Posted on 28-12-2014
Filed Under (ART) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

When we are born we unconsciously make gestures, our whole life goes with gestures at every moment. One day when gestures get frozen, we are off from society. How can we use these gestures that vibrate with the living sensation of human breath? Let’s find new solutions to new initiatives like “Make in India” that I wrote about the last two weeks, that there’s indispensible need to challenge mediocrity, obsolescence and the subservient mindset.

Human gestures have evolved incredibly through the centuries as we learnt to take on challenge after challenge. People’s living styles have radically changed human gestures. These gestures have been changing at every epoch from pre-historic to civilisation,agrarian to monarchical, religious, industrial revolution to mass production to electronics, digi-tech andthe breakthrough scientific world we live in today. From those times when we lit a fire with the friction of two stones, we’ve conquered nature in many ways through inspired gestures that have multiplied, bringing in newer solutions.

Agrarian societies lived in bounded communities with limited number and style of gestures. Monarchies and feudalism created gestures that subjects had to follow. Discovering the compass, the start of oceanic travel, reaching new countries, communicating with gestures established that gesture is another silent universal language. Take the worship of God where every religion created its identity and practice through unique gestures. All believe in God, but each prayer is identified by its own gestures. During the inventive period around 17th century when the Church and Western European Renaissance liberalised the arts, literature, philosophy and science from religious dogma, it created phenomenal challenge. When science challenged nature it was totally translated through revolutionary gestures. Travelling on donkey carts to horseback, boat to train, car to aircraft all made us learn different gestures.

The huge gesture of societal challenge led to the world’s first revolution in France in 1789. A dimension of “liberte” showcased the entirely new gesture of breaking the monarchy. The 20th century’s new ideology of Communism also created revolutionary discipline with new limited gestures, but the power to challenge in capitalistic, democratic society added unlimited gestures. World War I, the first technology war was followed by World War II that brought atomic destruction, both radically moved human gestures. There is tremendous challenge in finding a new solution to old problems that set off conflicts like wars. Conflicts have to be resolved with sensitised gestures of peace that attack the problem both on the surface and at the root.

Western Europe saw the departure of modern art since 1870.  Human gesture is among the great arts in our societies. Breaking the old classic mould, many new art movements have enormously contributed to change the world through paintings, photography, cinema and industrial design. Modern art started with Impressionism where Vincent van Gogh’s bold brush strokes portrayed an oversized Starry Night; through Cubism Pablo Picasso besmirched Nazi bombing in his powerful political statement painting La Guernica; later Expressionism was discovered to have come before Impressionism.  Surrealism challenged human perspective when Salvador Dali depicted melting watches in Persistence of Memory, then there was Abstract art, Dada, Graphic art, Andy Warhol’s repetitive Pop art and Vanishing art where Christo wraps buildings and parks for a short period. These artistic gestures are themselves weapons of challenge. They have impacted and changed society. In my observation, gesture is among the great human expressions of ideation, it can be mild gesture, medium gesture or strong gestures.

Birth of Gesturism: So can’t the varied gestures that challenge mediocrity, obsolescence and subservience to bring in vibrant new solutions to also shock be made into a new movement and ideology? An ideology that challenges to find superior answers to harried problems can take society forward. That ideology can be named Gesturism movement. As it originates in human society, Gesturism has unique gestures full of challenge, possesses spontaneous essence and expresses the vivacity in human behaviour. Gesturism considers both human involvement and human frailty in the face of living in a complex, global environment where speed and information overflow meet us every day. When it’s an art movement, Gesturism art is dynamic and creative, awash with pulsating movement, new and unique, always living, breathing and unprompted.

Just to illustrate, as soon as the sun goes down every day, or in a dark room, different gestures were involved in ancient times or even in villages today that use candlelight or mashal lights. You had to be careful not to burn yourself with fire, and worry about how long the fire will last. Electric light brings in a totally different set of gestures. To use a gramophone you had to change the needle, pump the turntable, put the record on it, control the speed, open the locking system to move the record, put the sound box on the record, turn the horn’s direction to where you want the sound. From there to the electrophone, record changer, tape recorder, CD player and now MP3, just imagine the revolution of gestures brought about in a century. Even in the last two decades, the mobile phone gesture has become a trend. The stationary phone was a live messaging instrument, isn’t the mobile phone now a theatrical human expression? At every moment individuals across the world are creating their own gestures with the phone.  From birth to death, uncountable gestures grow regularly, and accompany us all the way.

The spontaneity and momentum of Gesturism establish that challenge is our most important missile to bring the new into the world. As Gesturism cannot be static, its ideology can become a new movement deployed in art, product design, photography, cinema and architecture. Gesturism provokes you to take on challenges, find new solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems, and implement the shock of new ideas to make an impact which can sustain.Emanating from the symbols and psychedelic waves that gesticulate our passion to take on life’s challenges, let’s ring in New Year 2015 and “Make in India” by experiencing Gesturism, the always alive, pure and endless movement.

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Source : The Indian Express / The Financial Express

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Posted on 05-10-2014
Filed Under (ART) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Let me continue my experiential learning of Italian design, so full of artistic sense and elegance, through travels with my Michael Angelo’s David sculpture look-alike Italian friend. The only difference, unfortunately, is that my friend always turns up in chic dressing style, whereas David exhibits his anatomical splendour sans clothes.

We first arrived in Milan and met his graceful wife, an entrepreneur scientist with her own research laboratory. What struck me on entering her workplace is simple arrangements, outstanding decor and subtle touches of orange everywhere, her signature colour. Scientists here were working on American Mac computers, their screens exposing high-tech scientific sense; but all of that was overshadowed by her Italian design touch, even in a scientific lab.  I call this the Italian art of working and living.  Before taking the flight to Olbia, her welcome breakfast at their urbane home was aromatic coffee and special Milanese Easter dome cake. That’s when I realised the importance of different types of bread, all artistically designed, for various occasions and cuisines in Italy.

Looking down the aircraft window at Sardinia’s islands over the blue-green Mediterranean Sea was exhilarating. We drove through total greenery to the entrepreneur scientist’s native village in Luras village. Her 84-year-old father, Mr Meloni, explained to us how Northern, Central and Southern Italian cultures are very different; of course Sardinia being an island has even more dissimilarities. On our first day at lunch we were served pane carasau, a thin and crisp, half-meter wide Sardinian bread, and heard of other Sardinian breads like pane con gerda, civraxiu, moddizzosu. My question to Mr Meloni was, how come there are more than 20 bread styles in Italy, in different creative shapes, sizes and ingredients including coppia ferrarese dating back to 1287, fragguno eaten on Easter Sunday, focaccia, pandoro, taralli, penia, piadina, ciabatta, cecina, grissini? Across the south, east, north and west of France we have only 3 types of bread, pain, baguette and pain a la campagne. His incisive reply was that unity had come very early to France as a nation post the 1789 French Revolution, so everybody eats the same breads. But Italy did not have this unity, different regions continue to practice their own culture. Historical phenomenon translated to social eating habits was indeed a great education. My take is that this Mediterranean wave, which starts from the daily basic staple of bread, is another reason for Italian versatility and creativity in design.

In our frequent philosophical conversations I have asked my clothed-David friend to narrate how Italian art has penetrated across Mediterranean society, from religion, art, politics to social life. Here’s what he said: “You have to go back many centuries and understand the role played by religion and the Church. At its origin, religion created its role to protect man from adversities of natural calamities supposedly created by Gods to punish mankind’s misbehavior. There was no way out in this life, so believers were asked to obey the Gods via the priests to have a better life after death. This went on for centuries till for social, political, philosophical reasons man started playing a role for himself due to commerce. Commerce brought an end to the war, fought feudalism and started to instill in people the idea that life on earth has a value in itself. The Roman Church was clever enough to proactively play a political and cultural role in that period: on one side it invested in art and culture with the marvelous pieces of art in Rome and on the other it strengthened its power and avoided any Reform at the core of its world.”

My clothed-David continued, “The Roman Church played a pivotal role in Italian society upto the 19th century, its political role is still extremely powerful. Although the Christian faith drives Italian society, certain ‘illuminated minds’ started to question the silent obedience to faith and the Church for a better afterlife. This started a cultural movement in Italy where an artistic environment developed around the 14th to 17th century. Called the Renaissance, this later spread to the rest of Europe and led to the neoclassic movement called Hellenism. This approach started to trickle down to lower levels but it never became public due to the power of the Church. So it was an individualistic reaction which is still strong and growing. We developed an individualist approach based on Mediterranean culture and lifestyle: individualistic which relates back to the seeds of the Renaissance, disrespectful vis-a-vis the power of the Church, and colorful based on the marvelous landscape and much better solar weather we enjoy in Italy compared to Northern Europe.”

That such artistic pursuit engulfs every area of Italian life till today is evident from my clothed-David’s mother-in-law.  A slim 82-year-old with lots of wrinkle lines on her face, I could not control complimenting her for being a Sardinian beauty. She looked at her Sardinian husband sweetly and said she’s from Bologne, meaning Northern Italians are inherently more refined than rustic Sardinians. Their house with paintings was like an art gallery, her balcony abloom with varieties of orchids. Her art of sensitively nurturing the orchids, scrolling curtains to give them the correct light conjured up a beautiful scene of neo-classic Italian film after the Great War.  I was never so attracted by orchids until her strong bone structure in twilight recounting stories about the character of each flower gave me the imagery of an Italian Eden island.  She’s conscious about her beauty, brushing and re-clipping strands in her hair if they get ruffled, in exactly the way she wants them disciplined on her aesthetics.

I must say if Michael Angelo was there, he would surely have sculpted her fine-looking timeless face, a face that’s very appealing to artists, including me. I have to continue this artistic Italian rhapsody next week because I am totally downed in the Mediterranean sense which pervades every area of living style till today.

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Source : The Indian Express


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Posted on 29-06-2014
Filed Under (ART) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Franz, the Dutch concierge in an Amsterdam hotel says he always loves to be outside the main door because Holland is a place to see all the world’s beautiful women. He pontificated that the Netherlands is the only country where within walking distance one can mingle with sex, art and torture paraphernalia. This was a totally new angle for me.

I’ve frequented Holland umpteen times since the end of my teenage years, to muse on Van Gogh or Rembrandt’s hypnotic paintings and of course for work. But Franz’s ideology of enjoying sex-art-torture within walking distance never entered my sphere of reference. Perhaps he’s right. Nowhere in the world would you find near-nude young women gyrate, pout, flirt, pose to expose their sexual prowess so openly for customers and gaping tourists. Walk a bit, you’ll find gay rainbow flags streaming across the streets. Take a few more steps, then Rijksmuseum has the most treasured "The Night Watch" painted by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1642 at the height of the Dutch Golden Age. Just behind it is Vincent Willem van Gogh’s somber hued 1885 painting “The Potato Eaters” and dazzling “Sunflowers” painted in 1888. Stroll ahead and the ghastly Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments displays how extremely cruel people can be.

Amidst wonderful old Dutch architecture with beautiful canals is Amsterdam’s world-famous ‘De Wallen’ red light district. Rows of red cubicle-like retail shop windows have scantily clad legal sex workers selling their curvaceous body as wares. In the network of alleys, sex workers rent the hundreds of tiny one-room cabins to practice their trade. Among the famous adult entertainment is a bar and club named after the banana fruit. Here drinks are free but you pay if the girls perform parlour tricks, pole dances, table dances or lap dances. To distinguish the red light district from normal living houses, a pink neon light is always there outside the window. This light sign makes it clear to relevant customers not to disturb others in the neighborhood. Why Franz said the world’s most beautiful women are in his city is because 33% of the sex workers come from countries outside of the European Union. They come because the Government considers their profession to be legal. According to the European Conference on Trafficking in Women, the number of trafficked women from Central and Eastern European Countries in the Netherlands has tripled since 1990.

Amsterdam is also the place for homosexuals worldwide. A profusion of rainbow flags make evident the city’s four distinctive gay districts. Amsterdam’s Gay Pride celebration has street parties, club events and exhibitions where over 350,000 participants and visitors come every year. These thousands of people line the Prinsengracht and Amstel River on the first Saturday of August to watch the world’s only Gay Pride parade on water. Most people would never get to see hundreds of extravagantly costumed homosexuals like this. In bright, eccentric, revealing clothes and accessories using feathers, furs, flashy dust and bling, they make a beautiful procession in colourfully decorated canal boats. Even gay politicians, policemen and others in public professions sail along.

It’s incredible how people in Medieval times enjoyed human torture, obviously with passion otherwise how could they have created such instruments like an interrogation chair full of spikes where the punished was placed naked and pressed? Or a heretic’s fork, the iron cage or a press for the head which are manifested in the museum today? These devices comprised a total humiliation of a prisoner’s self esteem. More than punishment, such barbarism was not professional justice but a weird game that torturers played. Even the public participated, beheadings were conducted in public too.

Then as you walk on you are on torture’s doorstep. Crimes ranging from rape to murder to heresy were punished by torture in the Middle Ages. The Medieval Torture Instruments Museum has a unique collection, recreated by pictures and drawings that graphically demonstrate the dark ages. Torture was legitimate for over 3000 years to punish crimes like adultery, incest and high treason. Social status determined the kind of torture you got. Where a free man was let off with a lashing or imprisonment, a slave was executed for the same offence. Romans used torture on all enemies of the State. Later, Christian emperors of Rome decreed that to insult a priest was punishable by cutting off the criminal’s hands and feet. In 1252 Pope Innocent IV approved the application of torture when the Inquisition questioned heretics. The Roman Catholic church officially prohibited tortures only in 1816.

Alongside the red light and gay community, Rembrandt and Van Gogh, even torture instruments, sleep at night when museums closed. Lively night ambience of this liberal society may not have started only in 20th or 21st century. There has to be some link to past civilization. In the Rijksmuseum which reopened last year after a massive 10-year rebuild, when you watch Rembrandt’s dramatic yet light brush stroke and craftsmanship that portrays the subtle emotion of women, you get a hint that this society sees women’s nudity in different angles too. There’s huge contrast in Van Gogh’s depth of “The Potato Eaters” with chromatic usage of blue to focus on the poor Dutch people of that time, and the opposite, luxurious treatment in the work of Rembrandt who comes from an affluent family.

After watching Amsterdam’s social culture, when you go back to the Dutch presence in India from 1605 to 1825, you wonder how the Dutch saw India in those centuries. Dutch India was never politically significant nor was its trade large, although the Dutch East India Company had settlements and trading posts in what was Dutch Ceylon, Dutch Coromandel, Dutch Malabar, Dutch Bengal and Dutch Suratte. Their inhuman aspect was importing Indian slaves to the Spice Islands and Cape Colony where they exercised authoritarian power.

Does the distance walked along Amsterdam city centre show human society’s most engrossing pastime to be sex, art and torture? The Dutch being among the most liberal have intertwined desire and hate, tying that up with discipline, all within a walking distance.

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Posted on 10-11-2013
Filed Under (ART) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Shock waves rippled across Europe last week when 1500 paintings the Nazis had plundered in 1930s-40s were discovered in Munich. This haul, valued at well over a billion Euros, has priceless works of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Max Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Dix and Marc Chgall among others.

Adolf Hitler’s obsession with attaining Aryan purity for Germany included cleansing culture and art. So the work of modern artists was denigrated as “degenerate art (Entartete Kunst).” Very systematically such artworks were stolen from museums, confiscated from Jewish art collectors, and sent to Nazi headquarters ostensibly for destruction. Last June I’d visited Rose Vallard’s home (, and written about how this brave Frenchwoman tried to prevent such theft.

Why Hitler was imposing his taste in art becomes understandable when you know that he failed to become a painter. Suppose he’d been successful in his primary ambition to be an artist, can you imagine how world history would have panned out? Because he did not draw the human form, he twice failed the entrance test for the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna in 1907 and 1908. Very few of his hundreds of paintings on deserted places, buildings, and farmhouses were sold, and ironically mostly to Jews before World War I. The Americans carried his paintings away as war spoils, but has never exhibited them. “I am an artist and not a politician. Once the Polish question is settled, I want to end my life as an artist,” Hitler is quoted to have told British ambassador Neville Henderson before World War II.

Seemingly, to take revenge on the evolving world of abstract and modern art that dismissed his realistic landscapes, Hitler put up two art exhibitions in Munich in1937. The Great German Art Exhibition had works Hitler approved of, like blonde nudes, idealised soldiers, landscapes. He coined the other as Degenerate Art Exhibition to ridicule modern, abstract, non-representational art. He wanted to give “ordinary, decent” Germans the chance to mock debased, non-Aryan, Jew and Bolshevik avant garde culture. Encouraging viewers to see this as an evil anti-German people plot, he said, “Works of art which cannot be understood in themselves but need some pretentious instruction book to justify their existence will never again find their way to the German people.”

The “degenerate” art was exhibited in different rooms by category: blasphemous art, art by Jewish or communist artists, art that criticised German soldiers, art that offended German women’s honour, the insanity room of abstract paintings. Written in the exhibition handbook was, “In the paintings and drawings of this chamber of horrors there is no telling what was in the sick brains of those who wielded the brush or the pencil.” To get the message across, Nazis hired actors to mingle with the crowds and criticise the exhibits which were deliberately hung crookedly and had negative graffiti scribbled around them. This Exhibition eventually attracted over a million visitors, three times more than the officially sanctioned one. It also created history’s greatest artistic exodus, artists and Jews fled to neighbouring countries, Britain and America.

Perhaps a part of this “degenerate” art is now creating “essentially a modern-day story of pirate treasure,” says The Washington Post. An 80-year old German, Cornelius Gurlitt, son of a Nazi collaborator art dealer, was enroute to Switzerland in 2010 when in a routine customs check alerted authorities to probe further. Focus magazine leaked the story that as he had no job, but a huge bank balance led to a raid of his residence raid in 2011. That’s where a fortune of art was found, some dating to the 16th century. In his dirty apartment, shockingly cooked food was strewn amidst the paintings, some framed, others unframed. Gurlitt had inherited them but apparently was unaware of the art’s origins, although he’d sell a painting whenever he needed money.

Families of former owners of Nazi-looted artworks continue to campaign for the return of such paintings and sculptures. Prominent among them is wealthy heiress Anne Sinclair, granddaughter of Paul Rosenburg, among the world’s most influential art dealers who represented Picasso, Georges Braque, Marie Laurencin, Max Weber and Matisse among several European and American artists. Miss Sinclair, now news editor at Huffington Post French edition, had become famous for her scathing TV interviews where she met and married Dominique Strauss-Kahn, disgraced ex-IMF President. She is particularly in search of Portrait of a Lady by Matisse, but whether that’s in this collection is still not clear.

The Research Centre for Degenerate Art now has the responsibility of finding the entire list of pieces and artists. People are eagerly awaiting that, but it may be complicated as several owners have perhaps sold the paintings under duress. Art scholars and the public are questioning why the German Government has kept this find under wraps for over 2 years. Anne Webber of London-based Commission for Looted Art in Europe is asking for transparency, “Germany was a signatory to the Washington Principles in 1998 and 1999, along with 44 other countries, making a commitment to identifying the looted works in their collections and publishing the results. You have to wonder what is behind the extreme reluctance to provide information.” Meanwhile, since Gurlitt’s detention for tax evasion, but before his art collection was seized, he sold Max Beckmann’s The Lion Tamer through a dealer for €840,000.

According to Focus, international warrants are out for at least 200 prized paintings. Perhaps Germany was silent about the 1500 paintings because of diplomatic and legal complications that would stem from this ill-gotten “degenerate” art. What it all definitively proves is that art’s timeless command can totally engulf even a dictator like Hitler who’d designed most horrific 3rd Reich programs like “The Final Solution” to obliterate Jews to achieve Aryan supremacy. Fortunately the Axis Powers could not win World War II, so what Hitler pilloried as “degenerate” art can be enjoyed fearlessly by everyone today.

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Posted on 03-11-2013
Filed Under (ART) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

After a forceful keynote address on Leadership at a conclave organized in the US by one of my business clients, Gen Colin Powell, former US Secretary of State, agreed to pose for photographs with participants. At the opportune moment I shied away, so the keepsake picture at home has my wife alongside the General, but not me. On her query of my sudden disappearance, I replied, “Guernica.”

When Nazi and Fascist warplanes bombed Spanish town Gernika during the 1937 Spanish Civil War, Spanish artist Pablo Picasso was furious. He started painting his protest in “Guernica,” a huge 11×24 feet canvas. This painting has since become an anti-war icon, used extensively in 1960s by anti-Vietnam demonstrators. A “Guernica” reproduction hangs in UN headquarters, New York. When in February 2003 Colin Powell presented the US case for declaring war on Iraq, “Guernica” had to be covered as author Russell Martin wrote. Although I don’t support Colin Powell’s move for war, I admire his sensitivity to conceal “Guernica” that’s so imbued with anti-war messaging.

Art is a medium where you don’t require a visiting card. I’ve found art’s extreme power to always have two elements, execution on canvas or sculpting form, and the artist’s imagination that creates influence beyond the canvas. Painting “is an instrument of war,” said Picasso. Art can be a medium of revolt as in “Guernica,” or it can spark invention. Here are two examples of artists drawing the future, latent movement of society. The automobile was ignited from 14th century artist Simone Martini’s drawing, while 16th century artist Leonardo da Vinci first drew the flying machine, the seed of today’s aviation industry. Art can be hetero-dimensional, converging ideas to be scientific, philosophical or seductive, communicating different elements to different people to take society forward.

Let me take you to an exhibition of my paintings I was invited to hold in the sophisticated Carlton hotel in Cannes, south of France. As I’d started my consulting business, I did not want to sell my paintings, so I informed the hotel my paintings were for exhibition only, not for sale. After the first day of the exhibition the hotel PR person called to say that a genuine art lover and collector wanted to buy four of my paintings, and insisted she has to meet me. The PR person persuaded me to at least meet her. Actually I found that even holding an exhibition of my simple paintings in this opulent hotel to be a total dissonance. There were so many different fragrances and decor in this lavish hotel, the prime lodging for film personalities to Cannes Film Festival every year. Anyway, for politeness sake, I came from Paris to meet the art lover on the last day of the exhibition.

She was about 55-years-old, we met at the hotel coffee lounge. It was really incredible how she described my paintings, expressing every detail of my art in unbelievable poetic language. She totally paralyzed my idea that I cannot sell, saying, “Come and see your beautiful paintings in my home any time you want. You can even take them for exhibitions. You don’t look like an egocentric person so why don’t you share your art so others can enjoy them?” Nearly two hours had passed, I was totally mesmerized. “You do whatever you want, Madame,” I heard myself say. She made a finger indication, and a well dressed gentlemen wearing a black suit and tie waiting at a distance came. She showed him the paintings and he took them away while I was getting a big envelope from Madame.

I have to tell you the way she gave me the cheque. She had already written the cheque, it was inside a gorgeous parchment paper packet, exactly the kind of paper I use when I do water colours. She took it out from her large Louis Vuitton bag. On top of the A4 size envelope was written in French in fine-looking hand calligraphy, “Idea and beauty without frontiers.” The respect she showed in handing over the cheque in this envelope was not of exchange of money for art: “As you didn’t tell me the price, just think that you are sharing your art.” Later I realized that art is another medium that brings you closer to an unknown person. As I accompanied Madame to her chauffeured Rolls Royce Silver Cloud, she left saying, “Au revoir l’artiste.” On opening the envelope, I was astonished that my art can fetch such high value.

From my different art exhibitions in Paris and other provinces in France, I’ve come to know a few French women who lead extremely opulent lives. I’ve been invited to their homes to chat with them in small groups. They are very curious, often surrounding me with lots of questions on art, my colours, my way of ideation, sometimes they even ask me to describe my day’s activities. Although they know I handle big projects in corporate houses as a consultant, they’ve never questioned me on it. I’ve observed their discussion with me was always in artistic language. I have never seen their husbands in these meetings which can be very provocative, even perverted, on bizarre types of topics like bourgeoisie, sex, showbiz or “Money makes everything. When you have money you can enjoy all.”

One day one of the women asked a question to which I still don’t have an answer. “You always paint on a white canvas, did you ever try a black canvas?” Another woman replied, “He may not have painted in black canvas because his life started from poverty, it might already be his black canvas.” What bothers me in such genuine, opulent French aristocrats is their condescending attitude of sympathy for poor people whom they can never know. Another question I have is apart from art, what could be in their minds? But the idea they’ve planted in my mind is still in my agenda. I have to do a series of paintings on black canvas.

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Posted on 20-10-2013
Filed Under (ART) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Creativity is a hunger that incessantly chews the brain. Wealth and fame go by the wayside when you are chasing that ray of imagination to create a new dimension in the world.

They say creative people are eccentric, ego-centric and unsocial, but such interpretations are totally misleading. In reality, artists have an inner struggle on how their idea can get a foothold. With passion, guts and belief in themselves, their only ambition is to establish that distinction, they barely care for anything else in life. Artists can never think about a directional career which 90% of non-arty people pursue. So from the perspective of people who cannot see beyond the boundary of everyday routine life, artists are often considered vagabonds.

Actually a true artist is extremely self-disciplined. There’s no question that the dust of vagrancy can ever settle on their self urge. Take the example of my 75-year-old European artist friend you met in my last week’s article. His 45-year-old wife and muse recounted to me how he fulfils his hunger for expression and how she luxuriates in his passion. Her artist husband suddenly wakes up at night, pulls her into his atelier, very roughly takes off her clothes. At first she mistook this behavior as his wanting to make love. But he puts her on a pedestal, intensely strokes her through his eyes, mixes paints that he puts in her body, to find a matching body colour. She says she’s always amazed at how, with sensuality and excitement, her body responds to his paint brush. He reveals no physical sexual urge, but his paint brush is filled with a sexuality that engrosses them both in a summit of ardor. Steeped in the artist’s mind and brush colours, her body in his canvas, it’s never ever occurred to her to question whether the paint could be harmful for her body.

Only after hearing her have I understood how a muse can entirely change an artist’s canvas. Not everybody can be an artist’s muse. She devotes herself to these sessions, sitting frozen nude hour after hour, allowing her artist husband to just watch her, not paint: “I am memorizing your flesh, your sensitive touch.” He mesmerizes her saying he paints the intrinsic memoir that her eyes and body reveals, a sensation above any digital picture, and beyond her own consciousness.

One day I went with them to an artists’ gathering in a sculptor friend’s house in Britanny. Amidst the gossip an impromptu painting session started. When this artist started painting his wife’s face, I was amazed to watch how deeply her feelings had penetrated his mind. Even with a thick brush, his strokes on her cheeks, neck, edges of the eye displayed sensitive nerves. I expressed my appreciation to her, how his paintings, so modern in artistic form, have a universal sensual appeal with subterranean meaning. She spontaneously wanted to share my impressions and invited me to another artists’ gathering in Paris. For 90 minutes people listened in rapt attention as I recounted my experience of that day; then a writer took it forward as memoirs of an artist’s muse. I later came to know my artist friend had had many frustrating relationships, but only this muse could fuel the hungry passion of his inner self. He married her, they have a baby. This is my living experience of an artist’s untold hunger mitigated when the right muse is found.

Another illustrious muse was Russian-born Gala, without whom Salvador Dali (1904-1989) was helpless. In March 2013, we had to queue for 2 hours to see the largest retrospective exhibition at Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris of this prominent Spanish Surrealist painter, sculptor, and cultural icon of bizarre extravagance. But it was certainly worth waiting to see his several works that magnified Gala. Actually Gala was earlier an inspiration to many artists, including André Breton, Louis Aragon, Max Ernst and her first husband poet Paul Éluard. She could recognize creative genius when she saw it, and had relations with many artists and intellectuals. For 3 years she lived in a ménage à trois (threesome) with Ernst and Eluard. In 1929, she accompanied a group of artists visiting Dali in Spain. Love at first sight struck Dali and her, so she stayed back with Dali while her husband returned to Paris.

“It’s mostly with your blood, Gala, that I paint my pictures," Dali had said as he started signing his paintings with his and her names. The couple married in 1934. Ten years older than him, Gala became Dali’s agent and re-directed his focus from a liberal ideology to totalitarianism. She mixed with high society to start a private Dali collectors club. Affluent investors would contribute every month; on Christmas Day they’d each get a Dali painting at a coveted, exclusive party in Dali’s studio. Dali and Gala shared 53 productive years together, “Without Gala, divine Dali would be insane,” he said. They spent the World War II years in America where he did many repetitive society portraits, window displays and promotions which brought disrepute to the Surrealist movement but made the couple very rich. Dali encouraged her penchant for young men as he practiced candaulism, exposing her in his paintings for other people’s voyeuristic pleasure. Rock singer and televangelist Jeff Fenholt was allegedly among her last toy boys when she was over 80 years old. That she bequeathed him a million dollar home on Long Island, USA, was among the reasons that Dali and Gala’s last years were very bitter. Yet after she died in 1982 he could barely function; convulsed with terror, he’d spend hours crying on her tomb.

Although the artist’s model can shape the way the creative image emerges, it is the artist’s hunger for expression that can never be curtailed. With curiosity, observation and action, artists always unearth society’s trends through brush strokes on a white canvas.

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Posted on 13-10-2013
Filed Under (ART) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Society values art for many uplifting reasons. Art can preserve history, evoke feelings of pleasure or inspiration, voice individual or collective opinions and be sacred in culture or religion. We read of the lives of famous artists posthumously, but wouldn’t it be interesting to peep into the life and times of a contemporary artist? Let’s look closely here at his rapport with his model.

In the course of my quest of art, I befriended a well-known, well-to-do European painter whose work critics predict will be enduring. He was 75 when we met, I initially figured his 45-year-old wife to be his daughter; they had a 12-year-old son. We would meet from time to time, visit homes of sculptors with other artist friends of theirs and spend very creative evenings together. In fact it was really inspiring for me to be in this French arty milieu. My artistic sense enlarged infinitely.

At their Paris apartment the wife introduced me to a 30-year-old handsome Spaniard who appeared a paying guest student or their butler. On one of my visits to the artist’s home the couple was having a sparkling discussion with the young man; it seemed like he was the host of the house. He always accompanied us to artistic pursuits and the artist’s wife was very attentive to him.

Three years later, a classmate from my art college Ecole des Beaux Arts who was very close to this artist’s family suddenly called me to accompany him as the artist’s wife had a big problem with her man. She threw him out and he’s retaliating furiously. I couldn’t imagine the old man in this scenario. When we arrived, I realized the problem was with the Spanish guy.

Here’s the story of my friends, and it’s definitely not fiction. Being tremendously in love with his wife, the old man allowed her to have a relationship with a younger man if she so required. At some party there was an instant spark or “coup de foudre” as the French say, between the wife and this Spaniard looking for accommodation in Paris. It was clear this Casanova’s ambition was to find a cozy love nest. The wife brought him home to enjoy intense love with him. But she never sexually abandoned her husband, who was happy that she was happy. They lived happily together for 7 years, the husband, wife, son and lover and everybody knew of their exceptional relationship. Cleverly winning her sentiments, the Spanish man flexed his muscles, exerting power over the little son and tried to grab their property. He got the house address endorsed in his passport, kept all residential documents to prove that this was his home.

It seems the wife found true happiness with the Spaniard in the first 3 years, but was so emotionally drained that she could not dislodge him in the next 4 years. When he became violent after 7 years, she put him out with great difficulty. Later I heard her polyandry continued with other men. Somehow her extra marital relationships always ended in violence. Why did she need the family protocol of husband and child, when a lover is under the same roof? Her husband never wanted to leave her; her affection for him was intact. For her, is family a status symbol, is living in opulence a need, or is continuous, free and open adventure her game of life? Does this love story say she loved to live in a blur? I did not get any answer, but this is a memoir in my diary.

Very naturally and openly she used to converse with me about her experience of two types of love sensations. She’s convinced her husband is a genius, “My postures and portraits are all over his paintings, he’s declared that my eyes are matchless for all time to come.” When the artist paints she says she feels his caress all over her body. She talks passionately, with sincerity, not using flowery vocabulary; I have always found her to be genuine. She says her husband spends countless hours to focus the right light to illuminate her body, different parts of which she says can reflect different colours. Using the kind of skill that her artist husband paints his brushstrokes with, she explained the pigment of her skin in detail. She narrated with simplicity that the artist needs her desperately for his emotional security. He wants her to be his muse and model, and to get all the love she gives so generously. She needs an experienced man who treats her with the affection of both a father and a lover at the same time. People may think she’s with the artist for money alone, but her sentiments expressed with fervour filled her words with depth. I still could not fathom whether she engrossed with affluence or with having the father-lover relationship.

On the other hand, when she had narrates her infatuation with the Spaniard, it gives her a totally different character. She gets wide-eyed saying his youthfulness penetrates her body and mind like a fresh bath at the Garden of Eden. His kiss conjures up the abundance of rose petals on her body where she goes astray in the misty dream of hallucination. Sometimes the Spaniard is brutal, “I think I need that. It wakes up all my senses, it elevates me from real life. He is the bountiful lover of forbidden, beautiful Eden.” It’s difficult to understand how this woman balances her emotional level. She’s never said anything wrong about either her husband or lover as she has the caliber to use their different love doses as psychological medicine.

Clearly, irrespective of the artist’s age, achievement of her immortality through an artist’s canvas and sculptures is a dream come true for her as a muse. To criticize this woman’s character would be a big mistake. An individual’s emotions are so fragile; it is more aspiring to understand this fragility because that’s where mental anaesthesia so easily sits on.

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Posted on 06-10-2013
Filed Under (ART) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Through art I’ve imbibed a certain familiarity in smoothly reading human character. My alma mater, Kolkata’s Government College of Art, was established by the British in 1854 with “the purpose of teaching industrial art based on scientific method to youth of all classes.” As a student here in 1970s, I was sent next door to the Indian Museum to study ancient Indian sculptures. Since 3900 BC, Indian art has been expressed with voluptuous feelings through celestial apsaras to Ajanta frescos, Mughal miniatures to folk and tribal art.

But when in class we had to draw the nude figure, my craftsmanship automatically shifted to European art. That required perfection in anatomical drawing, accuracy of human figures, nature or still life. Somehow my artistic hunger felt incomplete in this expression of realism. I was unsure of where I was headed until I suddenly discovered unrealistic disruption in Vincent van Gogh’s paintings in the library. Simultaneously, unlike before the Renaissance era, the artist’s personality was being given an identity. Such artistic disruption so appealed to me that without finishing my course I headed for France, with just $8 that my mother could muster up, in search of disruptive expression of Western art.

Since prehistoric times, art has been intertwined with religion. Europe’s oldest discovered cave art in northern Spain’s El Castillo cave is over 40,800 years old. Paintings of large animals drawn 17,300 years ago were found in France’s Lacaux caves. That’s why behavioural modernity goes back 50,000 years when people began engaging in different civil activities. They started practicing art and music, growing and cooking food, playing games, burying the dead, long-distance bartering, making fine tools and becoming conscious of personal beauty and artistic decoration.

Every religion has used art to propagate its faith. Artistic embellishments portrayed belief in god’s power over humans. South Asia’s Indus Valley Civilization from 3300 to 1300 BC has inference of religious art in swastikas and Shiva-Pashupati seals found in the sophisticated, advanced urban culture remains of the Harappan period. Sacred art of Sunni Muslims prohibits representation so you will find highly evolved calligraphy and ornamentation. Buddhist art of 6th century BC has tantric symbols and Buddha images. Chinese art dates 10,000 BC, but was later influenced by Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. Ancient Egyptian Nile valley art from 5000 BC to 300 AD was highly stylized and symbolic, veering around pharaohs regarded as gods. Even the Central American Maya civilization from 1500 BC to 1500 AD had art intimately serving a religious purpose.

Christian art from 70 AD wanted to tangibly illustrate religious principles. Western art evolution has 13 broad movements starting from 7th century BC Classical antiquity. Centered around the Mediterranean Sea, these art movements are Byzantine, Medieval, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-classicism, Early modern period, Modern art, Graphic art, Street graffiti, and Digital art today. The Renaissance period saw famous artworks in Italy such as Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel, Bernini’s huge column of St. Peter’s Basilica and Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Then 16th century religious Reformation movement divided Christianity into Roman Catholics in southern Europe and Protestants in northern Europe. This fragmented the art world too. Artists who followed Protestantism that espoused humanity is perfection because god created man in his own image, started painting individual common people in moralistic day-to-day life and nature-scapes. These went on to greatly influence society in the coming centuries.

Western Europe’s spectacular masterstroke has been to bring the art movement beyond the religious boundary. Society today places high value on artistic skill, making art the liberty of self expression, creating controversies with it, using visual art ideations to conquer nature and inspire inventions. Art’s never-ending contribution in multiple domains of everyday living drives distinction in the contemporary world. It gives non-restrictive shape for people to imagine beyond what they see.

Design as expressed from Latin designare means to mark out. Through the window of art, we can find that all religions have a strong common design thread; their prayer structures have an elevated, high rise form. You’ll see them in holy structures such as Hindu temples, Islamic mosques, Christian churches, American Indian prayer totems, Egyptian pyramids, Buddhists stupas, among others. It’s possible that religion has emerged either from venerating the means of survival such as animal or nature worship, or from worshipping what’s feared, not understood, or outside the realm of human control. So god being somewhere beyond the sky gets expressed through monumental religious architecture.

Different religions display distinctive architecture as artistic design. Take the world’s oldest known temple built 11,600 years ago. It’s Göbekli Tepe, the archaeological site in Turkey, atop a mountain. If you see its 200 colossal limestone pillars with carvings of creatures like snakes, gazelles, foxes, scorpions and angry wild boars, you’ll wonder how in those days when wheel carts did not exist, they had the fervor and commitment to build this temple. From very ancient times, religious monuments have had fantastic, artistic architectural design that expresses distinctive religious ideas.

Western Europeans later transformed the art in design to a usable form so that designs could serve functional benefit to society. Religious monument design had the emotive factor of aesthetics and the rational stability factor for sustainability. That’s why these architectural structures survived several centuries, endorsing their distinctive design strength.

Significantly from the da Vinci era, Western design started to strongly pay heed to the functional aspect of having outstanding usage advantage. So when the Church freed human expression in the arts, science and literature from the 17th century, the functionality of design was explored in an incredible way. Initially, the usage advantage of design was manual. Subsequently, mechanical motorization came to provide functional benefits to avoid human effort, followed by electronic inventions and now modern day digital innovations. These inventions are reducing our exertion and increasing our comfort, so we enjoy a life of better ease today than people in past centuries did.

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Posted on 29-09-2013
Filed Under (ART) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Fine art prompted people to imagine differently in Western societies. When royalty patronized paintings, Kings were glorified; the Catholic Church utilized artists to decorate religious buildings. From mid 19th century, master ideators like Claude Monet, Renoir and Degas broke away from stifling French neo-classicism techniques to start the art revolution of Impressionism. This influenced French culture and spread around the world. Later, different schools of art brought disruption. Expressionism in the 20th century was inspired by 19th century’s Vincent van Gogh’s colours and strokes; Cubism, Surrealism, modern art, graphic art to street graffiti followed.

You may not visit art galleries regularly, but you will connect to how art has changed modern living by knowing the history of orukter amphiboles as an illustration of art in daily life. In the 14th century, Italian painter Simone Martini imagined a moving machine, expressing a man-powered carriage with four wheels in a painting even when reigning Catholicism prohibited such esoteric ideas. This was the very first imagination of human mobility with inanimate aid. He named it automobile, from Greek word "auto" meaning self and Latin word "mobils" meaning moving. Artist, inventor and all time genius Leonardo da Vinci did an engineering drawing of a 3-wheeler moving machine in 1478. French military man Nicolas Cugnot, in 1770, put vapour in a prototype steam-powered machine that crawled the Paris streets at 2mph. In 1792 American inventor Oliver Evans made a high-pressure steam engine and dredger he called orukter amphiboles. It moved on both land and water. This name was so difficult that The New York Times resurrected the name automobile in 1897, made it popular, so it’s since stuck. Germans Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler experimented with working internal combustion engines around 1886, and in early 1900s, Henry Ford’s Model T was the first design that went into mass-production. So just imagine the influence of art; the most demanding toy for all age groups, the automobile, is the extension of artist Martini’s painting canvas.

In innumerable consumer home visits I’ve observed that about 20% Indians flaunt money on lifestyle aspiration. They keep adding electronic and digital gadgets in their homes, but don’t bother to live artistically with the equipment. A Rs 1 lakh (1200€) flat TV is installed with wires hanging to the set-top-box, video player and power point. Similarly, the digital album’s wire visibly droops to a faraway switch. Fancy wall clocks and expensive lamps lose their elegance with unkempt wiring. When I ask why wires are not concealed in the wall, the answer is more money will be spent, and it’s not necessary. If I suggest spending Rs 75,000 (900€) on the TV and using Rs 25,000 (300€) for decorative work to neatly hide exposed wires, there’s total revolt. Such wire-concealing jobs will not give better visual effect or status-cum-show-off value in product display. Besides, it’s difficult to get odd masonry jobs done, so they’d rather put the entire budget on better quality products. Some say they regularly change equipment, so why waste time in artistic work when no family member or friend notices such neatness? Clearly the art in living style is totally demeaned.

The other day a friend’s wife asked for interior decoration ideas for their new million dollar villa in a sophisticated housing layout. Of course I agreed to design without charging fees, but estimated Rs 50-75 lakhs (60000€ – 90000€) to decorate their 6000 sqft individual home. She revealed she could invest Rs 6- 8 lakhs (7200€ – 9600€) only. Money was not the holdup for this senior professional in a multinational company earning an 8-figure annual salary. Spending Rs 5 crores (600,000€) for lifestyle bragging was enough; they saw no purpose in budgeting for décor. However, when you have money, unless you allocate some of it to live artistically with an aspect that distinguishes you, your mindset can never change. After 12-14 hours at work and travel every day, you need an artistic ambience at home to recharge yourself, to enjoy your life’s dream. Allowing your family to experience artistic taste is a leap in imagination that gets embedded in the subconscious. Even into the future, this brings many intangible benefits to raise the quality of life.

This leap in imagination was what I was searching for when working for a paints company in 2004. In blind tests, this brand’s product quality was as good as the leader’s. In India, wall paints are sold in non-aspirational hardware stores where consumers never visit for decoration purposes; professionals or contractors buy the paints. How could we involve consumers in paints selection so they participate in the celebratory, hygienic, artistic activity of painting their homes? The objective was to make the brand synonymous with decorative art, and rouse people towards artistic living.

In this client’s office one day I saw an old picture of a European hanging in a corner. I discovered he was the founder of paint blends in 1773, the famous “colour maker” who invented Prussian Blue. That immediately sparked off a string of activities. In consumer research, both consumers and professionals were inspired by the idea of home decoration with paints that bore the signature and expertise of the founder of paints. We positioned the brand to invite consumers to “Paint your Imagination” and renamed the decorative paints of Berger brand to Lewis Berger. In the container’s back panel we wrote the founder’s history, illustrating his photo from the office wall picture. The branding symbolically represented a painter’s palette; the container was redesigned to look like a cosmetics box. This authentication of direct descent from the paints inventor together with the branding’s artistic approach made the brand grow seriously in the market.

Nonetheless, it still bothers me that Indian consumers are more conscious of home painting but not of rendering it a piece of art. How we can make artistic influence enter and transport our society to a different level? Only then will people realize that without a creative touch, lifestyle is artless.

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Posted on 15-09-2013
Filed Under (ART) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Even ten years ago it was difficult to get a new piano in India. Now multiple stores are selling all kinds of Western musical instruments. A music store will show you a high priced Yamaha piano made in Japan, and the same brand made in Korea with a price advantage. It’s for the customer to decide the quality difference. India’s economic reforms have addressed both the means and materials of creative arts: instruments, equipment, paints, brushes are imported from all over the world to indulge the artistic inclinations of the neo-rich.

Parents nowadays drive helter-skelter—taking their children for extra-curricular activities—be it ballet, karate, terracotta sculpting or micro-light aircraft flying. It’s often their big show-off factor. They’d rather not inflict children to what they went through in childhood, the traditional guruji coming home to teach classical music to girls, while boys scampered off with neighbourhood kids to play cricket. These same neo-middle class parents cajole their children to study, study and study. They drive them for post-school coaching in at least two subjects. Parents, mostly the mother, study just as hard vicariously, burning the midnight oil to supply hot, strengthening badam milk to the child in the wee hours. After all, unless children get 90-95 per cent marks by hook or crook, they won’t be eligible for elite colleges these parents coveted but could not enter. Earlier, everyone vied for a government job; that’s now shifted to post graduation in foreign universities. After such an exhausting effort, if the child joins a multinational company, the parents beam in achievement, anticipating a good marriage and big earnings. But, when within a year the child is ready to quit work, there’s utter bewilderment.


‘The office job is too boring. I want a creative arts career.’

I’ve received SOS messages from several friends who’ve reached this devastated state. They ask: ‘Please help! What’s a career in visual arts? Does photography pay? What’s a musician’s earning? TV set design, is that a profession?’ and so on. They know they can’t control their children the way their parents restricted and indoctrinated them during the Licence Raj. My friends plead with me to advise their children to retain the superior job their higher education got them, and pursue artistic work only as an after-hours hobby. Now that’s a tall order. They’re my friends, but I understand their Zap generation children better. These under-25-ers belong to India’s new digi-tech era, they’ve never experienced skimping, they operate in a cyber world where at the click of a mouse they get what they want. Right now, while deciding to take a creative arts option as mainstream, they often get restless because the Internet’s inhuman virtual guidance can get frustrating in providing the next step. When revealing this new interest to parents, they draw a blank, not of incomprehension alone, but of utter helplessness, as it’s never occurred to parents to consider art as a bona fide career-building option.

Art has never been a mainstream focus in our country, either for masterminding knowledge or even in living style. India’s beautiful artistic style of past centuries is neglected as ancient traditional art. There’s been no disruptive art movement here as in Europe that triggered people to ideate differently from the history of classism. In the 20th century, British influence started some Western art painting with sudden spurts of copying Cubism, Surrealism, Impressionism, without focus of purpose or how it translates into India’s culture. In contemporary times, there’s been no transcending the Indian art movement that has swayed the imagination of society.

So my young friends of the Zap generation, if you want to be a painter, writer, photographer, inventor, industrial designer, fashion designer, creative director of advertising or a TV channel’s set designer, you need to know of the struggles and evolution of painting, music, photography, theatre, cinema and architecture that the creators of new art movements in Western Europe went through. They have presented us with a bouquet of creative ideas that have carved the route of human advancement, always as shock-of-the-new. My proposition is not to say that Europe is the only example of art, but here they masterminded art to drive society with a creativity grid in every area. People continuously challenged the benchmark in every domain through art. They won control over nature through creative inventions, art has directed living trends, and creative superiority was established as the reference point of surpassmark that has influenced industries too.

Before the 17th century, Christianity did not allow liberty of art, literature, science or invention. The line of control was imagining God, never beyond. But in the last three centuries, the West has seen incredible artistic upheavals after the Church unfroze freedom of expression. Art has existed through cave paintings, almost 40,800 years ago, even before written language was born. Visual art has colour, symbolic expression, signs of communication and the force of human society. Today, no creative format can ideate without encountering the genesis and revolution of art in multiple media.

Whatever creative direction you want to specialise in, remember that hot bath of art you need to dive into. The only difference in pursuing art as a profession is that you cannot predict your income. If you stretch your creativity to extremes, money will automatically come your way. You have to simultaneously develop your commercial mind. While you architect your artistic ideation to create new distinction, you have to value your commercial compensation. Let’s hope India’s young generation can express a different creative tune to start a movement to establish creative art as a real vocation for certain kinds of people. Enjoy the creative art profession, teach people to appreciate art, and get it recognised as a profession in India. Being artistically imaginative in business or in social life will enormously contribute to our future. Let me continue this subject of art movements in Western society next week.

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