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MITHU BASU: ARTREPRENEUR & DOLNA

Mithu Basu is the Mumbai, India-based founder and curator of Dolna.  What is Dolna?  Dolna http://dolna.in/ is an art enterprise and online gallery that Basu started to address the growing demand for contemporary art in the lives of people in India.  I met Mithu online and I’m sure glad I did.  She is a brilliant artist, businesswoman and humanitarian and speaks very eloquently about contemporary art and society, changing India and why artistry and creativity are integral parts in the lives of all people. I had a blast chatting with her…  

“… Were we meant only to SURVIVE?  Surely not. Unlike animals, man needs refinement, sensitivity, imagination, emotion, beauty, joy, provocation, aspiration, inspiration, therapeutic nurturing, empathy, introspection and perception … all of which can be stoked by art …”

MICHAEL: Hello Mithu, I'm glad to be chatting with you.  First of all, you're in Mumbai which I imagine to be a very colorful, overcrowded, super-energetic, bustling city that never sleeps.  Is it chaotic?  What's it like there?

MITHU: Hi Michael, It feels great to be chatting with you. Don't know whether you have been to India or Mumbai, but you have described Mumbai bang on. It's bursting in the seams with energy, ideas, dreams, hopes and hopelessness and a mass of diverse people who co-exist amid glaring disparities. We call it the land of opportunity. Everyone gets a fair chance to make it or break it here. Yes it’s a 24-7 city. Earlier, it was nightlife that kept the owls awake, but today with it being the hub of outsourcing, commercial buildings are lit up and buzzing all through the night. 

By Indian standards, Mumbai is very disciplined, but to a westerner just the sheer numbers can throw you off and see it as chaotic. Our father's posting brought us here (when I was two years old) along with my nine siblings. Stumped?  To me, it’s my birthplace and I am a diehard fan of Mumbai, a city that can never judge, intrude or discourage you. It’s a safe city for women. There is something in the air here that keeps the ants in the pants thriving. Have I tempted you enough to come over?

MICHAEL: You sure have.  You know Mithu, I think many Americans still see India as an impoverished country.  Is that true or is it changing?  

MITHU: Michael, India being impoverished is as far from the truth as saying only 8% of Americans have passports. These myths need to be busted. India is truly into exciting times. While the world markets are screaming saturation, we are just opening up. The untapped market potential is so humongous that the world is making a beeline here. Our youth capital, natural resources and a hungry market all make great bedfellows. The 'Make in India' campaign and many other initiatives are driving the change we want to see. Our Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, when asked by a global audience if we still had snakes and elephants on the streets of India he replied, those have now moved over to make space for the 'mouse' invasion.

MICHAEL: Haha! Well said.

MITHU: Having said that, yes, we are hampered by setbacks of mismanagement and corruption that spew many other ills. India with its multi-lingual, multi-cultural diversities, is a challenge to lead. The burgeoning trends of consumerism, expanding middle class, startups, a rush of nuvo-employment opportunities and lifestyle shifts that we are witnessing, firmly establishes that we are heading toward better times. 

As an artrepreneur, when I see the market opening up to art, I know for sure, new winds are blowing. The basics of food, clothing and shelter are getting taken care of and we are now ready to integrate lifestyle, luxury and ART into our lives. 

MICHAEL: Wow, that’s fantastic. Are people in Mumbai's growing middle class buying art?  Do they understand contemporary art?  As you know, many Americans like art, but they don't really buy it.  They don't understand it. They would rather have new cars, new iPhones and designer clothes.

MITHU:  The growing middle class is displacing the existing denizens in the category, propelling them upward and beyond and they are emerging as the new art audience. Young, double-income, professional, well-traveled and hugely aspirational. They may not understand art, but would know its asset value or its impact on status or simply passion invest for the sheer love of art. Alongside, we have the niche 'old money' buyer who frequents the auctions for old masters and guaranteed heirlooms.

The time has come for handpicked emerging and mid-established artists who have found their idiosyncratic language. They are attracting buyers. I personally promote carefully chosen artists who have in their art the ethos of India. The rendition can be contemporary or folk or a fusion, but seeing it in any corner of the world one should credit its lineage to India. In this seamless world of the web, identity is critical. Authentic, affordable and original is the way forward.

As an artist, I believe that more than being understood, art must be felt. When we create, our emotions are finding their place in the sun. If it resonates in another heart, that's when you know your art is talking. When we walk inside a gallery, we move through some works untouched and suddenly one stares back to transfix you. Somewhere subconsciously you must have experienced that similar emotion and therefore it resonates. In this multi-complex world of diversities there are only nine emotions that hold the universe of humanity together. We all experience them some time or the other and that is precisely how the world can empathize which each other’s art. 

MICHAEL: Mithu, You are captivating.  What are the nine emotions that hold all of humanity together?  Can we experience all of these emotions at some point when looking at art?

MITHU: The theory of the nine emotions are a hand me down from our ancient text (Natyashastra) written between 200 BC snd 200 AD. We call it Navras. (Nav- nine Ras- essential emotions). Every human being, you, me, anyone in this universe is actually a microcosm of the universe itself. Culture, race, religion are artificial separations.

MICHAEL: I totally agree with that.

MITHU: The cosmic truth is, we are one and therefore the same emotions apply to all. We may express our emotions differently - I may cry with joy and you may laugh when angry. But the fundamental emotions:  LOVE, JOY, WONDER, ANGER, COURAGE, SADNESS, FEAR, DISGUST and PEACE remain universally immutable.

The principal emotions also have multiple subsets: Love has kindness, wonder has curiosity, sadness has melancholy, disgust has morbidity so on and so forth. The viewer’s emotional response is the keystone to experiencing art. If life is good and my heart is singing, Picasso's 'Weeping Woman' may not touch me, but if it triggers in me memories of the hardships of my mother, my tear will add to the pool of the weeping woman and I will want to posses that art if I can afford it.

The emotional resonance has morphed it into a masterpiece for me. Take Van Gogh … you can feel the feverish tension of his strokes. They channelized his depression and reinforced his sense of urgency.  Like all old masters, he has been copied many times over with skill and mastery, but bereft of the anguish and emotion of the original artist, copies will always remain cold. The legendary Pollock flung, hurled, poured himself headlong into his larger than life canvasses. Can the life force that underwrote his works ever be copied? That's the power and value of emotion, the universal language of art.

We can play a game to see if the Navras theory works for you. For only if it works for you can you be convinced of its truth. Let's pick five of your favourite paintings before you knew of this theory. With calmness internalize, introspect and try to identify what really makes the painting special for you. Let's see if your answers vindicate the theory. After all, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

MICHAEL: Haha!  Mithu, tell me about your own relationship with art.  How and when did this begin for you?  Why art?

MITHU: Okay, so with the emotions now tucked behind us, let’s move on to Julie Andrews and start from the very beginning... I have been drawing ever since I can remember. In grade two at school, we were asked to draw a flower which was drawn on the board for reference. I thought it strange that a cut flower could stand on its own, so I placed it in a vase and the vase on a table. The next day, the teacher walked in singling out one drawing from the rest asking, who has done this. Her tone was not pleasant. Scared, I raised my hand and was in the middle of being sounded out for doing more than I was told, when our principal, a soft spoken German nun stepped in and asked what was the noise was about. On hearing the teacher, she asked me why I had added on the vase and the table. Hearing my explanation, she took me in her arms and said "you will be an artist one day." The words later impacted me and steered me toward art.

I come from the City of Joy, Kolkata that has creativity in its DNA and to compound that was my mother's artistic genes and my eldest brother's mentoring. He was an artist himself. Later, when it came to decisions on further studies after schooling, I opted for English Literature and did my Master’s Degree. Alongside, I apprenticed with an ad agency as a commercial artist and under the aegis of a legendary copywriter, I trained in the art of writing copy.  

That's a snapshot of my beginnings - more when you shoot your next question.  

MICHAEL: And so, where did your artistic endeavors go from there?

MITHU: All through school, I enjoyed the privileges of being branded 'artist,' got away with day dreaming and was considered an expert when it came to visuals for special events. Alongside that, I also passed with A grades in the State, Elementary and Intermediate Art exams. When it came to further studies, I chose English literature over art. I never envisioned a career possibility as a fine artist. Communications interested me. Having enjoyed my first year of college life, I opted for morning college and packed my day time as an apprentice visualizer with a design shop - ad agency (Kitasu) and the evening as an apprentice copywriter with the legendary Larry Grant. 

As University life came to a close, I was a post-graduate with 5 years of exciting work life behind me and all of twenty years. Publishing was seeing a boom and I joined a premier publishing house as their art director and doubled up as a journalist whenever I was intrigued enough to probe. Four years later, I set up my own design studio and ran it wonderfully for 9 years. Great accounts, stimulating and creative challenges. By nature I am driven by curiosity, so right at the start I had thought life shouldn't be linear. I should be a free and flexible collector of experiences. Life was turning out that way and I was happy. 

Advertising budgets were seeing a new poacher on the block, 'Public Relations.' I studied it closely and saw in it the potential for a blockbuster. Inherent in it were three ingredients I love most; writing and creativity and relationships. I decided to shift gears and turned to PR. I took up an offer as Vice President of a dedicated PR agency. The timing was perfect. Media had not yet recognized PR as a commercial channel of communication. So media space came free, based on content of story, but more importantly, relationships. It was the golden period and I was in the thick of it. Soon I set up my own communications consultancy. 

Five years of awesome clients and path-breaking communication strategies later, I moved on to The Leela Group of Hotels as General Manager of Corporate Communications. I stayed on for ten years with a study break of three months taken after a long haul of eight years, to air my mind. It proved to be pivotal. It changed my path and charted my homecoming to ART.

MICHAEL: Wow, that’s quite a journey.

MITHU: The study leave was for a short fine art stint at Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagores's  iconic art university 'Santiniketan'. While I was studying art, I was impacted by the talent that I was experiencing around me and the realization that their future was not supportive enough to sustain households. More than 85% of qualified artists were stepping out of the merry-go-round for secure non-creative jobs.

When the mind awakes, it disrupts the comfort zone. Can I do something I asked myself?  I have the connections … can I turn that to the advantage of artists? Yes and thus was born DOLNA, my brainchild.

You must be up to your ears with my never-ending story, but believe me, the lovely turns and twists have been sacrificed for brevity. More at the trigger of your next question.

MICHAEL: Absolutely fascinating.  And so, what is Dolna?  Is it an art startup?  How does it work?  Are you an "artrepreneur"?

MITHU: Just like you did, a celebrated designer friend asked me what exactly is it that you wish to do? Being a visual thinker I said, "I see artists sitting on my swing to get that push to fly high!" Call it 'Dolna' he said, which means ‘the swing’ in Bengali. It's short, captures the essence of your vision and add to that, coincidentally it also happens to be my late mother's name, I added. With her blessings to get started, so saying he designed my logo; the upward swinging logo with the dominating red spot as if taken from my forehead to give it my stamp of identity. I loved it! 

It was roll up sleeve time. I started with processing the formation of the company, enrolled with the University to study Art and Aesthetics and put my lean and mean team together all from the living room of my apartment.

MICHAEL: Wow.

MITHU: The pampering of corporate life was behind me and now reality was a tough one. But we navigated. Networking and reaching out to a variety of stakeholders was the all-consuming activity. We needed to connect with corporate entities and individuals who had an affinity for the arts, handpicked artists for whom our platform could be their springboard.  Plus, a host of partners (vendors) who could stand by us as we outsourced resources. The act was culminating beautifully.

The spine of my structure was 1. Self-funding to start with, to steer the company exactly as per my values and vision. 2. Non urban discoveries of talent vis a vis the articulate urban artist because they need us more. 3. To handpick artists whose works capture the ethos of the country, in content, style, symbolism or colour palette. And to ensure that our identity stands tall in the fast emerging seamless world. 4. To take art into non-traditional spaces where art is not expected, but encountered in close-up. In India, one rarely ever sees a family go together to the art gallery so clubs, hotels, malls are my venues. 5. Bring art to children. Children here are not exposed to original art to stare at, touch, study or discuss. 6. Take artists out, to travel and experience this universe and gain new insights and stimuli. I had to bust the 'isolation' myth.  7. To encourage dialogue and collaboration in the art fraternity. Non-existent and therefore.  8. To facilitate selling of art and help make it a sustainable and viable career choice. 

MICHAEL: That’s a great vision.  Similar to what I do with ArtBookGuy.

MITHU: We are into our sixth year of existence as an artrepreneurial enterprice and are delivering on all counts. We are still self-funded. Dolna events have always been in unexpected and innovative spaces. We ensure artists are seen painting at our events which enthralls and engages children and adults alike. Our Dolna Art Retreats have enabled artists to travel within India and overseas as state guests. Once again, our Art Retreats help bring artists out and encourage collaboration and dialogue. Our e-commerce enabled website has placed Indian Art on the walls of far-flung countries across the globe. We can sing our songs and be happy or believe that this is minuscule as compared to what needs to be done in the sphere of art. Undoubtedly our belief endorses the latter. 

The time has come to take Dolna to the next level and how I wish we had “Shark Tank” here in India. In a country that has not yet fed, clothed or given roofs to all of its people, supporting our vision may seem an indulgence and yet people who matter know that art is a great chronicler and crucial to communicating our glorious country to the world at large and the lifeline of its sustenance is patronage. 

MICHAEL: That sounds fantastic. Congratulations on Dolna, but let me ask you this ... Life is tough for people and many if not most people including here in America are working hard just to pay their bills and put food on the table for their families. Can we really expect people who aren't rich to support artists and buy art?

MITHU: You are so right about the current economic environment. Art does get to the back burner. However, India is a land of paradoxes, where consumerism and constraint co-exist. Young couples are buying houses on EMI (monthly installments) and house proud owners want their walls dressed. At Dolna, we look at industries like IT, Banking and Pharma that are doing well and expose these audiences to art through corporate art events.  

Personally, I am encouraging artists to adapt their art to furniture, upholstery and other applications. We have pushed for murals in luxury hotels, exclusive stores and elite homes. We negotiate for public spaces and showcase installation art. We study marketing challenges of corporates and offer innovative art solutions. We have packaged and branded art workshops to make it relevant to HR needs of corporates. Art pavilions have been infused to align with architecture, interior, wedding and luxury expos. 

The challenge is to attract the attention of both asset and passion investors toward carefully selected art that is affordable and meets stringent parameters of originality, authenticity and caliber. We are also exploring overseas markets like Singapore, Hong Kong and the Middle East, Dubai in particular. Having said that, the niche 'masters market' will always have its place for its die hard collectors. This segment is seeing the resurgence of online and offline auctions though sales are definitely on the slow down. 

Adapt, change and apply art to modern needs is the mantra that will keep art and artists afloat during these trying times.

MICHAEL:  Do people really need art?  We need air, food, water, shelter to survive, but do we need art?  What's the point?

MITHU: Michael, in your question lies the answer. Yes the basics, air, food, water, help us survive. But were we meant only to SURVIVE? Surely not. Unlike animals, man needs refinement, sensitivity, imagination, emotion, beauty, joy, provocation, aspiration, inspiration, therapeutic nurturing, empathy, introspection, perception... all of which can be stoked by art.

Being a visual thinker, I see it this way. We take air for granted, but breeze makes us aware of the feel and existence of air. The universe likewise with all its elements is a tapestry of art, but again taken for granted like air. It's the artist who with his creations, be it in any form, medium or discipline, awakens our mind to become aware of this incredible universe and its infinite possibilities. The creativity in exploring possibilities sparks inventions, innovations and steers progress.

MICHAEL: Preach, sister, preach. 

MITHU: The human race can trace and date its journey from the dark ages to modern times through the evolution of art. A picture it is said, speaks more than a thousand words. That makes visual art a powerful channel of influence with universal reach.  The impact of art is endless and I rest my case on its importance in our lives.

Despite art's colossal impact, one can empathize with the despondent 'what’s the point?' To this day, being nebulous, subjective and unquantifiable, art stands on the sidelines instead of center stage and struggles to prove its worth to the global masses that seem unconvinced. Art may seem an indulgence and yet people who matter know that art is a great chronicler and crucial to communicating identities and cultures of countries to the world at large. 

MICHAEL: Mithu, This has been delightful. You aced this interview!  I wish you and Dolna much future success.

MITHU: Michael, let me tell you it has been a wonderful experience interacting with you.

Check out Mithu Basu at http://dolna.in/.   



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