Pursuit of Happiness

Different strokes

Shombit Sengupta persuades CEOs creatively to paint for unusual reasons

Nilotpal Baruah

I will not talk about business or sex.” For the last three years, Shombit Sengupta has been asking business leaders across India for 60 minutes of uninterrupted time with these tantalising words. He then arrives at the puzzled CEOs’ office, opens a bag filled with canvas, brushes and colours, and persuades them to unleash their creativity. The works of art that emerge have found their way to select workstations across India Inc — Sengupta creates a calendar with them, a feat that has taken him into the record books. The original paintings are displayed at a permanent ‘museum’ in the Bangalore headquarters of Shining, the design and brand consultancy founded by Sengupta.

Previous calendars have featured paintings by the likes of Keshub Mahindra, R Gopalakrishnan, Azim Premji, Harsh Mariwala, Naina Lal Kidwai and Vinita Bali. The 2012 calendar covers heads of multiple industries, from apparel, publications and media to hospitality, pain management and retail. This year’s painter-CEOs include Priya Paul, Rajesh Jejurikar, Dileep Ranjekar and Hari Bhartia. 

Getting the appointment is the easy part. The CEOs Sengupta met for this initiative have all, without exception, vehemently denied they are capable of painting. 

Until they picked up the palette and brush, that is. “Once they hold the brush, dip it in water, flick a little colour and start applying it on the canvas, you can sense their total involvement from their face and body language,” he says. “Their awestruck sense of achievement and almost child-like feeling of glory is phenomenal to see.” 

There is, of course, the odd instance where the would-be painter refuses to be tempted by Sengupta’s intriguing request for a meeting. Ashish Dikshit, president of Madura Fashion & Lifestyle, had been strenuously resisting Sengupta’s idea when the Shining CEO had a chance meeting with Anuradha Narasimhan of Britannia. “What a stroke of luck it was when I discovered in a conversation that she is married to Ashish,” Sengupta says. “Very sportingly, Anuradha collaborated with me secretly, accepted my dinner invitation, and arrived at my home along with her husband. Ashish was spellbound when I placed the colours in front of him.”

Does colouring outside the lines help out-of-the-box thinking? Sengupta certainly believes so. “CEOs have layers of creativity embedded in their grey cells,” he says. “The adeptness with which CEOs handle every burning issue, meet shareholder expectations, motivate employees, or even when they are locked up with a strategy think-tank, they have to approach everything with a creative bent of mind.” 

The painters agree. Jubilant Life Sciences’ co-chairman and managing director Hari Bhartia wrote on his painting Papageno: “Business is also creativity. You need to create something all the time. Make it work, make it sustainable.” That’s a thought echoed by S Sambhu Prasad, managing director, Amrutanjan Health Care (his painting, Connections, is featured in October). “Painting is a primeval urge in human evolution,” he says. “Heck, even the caveman did it! Painting challenges you to lose the security that CEOs are used to — fixed definitions, finite numbers and cash flow statements.” Not if Sengupta has his way!