From Shooting Centaur to Golden Window: The Legacy Of India’s Oldest Airline

The epitome of aviation opulence until the 70s, Air India has been through a bumpy ride.
The epitome of aviation opulence until the 70s, Air India has been through a bumpy ride.L: Architectural Digest India, R: Condé Nast Traveller India

In a precariously cut-throat aviation industry fraught with failing engines and unpaid dues, the panacea of branding can revitalise the identity and image of a homegrown airline. Even if it possesses the oldest fleet in the skies, Air India’s domestic market share has now jumped from 9.6% in 2021 to a whopping 25% this year, only if you consider its impending merger with Vistara and AirAsia India.

The TATA group, which threw down 2.2 billion dollars last year to retrieve Air India back from the government, has heralded an era for change as far as the brand positioning is concerned. The carrier was conceived in 1932 as Tata Airlines, going on to being nationalised in 1953. However, in recent times, it has wrestled with financial losses, as high as Rs. 9,556 crores in 2021-22.

Detail oriented J.R.D Tata was personally invested in his airline experience.
Detail oriented J.R.D Tata was personally invested in his airline experience.Condé Nast Traveller India

Involving a five year transformation plan for the brand called ‘’, the CEO Campbell Wilson lays down a roadmap for how this ‘world class global airline with an Indian heart’ would refurbish its existing planes, and hire new staff to resonate strongly with the younger generation.

Close to 90 years ago, when the industrialist J.R.D Tata first flew the weekly airmail between Karachi and Chennai, no one could have anticipated how this would evolve into a prestigious airline post Independence. Air India emerged as an apotheosis of South Asian hospitality and luxury with its Maharaja mascot, the sumptuous beauty of its art deco lounges and jharokha window livery exuding a finesse heretofore unknown in the history of aviation.

Fondly remembered by Meher Heroyce Moos, an air hostess who was part of the Air India team way back in 1965, J.R.D Tata was preoccupied with equipping his airline on all fronts and making it a swanky experience for its fliers. He is known to have walked down ‘the lengths of the aircraft, checking out the galleys, the equipment used, the furnishings, whether the curtain had frayed, or whether dust was found on the lower edges’ (excerpted from Harish Bhat’s #Tata Stories: 40 Timeless Tales To Inspire You).

This invaluable attention to detail encompassed the saris of the hostesses to the meticulously ornamental travel cabins. Thus the brand between 1950s to 70s was synonymous with style and indulgence, invoking a feeling of having arrived, while never having left home. 

From left top to right bottom: the evolution of logos for Air India
From left top to right bottom: the evolution of logos for Air

Commencing with the all uppercase, sans serif leaned letters that soon morphed into the ketchup red centaur shooting an arrow in a circle, the logo of J.R.D. Tata’s choosing was a representation of the Sagittarius zodiac sign aiming for excellence and elevation.

The aspirational value of the brand was established in the collective consciousness while also staying rooted in the Indian symbology of the Konark wheel from the sun temple in Odisha. Consequently, the red and white colour palette became a staple for their branding, from tickets and luggage tags to the body of the aircraft itself.

With a few variations of size and colour in the 70s, the logo remained fairly consistent until the 90s, when the marketing department began experimenting with a new design featuring a red parallelogram enclosing a bronze sun that didn’t seem to catch on with the consumers. And so the original centaur was salvaged from the wilderness again until in 2007, when the swan sporting the Konark chakra within its wing, made its debut on the tail livery and official logo of the airlines.

An auspicious dash of orange in the chakra made the planes more distinguishable, tapping into the memories of saffron and turmeric inherent to our cultural connotations of India, and the hyphen in Air India was dropped to make the name more search friendly on online browsers. 

Unveiling its new logo on 10 August 2023, Air India has once again doubled down on its touch of legacy meets modernism aesthetic in ‘the Vista’, essentially a gilded window frame of 'limitless possibilities' designed by Tasneem Ali. Drawing inspiration from the Mughal jharokha windows through which emperors would address their subjects, this symbol is intertwined with the Indian experience of royalty and has been an element noticeable on the aircraft and in the menu cards, thus not straying too far from the indigenous design gallery. With its creative overhaul assigned to McCann Worldgroup India and FutureBrand, the renovated airline will see its tail fin embellished in tones of gold, red and aubergine, and a red and gold underbelly embossed with its name in bold.

Etched parallel to each other are the orange and red speed lines from front to back doors of the aircraft, indicating how the individual airlines have merged into Air India, while the beloved mascot of the Maharajah may be delimited to first-class cabins and airport lounges and eventually disappear altogether. Conjured into existence by Bobby Kooka in 1946, the Maharaja embodied the atithi devo bhava or ‘a guest is akin to God’ brand of service that Air India offered, a magnanimous surrender of decadence at the feet of those it had the honour of transporting in its aircrafts.

Though travellers will be able to witness the new brand identity sometime in December this year, when the long-range wide body Airbus A350 shall join its fleet, Air India is also retrofitting its tech systems with AI and machine learning within the next year. The chairman N Chandrasekaran has maintained that the rebranding won’t just be cosmetic but also functional in effect, upgrading human resources and premium lounges to a more globally acceptable standard, redefining the impression that the brand has unfortunately garnered in the present times concerning its compromised food quality and broken seats.

 By breathing fresh life into a staggering business, the fabled airline has ceased to be a state carrier and under the Tata Group is seeing average daily flights increase to 30% from last year, also successfully clearing its COVID-19 time backlogs of around 150 crore rupees. With understandable trepidation, this airline is committing itself to earning a favourable reputation, and under more efficient management it might just soar again.