Flight Plan

Maharaja’s old home was special in many ways

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on: Apr 02, 2019

Landmark presence: The Air India building, overlooking the Arabian Sea, provides a panoramic view of Mumbai from Nariman Point | Photo Credit: DANISH SIDDIQUI

All its 22 floors were air-conditioned and it had an impressive art studio as well

If a brick and mortar building could talk, then Air India’s corporate headquarters on Marine Drive at Nariman Point in Mumbai will have many interesting tales to tell.

It was one of the first buildings of which all the 22 floors (23 if one also counts the floor on which the board room is located) were centrally air-conditioned when it opened in 1974. At that time, it was also perhaps the only building that had six lifts, all of which had music playing. So well was the Air India-owned building planned that when one lift went up, another came down, cutting the waiting time to a minimum.

When the building became operational it also boasted of two levels of underground parking, something that was unheard of then. The Air India Centaur logo was put on the roof of the building, which overlooks the Arabian Sea and is an icon of Mumbai’s skyline. The Air India building also provides a 360-degree panoramic view of Mumbai from Nariman Point. The building served as Air India’s headquarters till 2013, when a decision was taken to shift the Maharaja’s headquarters to Delhi.

Sadly, the building’s breaking off with its owner Air India, which started in 2013, is now gaining closure as the government has invited bids from those interested in taking over the building. At least two state-owned enterprises, the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust and Life Insurance Corporation, have participated in the bidding for the building as only State governments and public sector undertakings are allowed to participate in the auction.

This is the second time that an attempt is being made to auction the building. The sale of the tower is expected to give a much-needed liquidity boost to Air India, while ensuring that the iconic building remains in government hands.

A treasure trove

Designed by John Burgee of the New York architectural firm Johnson/Burgee, the new building became such a rage when it opened that security had to be deployed to ensure crowd control.

The building was designed and built for Air India although some space was given out on lease for what was then a princely sum of ₹3.50 per square foot. It was conceptualised and built at the time when JRD Tata was Chairman, Air India, and ICS officer, BR Patel, was the General Manager. Though Patel was involved in the initial planning and conceptualisation of the building he was not around when it was inaugurated as by then he had been promoted to the post of Commerce Secretary to the government.

Besides Air India’s offices, the building was also known for the art, art works, artefacts, clocks, murals and contemporary paintings that Air India had either collected or commissioned well-known artists to make for its collection. When the building was occupied by Air India, this treasure trove was housed on the 18th floor of the building.

In-house creativity

There was also an art studio, something which no other airline in the world had at that time. “The art studio had a chief artist and a team of artists working with him who would liaison with the advertising agency. It was this team that created the iconic Maharaja which is still used by the airline in its advertising. This was something unique to Air India. Other airlines depended entirely on their advertising agency but Air India did not,” recalls a former employee of Air India, adding, “Our advertising was world famous because we created the concept of the Maharaja and we had exposure and appreciation which was totally disproportionate to the limited resources that we had. It all happened in the studio.”

The building was one among the many targeted in the 1993 multiple bomb blasts in the city. “I was in my room, handing over a piece of paper to a colleague. We heard the blast and the paper flew out of my hand. The building swayed a bit but stood solid,” recalls a senior former Air India official who was sitting in his office on the 17th floor. This is in sharp contrast to the massive damage that was seen to the other buildings which were targeted by terrorists.

Published on April 02, 2019
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