Posted on 24-11-2013
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

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

The funfair in the run up to 2014 general elections has begun, although 80% voters don’t understand what goes on inside New Delhi’s Parliament House. But they enjoy the whirlwind arrivals, departures, verbal electioneering wrestles, sometimes interspersed with splashes of black ink, and they vote. The new game now is railway station tea seller vs political dynasty prince.

Let’s take an analogy of this choice before the voter. If equated to moving vehicles, it could be bullock cart vs Rolls Royce; in food its chana (lentils) vs caviar, in water it’s the gushing street pipe where somebody’s stolen the tap vs Evian coming direct from the Alps. Being a creative person, allow me, my Reader, to paint a the 2014 election canvas without any bias between saffron versus tricolor. Their free-for-all includes words of legacy, authenticity, personal relations, quotations from history with right or wrong facts. The missing substance is who will do what for the electorate’s development.

Saffron: Suddenly hand gestures are going up, reminiscent of how Barack Obama would breeze into American electioneering with both hands waving. Indians habitually use the right hand, culturally considering the left hand not auspicious. Whether or not there’s regional nuance here, saffron candidate has adeptly started the Westernized left hand greeting cult. Why not? After all urban Indians are heavily inspired by jeans and Maggi noodles, so why push back remembering Indian traditions instead of adopting the globalizing new? Saffron may not get a Western country visa, but huge Western investment has entered Gujarat. FDIs are given every facility to flourish in business. Since Britain gifted us independence, this is the first time a state chief minister is canvassing so forcefully as his party’s PM designate by showcasing his state’s achievements. Identifying with the common man he’s declared he sold tea to passengers at his home railway station, and then repartees on fellow politicians’ jibes for saying so.

Tricolour: There’s a huge treasure trove of nostalgia/memories here, great-great grandpa, great grandpa, grandma, father, mother as national leaders. Like the bubble gum effect where you chew and mouth-mash, the real juice goes away but the rubbery remnants can be stretched endlessly, or even blown up into airy balloons, tricolour legacy can stretch way back to the pre-Independence leader advocating satyagraha. When people not so conversant with history, that the tricolor dynasty shares the same surname as the Father of the Nation by sheer coincidence, sees tricolor legacy posters with the charkha-spinning satyagrahi, it all seems happily legitimate and dynastic. So bearing this Gujarati surname, tricolor can stomp into saffron’s territory with the double protection of dynasty and coincidence of a distinguished surname.

At the same time, tea seller saffron being from Gujarat can legitimately claim the desirable qualities of the satyagraha leader’s origin as his connect to legacy, and so raise his brand authenticity. Saffron is invoking another Gujarati legacy, he’s planning to erect Sardar’s statue as the world’s tallest. The way McDonald can win the taste buds of all Indians with a burger, can saffron nationalise Gujarati culture?

Meanwhile tricolor’s advantage is like European luxury products Louis Vuitton and Hermes before whom no new commercial brand can ever compete. That’s because such renowned luxury brands take the reference of their long years, selling it as a marker of noble legacy to establish their connoisseur craftsmanship for high brand worth. Having history are the bonus that newcomers can never get. Of course there’s no connoisseur craftsmanship involved in this case, rather tricolor’s dynastic family breeding.

Did Bollywood follow the tricolour family legacy or was it the reverse? Feudalism is officially eradicated, but culturally alive in Indian politics. Bollywood film stars dynastically promote their children, so does tricolor. The great legacy management benefit tricolor has is black & white documentary films, old newspapers, other archives. Tricolour mother’s tough public job is to untangle feathers her son’s emotional flying off the handle criticizing Government policies ruffled; simultaneously she has to keep his political future intact. The sister is also available on demand. Tricolor politician has to only prove his dynastic thoroughbred political family. Tricolor party has several vintage politicians with solid political background and enormous pull in their constituencies. But they can’t climb beyond a certain rung in the ladder, their only choice is to nurture the dynasty scion who needs to grow and get appreciated.

Garland power: Do garlands reflect power? In the old days, politicians would respectfully throw the garlands back to the public in mutual appreciation. Today’s phenomenon is big, bigger, biggest garlands to flex and display political power. The masses are totally confused, are they politicians or prophets? The crux of this election is for the tricolor to convince people that this 6th generation (after great-great grandpa, great grandpa, grandma, father, mother) legacy is the best for India, while saffron has to convince everyone that the style of governing Gujarat is the best for India. One can give you the dynastic encyclopedia while the other can offer a cup of tea even as the train is pulling out of the railway station. You, the voters, have the choice of learning of our country’s political legacy or getting charged or re-charged with cups of tea.

Anyway, don’t look at who is good or bad. Abraham Lincoln had said, "You have to decide whether you want to be right or you want to be a President." An unpainted canvas gives you the liberty of using whatever colors you want. The way great painters never bother about how others consider the painting, the saffron and tricolor canvas seem to have unlimited expression possibilities. The only difference is that these antics will impact a billion people, whereas a painter’s painting may be liked by only the person who buys it.

The crucial question is who will bring livelihood and dignity to 80% of our country’s people who probably don’t understand this colorful saffron vs tricolor electoral canvas stretching like an endless bubble gum?

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Posted on 17-11-2013
Filed Under (BUSINESS) by Shombit

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

An artist’s muse is more than a model, she feeds his sensitivity with her mystique. “A muse’s job is to penetrate the male artist and bring forth a work from the womb of his mind,” says radical feminist Germaine Greer. If we were to superimpose this metaphor in business, designers of all kinds of products, from food to automobiles, can make the customer the muse.

We’ve heard “Customer is king” often enough. Perhaps the mutual distance one keeps from a monarch has prevented most industrial designers from taking the customer as inspiration. If you as the designer consider the customer your muse, your design work will become a piece of art reflecting the latent desire of the customer.  The customer’s contribution will then become real, the caring for the customer’s feeling will form the industrial designer’s mode of working, just the way an artist has a symbiotic relationship with the muse.

This caring factor somehow seems to be at a discount these days. One day at work in London, an English client had expressed interest to experience something Indian. Luckily, an inner hall of Wembley had a Hindi songs function with singers from India. So I took my client there where naturally the audience was largely Indian, Europeans were just a handful. One thing bothered me a lot here. Appreciative spectators were rushing up to give flower bouquets to the artists on stage, but the artists did not greet them with care or receive the flowers graciously. A few even publicly threw the bouquets behind, instead of delicately putting them in some part of the stage in response to the audience’s affection. These artists totally lacked in the artistic understanding of human behaviour.

Another set who lack a caring attitude are Indian politicians. The more famous they get, the larger becomes the size of the garland they receive. The politician seems to be in a great hurry to take off the huge garland, passing it on to someone behind in less than a second. How terrible the large group of his cadre followers and voters must feel, even worse the maker of these fabulous, humungous garlands that the receiver does not appreciate their carefully crafted artistic work.  If politicians considered the crowd and garland maker as their muse, perhaps they would have reacted with more sensitivity instead of just hankering after power, counting heads at the gathering or worrying about whether all the TV channels are covering them.

In the service business, aside from those who interact with customers, the company also has to be sensitive in approach.  Travelling in a big size business class chair on a domestic flight, the stewardess gives you a cup of tea in a beautiful bone China set, but she carries that in a horrible plastic tray that looks like it’s come from the prison canteen. It’s not her mistake, but that of the management. Those who designed the service looked at consuming elements only, there was total neglect of aesthetic sense in matching the tray with the high class crockery and cutlery. India’s service industry has a lot to learn on how to embellish a service by taking the customer as the reference of a muse. 

In engineering products that are handled by the masses, the engineer-designer has the huge responsibility of creating an incredible ergonomic relationship between the product and all its customer touch and visible points. Ergonomics is human engineering, the study of our relationship with our working environment with special reference to anatomical, physiological and psychological factors. In my training sessions with engineer-designers of different Indian companies, they understand ergonomics in a very technical way; they pay little heed to how human beings love to touch, an instinct that nature provides. You’ll never find sharp edges in trees, human beings, nature’s creatures. This deficiency of not inviting the ergonomic way into industrial design gets reflected in most Indian engineering products like automobiles, consumer electronics white goods, among others.

The attraction to become an artist’s muse is the artistic, tangible embellishment that the artist bestows in the painting from the inspiration he receives from the muse. In analogy, you as an engineer-designer have to do something to your customer, your muse, so he or she inspires you to create humanized ergonomics in your design. For example, in every electronic machine there’s technology and material. What’s important is creating an ergonomic distinction that induces a psychological involvement in terms of looks and functions. Your humanized product has to evoke a feeling that’s higher in the customer’s mind than competitor products. You will find this sense of humanized ergonomics in products of Apple, Samsung or Sony where the touch, look or features have some distinct psychological appeal, but may not find it in Philips, although Philips is a very inventive company.

I’ve observed luxurious residential buildings costing crores of Rupees having artistic deficiency in the finish. A 10th floor balcony had straight metal railings like forging in a factory and floor tiles corrugated in the sunlight. There’s an 18 inch wall to cross over to the balcony from the living room, so the apartment owner put an ad hoc plastic stool as a step for the convenience of elderly persons. When you approach the lift, there’s a 2 inch granite step in front which a newcomer invariably stumbles over. Having money to spend randomly does not guarantee a quality lifestyle. Unless an artistic sense seeps into urban and industrialising society at large, these superficially designed living spaces of modern India will deteriorate into garbage after 20 years. Obviously unlike an artist, the builder felt nothing for the muse, the customer.

Artist and artist’s muse can make powerful contributions to society. Money alone cannot create the social dimension. When Americans come to France, we’ve heard of them enquiring how much it cost to make the Eiffel Tower or Versailles Palace or Louvre Museum. French people laugh and don’t know how to respond.

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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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