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The art of business

Pradipta Mukherjee  |  Kolkata 

gets around 25 corporate leaders to paint pictures as a way of unleashing creativity in strategic thinking.

To most people, Keshub Mahindra, Naina Lal Kidwai, Azim Premji, Jacques Vincent, Vinita Bali, and may read like a random roll call of big names in corporate India.

To Shombit Sengupta, the offbeat founder of Bangalore-based Shining Consulting, they have much more in common — they’re painters whose work went into the consultancy’s 2010 calendar.

The idea is not just to showcase Shining’s high-profile client list. It’s a mutually reinforcing exercise to highlight the concept of business creativity. As Sengupta puts it, “Shining Consulting’s creative business strategy has been successful because our client leaders have an extreme sense of creativity.”

Sengupta, who left Kolkata in 1973 to study in Paris before returning to set up his boutique agency in Bangalore in 1984, leveraged this idea from 33 years of association with corporate leaders in different countries.

“Top managers have outstanding, proven rational qualities, but the pressure of quarterly results and business priorities leave them no time and space to express their own creativity outside of work,” he explained. “So to make CEO-thinkers into CEO-painters, I invited them to give unfettered play to their ideas and imagination by painting.”

The objective of making CEOs paint, he said, was to prove that in this uniform, digital world, business success flows from differentiation that is tangible in a product or service.

The journey began with Sengupta writing to his client CEOs — “I want to spend a crazy creative session with you.”

“Everybody was surprised to see me bring a big suitcase into their office, open it, take out acrylic paints, brushes, a colour palette and an 18”x24” canvas, and arrange everything on their table,” Sengupta recalls.

“Do I have to paint?” they asked.

“Yes indeed! As a successful CEO you carry a high-value management palette in your mind,” was Sengupta’s prompt reply.

They immediately understood that there is no real difference between a management palette and colour palette. When they queried what to draw, Sengupta said, “There’s no shareholder, promoter, employee or competitor scrutiny on this. You have total liberty of expression.”

“You won’t believe the responsive spontaneity with which they went to work like professional painters,” he added.

Naina Lal Kidwai, group general manager and country head, HSBC India, wrote on her painting: “The last time I painted was playing with Kimaya when she was five or six years old. Here, the confidence is being able to just do something for oneself, not to have it vetted. In the office everything one does, one is answerable to someone. Here I was really only answerable to myself. I wanted a little approval from my husband, but my whole approach was there is no winning and losing in painting.”

Azim Premji, chairman, Wipro Corporation, was so elated that he did two paintings.

Jacques Vincent, vice-chairman, Groupe Danone, wrote: “It was a difficult exercise, I’ve not painted for 40 years. You get inspiration when you put the brush in the water, the colours you see and don’t see. It’s exciting in the first 15 minutes, then there is anxiety, and creativity rises again. I was studying serenity, creating or disturbing infinity that’s never ending, the crush of atoms, you can maybe see flames here.”

For R Gopalakrishnan, executive director, Tata Sons, it was: “Synthesis, no analysis, the opposite of what I do every day. I’m always breaking things down analytically, here I’m trying to construct holistically.”

Finally, Pranab Datta, vice-chairman and MD, Knight Frank India, sums it all: “Chartered accountants are analytical, they deal with numbers, clinical, business creativity. But this creativity is abstract, trying to get meaning out of virtually nothing. It allows you to run abandon, just not have boundary conditions, express your internal thoughts.”

After the world’s first “CEO Paintings” exhibition due in March in Mumbai, a permanent art gallery at Shining’s Bangalore office will display the painting.

“I wish to hold more exhibitions across cities as well as seminars and sessions to speak about creativity and innovation,” Sengupta said.

“There are only 12 months in a year, so my sincere apologies to other CEOs, MDs, chairmen whose paintings could not be accommodated in the Shining 2010 calendar,” he added. Around 25 paintings will be on exhibition in Mumbai and later displayed at Shining’s Bangalore office.

But the exercise has been successful enough for Sengupta to consider repeating it. “We can have different crazy creative sessions every year and all business leaders should be on the lookout for something more from this series of painter CEOs,” he promised.

First Published: Wed, February 17 2010. 00:58 IST