A billionaire’s canvashttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/a-billionaires-canvas/

A billionaire’s canvas

Similarities between art and business gave credence to the Painter CEO adventure.

Similarities between art and business gave credence to the Painter CEO adventure. Corporate think-tanks spawn strategies on paperboards exactly the way a painter’s brush downloads ideas. Compare colours as artists’ ammunition to industry’s raw material procurement system for producing finished products. Liken industry’s manufacturing machine to the canvas,the transformer podium between brush-colours and artist’s mind. But the big difference is that the canvas holds one piece of art,whereas industry is mechanised to produce unlimited duplications with one mold. The art of idea generation to create differentiation is prevalent in the industrial parameter even if it’s duplicated.

Studying in Paris’ 350-year-old Ecole des Beaux-Arts,the legacy of European art,I stepped into art-sphere,but let me submit that art’s uncertainty of take-home pay drove me into the corporate world to rationalise livelihood earnings for my family. I’ve always carried my corporate strategy work into my atelier (painter studio in French) but with one disparity; as artists we work alone,in corporations we work collectively. Never having abandoned art,I could instill the entrepreneurial spirit when working together with large teams. The consultative approach of delivering big creativity in all customer touch points for the client’s business growth convinced global corporations that art pays. This artistic corporate challenge often took me from country to country. A case in point is a call from Azim Premji’s office in 1996. Nobody knew me in India then as my first consulting work with Britannia hit the market only in 1997. Mr Premji is known as that hardcore businessman who only loves his company’s growth,growth and growth. But since he found me in 1996,I’ve experienced a certain corner of emotion in my relationship with him. I marvel at this creative minded person who was so convinced with the work we delivered,he turned his company upside-down to implement the Rainbow Flower corporate symbol with Applying Thought,changing the corporate credo from Beliefs to a Promise system with a set of four values as enterprise drive. Wipro’s repositioning work took me two years before its 1998 launch. When we recommended different platforms after researching and diagnosing the company,the management team chose the “Caring” proposal with a mother-and-child symbol. I’d explained then that IT is the engine driving Wipro’s future,but the image of all IT companies was boring,whereas Wipro stood for “Essential to Intelligent” for human society. To get the whole team’s buy-in for my recommended Rainbow Flower Performing Biz Identity was proving difficult. Mr Premji was the first to totally see its colourful logic from Day 1. But in the umpteen meetings with his management team,his comments stood among other employee versions. He never imposed his preference,instead made everyone fight it out. And how they all fought! Even the multi-coloured gay flag from San Francisco’s Castro District was thrown into the Rainbow Flower comparison fray. The team did extensive research with different stakeholders on the Caring and Rainbow Flower symbols,where the emotional connect and reasoning behind the Rainbow Flower proved perfect. When everybody finally converged in acceptance,to those residual dissenting voices during its international roll-out,Mr Premji commented,“You may like it,you may not like it,but you will never forget it.” That showed me Mr Premji’s excellence of emotional balance,and his extraordinary understanding of art through the business window.

So in November 2009,as the Painter CEO initiative was germinating,I zeroed in on Mr Premji. He was travelling,so I waited. Then arriving with painting materials,I readied his corporate dining table for painting. He breezed in jovially,then stopped in his tracks. Like a child,he immediately threw a tantrum saying he cannot paint. But in time,in-between our usual banter on different subjects,glancing oftentimes in a friendly way at the colours,canvas and brushes I’d laid out,his fretfulness was melting away. With a smile he halfheartedly attempted negotiating,when I asked him what colours he’d like. He boldly replied,“Give me green,white,blue and black.” And then I got to enjoy his self-indulgent innocence as I’ve always done in our rapport. It may be a hidden treasure between him and me. If you look at how he looked at me just after starting to paint (which I captured on video http://www.painterceo.com/participants/2011/Azim-Premji.php) this is the real Azim Premji I know,his eyes telling me,“Shombit,you are asking me to do a crazy job.” I can never forget that instant.

Nobody can imagine Azim Premji this way. He looked very differently intent as he picked up paint,made intrepid application on the canvas. I was the only person devouring his solid brush strokes against a beautiful January afternoon light dappling through bright pink bougainvillea outside the window. Another picture layer was getting crafted,like a painting,with Mr Premji busy at artistic creation against that flowery backdrop. He finished one painting,it was perfect. On his own initiative he took another canvas and started painting again. Now he was fully engrossed. He left well balanced white space around as he very precisely painted a coconut tree in a breezy atmosphere. Not over-painted,very limited strokes,graceful nature clearly emerging. His movements were emotional,indicating where to start,where to finish. Twelve years after we had repositioned Wipro,I found in Mr Premji’s painting the pictorial depiction of the same spirit of continuity of the Rainbow Flower he’d so spontaneously chosen above all else.


In today’s digital world,homogeneity is so strong that business requires huge differentiation to get better net-worth in future. Visual art always contributes towards differentiation. In this parallel I’m making between art and business,irrespective of his being a hardcore global billionaire-club businessman,Azim Premji’s emotion in art will,in my eyes,always raise his value as a man beyond business.

Shombit Sengupta is an international creative business strategy consultant to top management. Reach him at http://www.shiningconsulting.com