss. They put up a hoarding depicting statues of Khajuraho locked in a kiss with a line that read ‘of course, kissing is an import from the West!’” notes Khaitan.

Air India hoarding by Air India Collector.
Air India hoarding by Air India Collector.

It is this creative chutzpah and humour that appealed to Khaitan and Matthai and set them on the journey of collecting Air India memorabilia. “You must understand that Air India, despite being a small airline, made a big impact with this kind of visual storytelling,” says Khaitan.

He flew first-class on it in the early 1970s. It was a jumbo jet with interiors bedecked with references to Krishna’s Vrindavan with gopis; the windows had designs of Rajasthani jharokas. The elegant flight attendants would be dressed in saris or salwar-kameez and, in the first class, ghagra-cholis. “As soon as you stepped into the airport, you were welcomed with the visual of the Maharajah that said ‘fly on my magic carpet’. You took to the skies with that imagery in mind.”

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When Khaitan flew Air India, they had in-flight television. But before television, there was in-flight reading material, comic books created by Kooka’s team, with names like Better Acquainted and Foolishly Yours. Global newspapers, such as the South China Morning Post, wrote about these comics, says Khaitan.

All this motivated the duo to document the achievements of India’s first international airline. “People all over the world need to know the genius that has gone into creating this airline,” argues Khaitan

(From left) An ashtray designed by Salvador Dali; a vintage pilot's badge and showpiece with the iconic Maharajah. (Air India Collector)
(From left) An ashtray designed by Salvador Dali; a vintage pilot's badge and showpiece with the iconic Maharajah. (Air India Collector)

Documenting material, some of which is more than 70 years old, demands conservation. There are about 6,000 artefacts stored in Khaitan’s home. He gets them from various sources—auction houses, gifts from friends. Some of the rarest material comes from scrap sellers in Mumbai. Visitors to the website have reached out with fascinating stories of Air India and shared precious finds as well. One of them is a retired policeman who lives in France. He sent material from a crash site. “Allan Tramontana was on a hike near the Bossons glacier in Mont Blanc when he stumbled upon flight debris. In 1966, an Air India Boeing 707 had an unfortunate crash. Because it’s a glacier, the snow continued to melt, and this man found debris near his feet. There were newspapers like The Hindu and The Times Of India from January 1966 that he shared with me,” says Khaitan. This was the crash in which nuclear scientist Homi Bhabha lost his life.

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Some of the material has to be restored. Artefacts, such as posters, are couriered to the Chicago Poster Restoration specialists. “They completely clean them up, remove the fungus or bacteria, mount them on archival grade linen, and then mail them to me in a condition that can be preserved forever.” At some point, the duo wants to give them a permanent home in a museum dedicated to the Maharajah.

A design on a Do Not Disturb card (Air India Collector)
A design on a Do Not Disturb card (Air India Collector)

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