Gauri Diwakar, Aditi Mangaldas, GR Iranna, Sudarshan Shetty, Matt Ridley and the art of collaboration

22 January 2016 | E-Paper

What rehearsals tell you about an artist

Rehearsals are a vicarious pleasure; a way of accessing the genius of performers without the pressure of a performance


G.R. Iranna with his sculptures at the NGMA, Bengaluru. Photo: Shoba Narayan

G.R. Iranna with his sculptures at the NGMA, Bengaluru. Photo: Shoba Narayan

 

“The arts have become unidimensional, and we live in a multidimensional world,” says the petite Kathak maestro, Aditi Mangaldas. We are in the basement of the Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi. Mangaldas and her foremost disciple, Gauri Diwakar, are rehearsing a new work, titled Hari Ho…Gati Meri: Muslim Poets In Love Of Lord Krishna. They will present it the following day.

Rehearsals are a vicarious pleasure; a way of accessing the genius of performers without the pressure of a performance. A few arts institutions—the Lincoln Center in New York, for instance—accord the privilege of watching a rehearsal for a price. I am at Kamani at the behest of Minaakshi Dass, whose venture, India Heritage Desk, aims to discover the next Aditi Mangaldas or Malavika Sarukkai. Gauri Diwakar may be one candidate.

In one virtuoso display, Diwakar—clad in yoga pants and a top—mouthes a series of bols, or syllables of beats, that sound exactly like a tabla would. To watch her interact with the tabla player, the harmonium player and the singer, is like watching jazz musicians jamming. A young boy—the tabla master’s son—sits in the middle, absorbing it all. This, I think, is how the next generation of musicians is fostered.

“One beat is off,” says Diwakar. They go over the sound of beats again. Her tongue does gymnastics. The tabla sounds like the beats coming out of her mouth. They are immersed in the complex rhythm. At the end, Mangaldas says, “It is still off.” And off they go again.

During a rehearsal, you learn many things. I learnt that Kathak dancers arch their feet like ballet dancers. That pure dance, called nritya in Kathak, can take your breath away. To hear Diwakar beat her feet to the immersive sound of the tabla master is to watch two bodies performing to the same beat, each one goading and celebrating the other. It is what the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow”. As I watch the group, I am envious. Diwakar dances joyfully, sweat running down her forehead; Mangaldas watches the dance she has choreographed come to life—with unwavering eyes and a slight smile. The singer plays the harmonium and sings. The tabla and mridangam players nod their heads, their eyes on the dancer’s feet. All of them are in unison; in another world. Dass and I are interlopers.

More than other art forms, dance is a synthesis—of music, song, lyrics, and costume. If Mangaldas believes that it is unidimensional, what does that say about the rest of the arts?

I think about this as I walk through Sudarshan Shetty’s new sculptural installation at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi. Haunting and intimate, the space he has created reminds me of the Chidambaram temple in Tamil Nadu, which, as it happens, is where sculpture and dance came together during the Chola dynasty. What would happen, I wonder, if Mangaldas and Diwakar were to dance between the pillars that Shetty has erected in this vast space? Would it enhance the sculpture or detract from it? Shetty, more than other artists, would understand and appreciate this fusion of dance, space and sculpture. His wife is a dancer and his father was a yakshagana artiste.

Artists collaborate, of course. But as they become bigger—in fame, and perhaps, ego—the urge to merge with other arts falls short. When you are a Jitish Kallat or a Priyadarsini Govind, why would you want to inhabit another space, particularly after you have slaved away at technique, research and expertise in isolation? To collaborate, you have to leave ego at the door; and that, I guess, is what Mangaldas means when she says that most art these days is unidimensional. It does not mimic the richness and messiness of life.

Govind was felicitated last Saturday at the Dhrishti National Dance Festival in Bengaluru. I read about it in the Deccan Herald, my hometown’s paper. I have never seen Chowdiah Memorial Hall so full. Every seat was taken. Children sat on their parents’ laps. People crammed every aisle. It was among the best performances I have seen in recent times. Anuradha Vikranth and her dance ensemble presented the navarasas (nine emotions) of Durga. Ten beautiful dancers enacted scenes about the goddess. To choreograph two dancers is a feat. To choreograph 10 of them is like herding planets. Four male dancers—two in the Kuchipudi style and two in the Bharatanatyam style—followed; a treat to watch. Dass should keep an eye on Vikranth’s dance ensemble for the next rung of talent.

Which brings us to the question: How does succession planning work in the art world? How does the public access the artists, dancers and musicians in the rung below the top layer? G.R. Iranna is an example. He has had a mid-career retrospective of his work at the NGMA in Bengaluru, but isn’t well known outside the closed confines of the art world.

The NGMA, Bengaluru was buzzing the day before the show opened on 16 January. A museum group from the US was chatting with Iranna. The usually dour museum guards accorded him the deference given to a native Kannada speaker. “He learnt shilpakala (sculpture) in Bijapur,” one guard told me when I asked him if he liked the show. I loved Iranna’s sculptures, which spoke of brave, rebellious politics. Made of white fibreglass, they are visually striking. I could imagine ayakshagana performance amid them. Or Akka Mahadevi’s poetry being read out by Ramya the actor—dressed in a white sari to match the white sculptures. Two different worlds colliding with each other. As they should. For, as Matt Ridley said in his TED talk, we live in a multidimensional world where ideas should meet and “have sex”.

Shoba Narayan loves watching artistic rehearsals. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com.

Rajasthan Tourism’s new campaign

Sridhar Dhulipala, who is in my building sent me this link on Linked In– because I was quoted in the story.  I am putting it under a new category in my blog titled “Rajasthan Tourism.”

 

How Ogilvy Turned Rajasthan Into Rohansthan, Nehasthan, Meerasthan, Jennysthan…

By Snehojit Khan , afaqs!,
Mumbai |
| January 20, 2016
Ogilvy has created a new logo and a multimedia ad campaign titled ‘Jaane Kya Dikh Jaaye’ for Rajasthan Tourism, for which Rajasthan Government has earmarked over Rs 100 crore. The campaign marks the state’s return to tourism marketing after 25 years

The Government of Rajasthan has finally decided to market the state of Rajasthan after an interval of 25 years and has rolled out a multi-year, multi-modal and multi-narrative domestic and international campaign on January 15. Titled ‘Jaane kya dikh jaaye’, the campaign consists of six films, of which five are named after the protagonists who feature as tourists in the videos. The sixth film is a stop-motion animation on sand which reveals the new logo of Rajasthan Tourism.

Rajasthan Tourism's 'Jaane Kya Dikh Jaaye' campaign

Rajasthan has always been a major tourist attraction. So, what has suddenly changed to have warranted a campaign of this sort after 25 years?

Rajasthan Tourism's 'Jaane Kya Dikh Jaaye' campaign

The campaign, which has been conceptualised by team Ogilvy and guided by Piyush Pandey, executive chairman and creative director, South Asia, Ogilvy & Mather, aims to change the way the state has always been perceived. The challenge was to attract the youth to a different Rajasthan, a destination for adventure seekers and explorers.

Rajasthan Tourism's 'Jaane Kya Dikh Jaaye' campaign

“The Rajasthan Tourism campaign is the campaign I have been waiting for the last one decade. Rajasthan is my home state and I think I owe it an impactful and effective campaign. I look forward to the exciting times ahead,” says Pandey.

Rajasthan Tourism's 'Jaane Kya Dikh Jaaye' campaign

The first film depicts how Jane finds her Rajasthan, when a diversion on NH-76 leads her to a view of Garadia Mahadev in Kota. The second video titled Aryasthan shows how Arya finds his Rajasthan in the middle of the Thar desert.

Rajasthan Tourism's 'Jaane Kya Dikh Jaaye' campaign

While the third film shows Binoy visit the mysterious deserted village of Kuldhara at night, the fourth film features Meera, who finds her Rajasthan amidst colourful hot air balloons in the clear blue sky. The fifth film is set in Kumbalgarh Fort where Huan finds her Rajasthan.

Rajasthan Tourism's 'Jaane Kya Dikh Jaaye' campaign

The sixth and the last film introduces the revamped logo of Rajasthan Tourism. Created by Eeksaurus studios and directed by Suresh Eriyat, founder and creative director, Eeksaurus, the video is a stop-motion picture created on sand.

Rajasthan Tourism's 'Jaane Kya Dikh Jaaye' campaign

With regards to execution, after the entire 50-seconds animation on paper was ready, each frame was translated digitally to laser cut stencils. These stencils were then worked over by clay to provide the three-dimensional depth that is seen in the film and then animated over frame by frame with sand — the most elementary component related to Rajasthan.

Piyush Pandey
Suresh Eriyat
Azazul Haque
Mahesh Gharat
Shoba Narayan

Commenting on the campaign, Eriyat, says, “The state of Rajasthan creates an immediate recall for sand, so we decided to capitalise on this factor. Sand animation calls for a great amount of attention to detail, and therefore, every movement and change in surroundings has been looked upon very delicately.”

The campaign, along with the TVCs, will also be advertised extensively on print, outdoors, radio and digital platforms.

Vivek Verma, senior vice-president, Ogilvy & Mather, Mumbai, says, “We went beyond the general places to show the lesser-known sides of the state. To some, the state may be peaceful, and to others it may be adventurous. We decided to explore every nook and corner of the state. I would say, come to Rajasthan, “Jaane kya dikh jaaye (you never know what you might discover)!”

The music created by Amar Mangrulkar mainly consists of Rajasthani folk and is used as the background score. “We decided that there was nothing better than local folk music for this campaign through which the audience will connect better with the state. It gives a different feel to the videos,” he says.

The films capture some of the best images of Rajasthan, be it the authentic Rajasthani culture, places of historical importance, the camels that walk across the desert, or the music, stuff that any tourist would die for.

“To work on the Rajasthan Tourism campaign was a challenging experience. Changing perception isn’t an easy task. After several brainstorming rounds, we stumbled upon a very simple idea to make Rajasthan look different from the eyes of different travellers. It becomes Aryasthan through the eyes of Arya and Meerasthan through the eyes of Meera. The campaign has shaped up well and we are thrilled to be on the team that is bringing about this perception change,” say Azazul Haque and Mahesh Gharat, group creative directors, Ogilvy & Mather, Mumbai.

The state government is expected to spend over Rs 100 crore on this campaign over the next few years.

Despite some of the best tourist attractions, the state’s lack of tourism marketing over the last quarter of a century as compared to its neighbouring states, has resulted in a sharp dip in the number of international tourists (its share has fallen from 33 per cent of international travellers to 20 per cent), as well as domestic tourists (the state gets half of Madhya Pradesh’s 63 million domestic tourists). This is not only a missed opportunity in terms of attracting international tourists, but for economic growth as well.

The state government has created a Steering Committee to monitor the creation and implementation of this campaign. It includes Mira Mehrishi (member secretary, Chief Minister’s Advisory Council), Shailendra Agarwal (principal secretary, Tourism), Malvika Singh (writer and member, Chief Minister’s Advisory Council), Shoba Narayan (author and journalist), and Anil Chaplot, (director, Tourism).

According to Narayan, the campaign mandate for Ogilvy & Mather was to come up with something fresh and digitally native. “Tourism marketing has considerably changed with the internet and social media, and we look forward to presenting something from Rajasthan Tourism for this new world,” she says.

The campaign is part of an overall plan for Rajasthan Tourism’s Phase 3. The Rajasthan Tourism Phase 1, which took off during Independence and carried on until the early 1980s, focussed on the state’s landscape. The second phase began with the heritage hotels and forts. The current phase will combine assets from both phases along with an aggressive marketing campaign, a new logo, and an experience calendar that is being developed.

Unconventional, yet traditional

Bhupal Ramnathkar
Emmanuel Upputuru

Commenting on the revamped logo, Bhupal Ramnathkar, founder and managing director, Umbrella Design, feels that it is better than the previous one. “The new logo will last longer in the minds of the audience. The way the camels and the birds create an impression of a Rajasthani person’s face is amazing. It goes well with the imagery which is to discover something new,” he says.

Emmanuel Upputuru, founder, chief integration officer, ITSA Brand Innovations, says, “The effort is commendable, although it is not something extraordinary. The concept of showing a place from the eyes of a third person in advertisements is not something new or unique. With regards to execution, there are sparks, but if you consider the bigger picture then the message is lost somewhere in between.”

Upputuru feels this is so because of a more individualistic concept used in the campaign. “The videos showcase how a person sees the state of Rajasthan. It does not speak on behalf of the state. It is all about what you see in the state,” says Upputuru. “Moreover, as a tourist, I would never want to be in a situation during my visit to the state as presented in Aryasthan in which Arya finds his Rajasthan when he is stuck in the middle of the Thar desert,” he adds.

© 2016 afaqs!

Journalism and engaging with the world

Steve Coll, the Dean of my alma mater, Columbia University’ Graduate School of Journalism, came through town. My friend and alumni co-conspirator, Phyllis Fang Savage, pretty much organized the Bangalore leg of his trip, which ended with dinner at her sprawling home.

Having read his articles and books over the years, I was giddy with delight at the thought of meeting him. He gave a fantastic presentation in Bangalore at the Oberoi, moderated by the inimitable Rohini Nilekani, and sponsored by the Deccan Herald, my favorite  hometown newspaper.  Nikhil Kanekal, the third generation of the family that owns and runs the Deccan Herald is an alumnus of Columbia.

What struck me was Steve’s optimism. He was hopeful about the state of journalism, books, and the written word. He had clearly thought through the role of journalists at a time when everyone who has a camera and a pen can spread the word–and why not?

I had the pleasure of interacting with Steve over dinner in Bangalore at Phyllis’ home; and in Delhi, where my friend, Anant Nath, scion of the Delhi Press group that publishes Caravan magazine among others, hosted dinner at the beautiful Lodhi Garden Restaurant.

I did not tell Steve  what I am about to say here.  Over the last several months, I have become involved with the launch of Rajasthan tourism’s new marketing campaign.  I am part of the Steering Committee, that oversaw every aspect of the campaign, ranging from choosing the ad agency (Ogilvy & Mather) to deciding whether to do dinner or high tea at the launch.  It has been an amazing experience, working with government.  I learned a lot.

Here’s the thing though.  One of the things that they taught us at Columbia  was about the value of objectivity in a journalist. Ben Bradlee, the legendary editor of the Washington Post during Watergate, famously didn’t vote because he thought it implied political bias.

Now, it is not as if I am some hot shot investigative writer; or a political journalist.  But I have written about Rajasthan.  So I emailed all my editors a Mint about my new role.  What does this mean for me in terms of writing?  Hereafter, I will have to disclose my connection with every future story that I write about the state.

With that preamble, let me now enthusiastically talk about the campaign in the next few posts.

Thanks for the plug, Ashville

Thanks for the plug, Ashville, North Carolina here

“And, while there was precedent for a memoir with recipes (Elizabeth Bard’s Picnic in Provence, Shoba Narayan’s Monsoon Diary and an entire Goodreads list dedicated to “books shelved as cookbook-memoir”), “the cooking lessons with Jonah linked me to the way food was central to both of our stories,” Smith says.”

 

Breakfast in Varanasi

01 January 2016 | E-Paper

A hallucinatory breakfast in Varanasi

Is there a more beautiful sound in the world than the sizzle of frying jalebis early in the morning?


Forget about cholesterol if you happen to be in Varanasi. Photo: Alamy

Forget about cholesterol if you happen to be in Varanasi. Photo: Alamy

South Indians, or should I say Tamilians, can be cantankerous purists. No mixing tastes. No adding sugar to dal like the Gujaratis do; or adding jaggery to rasam like the Kannadigas do. Only one vegetable per sambhar; be it okra, brinjal or small onions. If you mix multiple vegetables, you are a caterer who is trying to palm off all the cheap vegetables available into one pot. These Tamilians ought to taste the pleasures of breakfast in Varanasi. It might change their minds.

I am standing at Vishwanath Mishthan Bhandar in Vishweshwar Ganj. It is 8am and I have just done yoga and pranayamwith a hundred strangers on the banks of the Ganga, led by a female teacher who shouted, scolded and coaxed us into stretches, bends and submission. Just show up at Assi ghat at 6am if you would like to join in. Suitably lubricated, my body is ready for its next round of lubrication.

At the Vishwanath Bhandar, four men sit outside, frying stuff. Have you heard the sizzle of a jalebi early in the morning? It is the most beautiful sound in the world. Chopin’s Nocturnes have nothing on the twin sounds of jalebi and kachorisizzling in oil right next to each other. I stand with the milling crowd. It is my turn. I hold out Rs.10 and get two leaf bowls. An impassive man ladles aloo sabzi into one leaf bowl; and the kachori in another. Now comes the dilemma. How to stand, balance these two bowls in one hand and eat with the other? The others around me are doing just fine; they’ve had years of practice, darn them. If I could be born again, I would come back as a Kashi vasi (Kashi resident), not necessarily for the good karma but for the terrific kachoris. I have had kachoris in Jaipur, Haridwar, Delhi and Bengaluru. So far, the ones in Kashi are the best. They are fluffy, not brittle. They hold their round shape and have a respectable amount of dal. They collapse like a bubble when you tear them open. The best part is the aloo sabzi: a trite tangy, just enough spicy, and piping hot.

The only way to make a kachori better is to mix it with jalebi. It is like adding a pinch of salt to hot chocolate. The shot of pure sugar makes the shot of pure cholesterol better. Best if you don’t think in those terms and use the term that teenagers these days use to explain everything: YOLO (You Only Live Once). Ergo, eat kachori-jalebi for breakfast; if possible, every day.

Once breakfast is done, I go temple hopping. At the Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple, hot laal pedas (red pedas) are brought out. Devotees buy boxes of them to take to the Hindu god Hanuman and then distribute to those gathered. I stand in line, awaiting my share. A lady in a purple sari hands me one; then, seeing my face, she gives me another with a smile. “Jai Hanuman,” I say and pop one into my mouth. She looks pleased.

“My daughter conceived after eating 10 of these pedas,” she says. “They are a fertility tonic.”

I stop half-bite. Is this why India is overpopulated? Too late. The peda is “too good”, as my nephew, Harsha, says. The trick to a good peda, and I speak as someone who has never made a peda in her life, is the consistency. It has to melt in the mouth but you should be able to chew the last bits. You should make those popping sounds that babies make when they relish food. In Tamil, we call this naaka chappi kotti, which is like saying, “making clicking and clapping sounds with your tongue”. A good peda should make your tongue clap.

At the Annapurna temple across town, someone is serving sesame rice, perhaps because it is Saturday. Karnataka, where I live, is home to several “rice varieties”, or “chithra-anna”, as we call it: coconut rice, lemon rice, tamarind rice, curd rice, and, best of all, bise bele bhaath, which literally means hot lentil-rice mixture. Sesame rice is not often made or served. It is a delicacy and an acquired taste. I acquired it in Kashi. The recipe is simple: roasted and ground black sesame seeds, red chillies, curry leaves, some urad dal, and a good helping of asafoetida. Grind it all up and mix with hot rice. Here too, the leaf bowls make their appearance. If you like the depth and girth of good sesame oil, you will love sesame rice. It is great for vegans because it contains a ton of calcium.

At the Kashi Vishalakshi Temple, this wide-eyed goddess is served some ghee-dripping sheera as prasadam. The sponsor of this prasadam ladles out a spoon to a line of devotees, including me.

All this eating has made me thirsty. The great thing is that you can get thandai with bhang in Varanasi on an average day. You don’t have to wait for Holi to indulge. Lord Shiva, the ascetic, loved his bhang, made from the leaves of the cannabis plant. At a government bhang shop, I nervously watch the vendor pour a respectable amount of this green concoction, before adding chilled milk laced with crushed nuts, sugar and saffron. The resulting drink is slightly bitter. It is supposed to be hallucinatory. It makes people giggle and wake up with what seems like a hangover.

The other dish that is a signature of the city is not as potent. Banarasi paan is a digestive. I grow betel leaves in my garden. How different can this be, I think, as I stand in front of a tiny shop and ask for a paan.

“With zarda or without?” asks the vendor.

Zarda comes from tobacco. It is addictive; gives a high. How bad can it be? With lightning fingers, the vendor smooths open a bright green betel leaf. He throws in several items: betel nuts, lime paste, fennel seeds, a pinch of zarda, rose petal jam or gulkand, and what looks like tutti-frutti. He folds it into a triangle, sticks a clove to hold it together, and hands it over to me. I have eaten paan before, but this one has oomph. As I chew, I can feel myself becoming light-headed. The juices flow down my throat, inducing a pleasant sensation of relaxation. I smile beatifically and thank the vendor.

“Careful,” he says as I stumble out. “Sambhaalke.”

I wave my hand and keep walking. It is a beautiful day.

I don’t remember very much of what happened after that; except that I, much like a Hindi film heroine, woke up in bed.

Shoba Narayan loves a good Bengaluru bisi bele bhaath followed by a Banarasi paan. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

The delights of wearing a sari

This is going to be my year of regional styles of donning this garment.  Just saw and loved Baji Rao Mastani.

Nanditha Lakshmanan, Shilpa Sharma, Sudha Kanago, Deepa Krishnan, Ally Mathan, Jo Pattabhiraman, Chandra Jain, Geetha Rao, and all you casual and effortless sari wearers, this one is for you.

 

25 December 2015 | E-Paper

The delights of wearing a sari

For many of this generation, donning a sari is both a moral and an aesthetic choice


Dress is not a moral question. It is an aesthetic question,” pronounces Rta Kapur Chishti. For her, maybe. But for many 30- and 40-something women who are used to the “comfort” of wearing pants, the sari can seem constraining. So why bother with this garment? Why bother with six or nine yards of unstitched cloth that is, along with curry, cricket, bindis and bling, an instantly recognizable icon of India?

For some, like Ally Matthan and Anju Maudgal Kadam, who co-founded the 100 Saree Pact, the sari has become a crusade; a movement; a sisterhood. It is a way to preserve and relish a garment that is ours for the taking.

For others, like Shilpa Sharma, a co-founder of Jaypore, the online retailer, the sari is a work of art and a way to access Indian culture. Sharma organizes “textile trails” through the different states, introducing participants to weavers, techniques and experts like Chishti. Jaypore has brought Chishti to Bengaluru to run “The Sari School” workshop, in which she demonstrates some of the many regional styles she has learnt from all over India. I am one of the giddy participants.

Wearing a sari, for me, is both an aesthetic and a moral question. Do I sleep in a sari like my mother? No. Do I wear it throughout the day and travel to global conferences in a sari like my mother-in-law? No. Is the sari a second skin for me, as it is for Chishti? No. Then why am I wearing this garment? I certainly don’t reflexively reach for it every morning like countless women of the previous generation did. When invited to a party where I know most women will be dressed in designer Western clothes, the choice of a sari isn’t merely aesthetic. It is a blend of loyalty, even patriotism towards a garment that you believe is endangered and deserves to be saved, preserved and handed over to the next generation. It is a way of asserting an identity at the risk of standing out, something that many women dislike. It is a statement: “See, if I can wear a sari, maybe you will too.” It is—many times—uncomfortable to go to a party, be the only one in a sari and risk being stereotyped as old-fashioned.

Wearing a sari, for people of this generation, is an act of principle; a conscious choice. Having said that, I discovered a delightful consequence. The sari disarms. You walk into a room full of stylish, svelte women in bandage dresses and think, “Oh God! I am the only one in a sari.” But then they gravitate towards you, these men and women. They talk about Mangalore tiles; red-oxide floors; and grandparents. “I love your sari,” she says. “I wanted to wear one.” They associate your garment and you with comfort, nostalgia and family. That is the effect of this garment. It disarms the viewer and connects you with your past.

Chishti and Saumya Nagar, who works with her, demonstrated several regional styles, none of which required a petticoat. “Once you get hooked on to the feel of a sari around your body, you can never go back to the restrictions of a petticoat.”

The regional styles, many of which involve a kache, or drape between the legs, are like pyjamas; they are more comfortable than the way we wear a sari now, because they free up the legs to move.

That said, would you wear such a drape to a party? It requires conscious choice; the risk of standing out and being labelled “strange”, and the confidence to “own” a style that is Indian and ours for the taking. It is, in other words, the next and natural step for someone who chooses to wear a sari, not only for its aesthetic but also for what it represents.

Shoba Narayan is wearing regional-style sari variations to parties these days. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com.

Also read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns here .

Paris and Luxury

Should brands take a stand is the question I try to analyze in this piece. Normally, no.  But now?  Thanks to Elisabeth Cadoche-Guez for setting me up with luxury brand executives in Paris.  Elisabeth is the author of a wonderful book on Arthur Rimbaud.

27 November 2015 | E-Paper

Luxury in the time of great tragedy

France’s great luxury brands haven’t done much in this time of tragedy, and they ought to repair that


Imagine if you were the head of Dior, Lanvin, Chanel, Yves St. Laurent, or Hermes. You are sitting in your corner office in Paris– your beloved Paris- which is in a state of emergency, and will be for the next three months.  What are you going to do? Do luxury brands have a role to play in times of crisis?

The simplest and easiest approach is to say nothing; to stay away from any political statement because no matter what you do, it could be misconstrued.  LVMH and Kering, the two big conglomerates in French luxury, declared a holiday on the day after the Paris terrorist attacks.  Some brands like Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Carven and others posted solidarity messages on the House Instagram account. But beyond that, the French luxury community (if there is one) mourned in private.  Is this the right approach? You could argue it both ways, and I—at least this time—am arguing that it is time that French luxury brands speak up.  Why? Because this is Paris—the home and heart of the luxury business.  The place where storied brands like Cartier, Moynat, Boucheron and Balenciaga began their story. This is the city that has nurtured many of the iconic brands of the world; where they have flowered and thrived. Why go silent at a time when their city needs them most?

There are a few good reasons. The biggest is the fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. Facebook–a baby brand, relative to these guys, reacted to the Paris terror attacks and got both bouquets and brickbats. Its “safety check” feature in the wake of the Paris and Nigeria terror attacks was hugely useful. At the same time, the company was criticized for allowing users to change their profile picture to match the French national flag but not doing the same for the Beirut bombings that happened a day earlier. Mark Zuckerberg, the 31-year-old CEO of Facebook, made things worse, when he said that the company couldn’t respond to every crisis because “unfortunately, these kinds of events are all too common.”  What Zuckerberg said unfortunately happens to be true.  Brands are a commercial business and not in the business of messaging, condemning, criticizing or reacting to every global event.  But critics were miffed.  Why this selective outrage, they screamed. No wonder luxury brands want to stay out of controversy. They have seen more wars and calamities before Zuckerberg was even born.  Which one do they react to?

The second reason for staying quiet is the belief that it is not their place to react. Luxury brands are in the business of curation and selection.  They are arbiters of style, beauty and sensitivity. The reason for their existence–they believe–has to do with “an incessant quest for quality, innovation, and creativity.”  How to deploy these brand values in a time of war? To come up with a message that is appropriate, sensitive, and in character with what their brand stands for?  John Galliano tried with his “Dior not War,” T-shirts in 2005, but it was at best, an insipid response.

The default mode is do things quietly; to donate a portion of profits to the victims of the attacks; to set up foundations; or simply donate to relief agencies like the Red Cross, French Secours Populaire, or the Friends of Fondation de France Inc.  Brands do this during natural disasters.

The luxury business gains over 40 percent of revenues from travellers, says Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas.  Anything that disrupts global travel – primarily epidemics or terrorist attacks – would be a major negative for luxury goods.  The terrorist attacks on Paris, says Solca, “are a clear negative on what was already a difficult market for luxury goods.”

The luxury business is also a victim of that fickle variable called “mood of the customer.”  One executive wondered aloud if customers would buy a €2000 handbag in times of terror attacks. The wise approach was to hunker down and soldier on, he said.  And yet…..  Could a business case be made for doing the opposite? Would it make commercial sense for a brand to take a stance against global terrorism? Certainly, such a contrarian approach would be a clear differentiator; help the brand to stand out in the minds of customers. It could even broaden the customer base– and make fence-sitting customers buy that €2000 handbag as a symbol of the fight against terrorism.

When I asked Solca what French luxury houses could do at a time like this, he was cautious.  “I believe everyone is shaken and feeling close to the victims, their families and their friends – in Paris, in France and the world over. The luxury goods industry – so important in Paris and so central in defining French culture and attitudes – is no exception,” he said.

Agreed, but what can a brand actually do?  “Beauty, sensitivity, care and wisdom will be vital to balance the horror we have witnessed,” said Solca. “This is the role the industry can fulfill.

Tough call, and a daunting list, for sure. How does one meld “sensitivity” and “wisdom” into an anti-terror message? Then again, the vast marketing and PR tools that are available to these brands could be deployed to craft just such a message.

What about a more public role, even if it is a symbolic gesture—somewhat akin to lowering the flag to half-mast in times of mourning? Is there some gesture that a brand can make to show solidarity towards the city that has nurtured it?

Even if I manage to convince top luxury executives that that they should craft an explicitly political message, what would it be? A Singapore-based CEO suggested a “unity in diversity” type message.  “When a French designer, Algerian leather processor, Tunisian embroiderer, Albanian supply chain manager, English merchandiser and Chinese store manager work together to deliver a great hand bag to its customer, we send a message that integration creates beauty. And it should be that way in every walk of life— we need to reject messages of intolerance and promote integration,” he said.  Unity in diversity, or in this case, unity in adversity.

Another choice could be a variation of the French proverb: “Mieux vaut prévenir que guérir,” which means, “It is better to prevent than to heal.” In such a time, it is better to prevent and to heal. Or what Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”

Would you buy such a message if it were crafted into a Stella McCartney handbag? Or an Hermes scarf? Or a Celine dress? Statements like this may help a waffling customer rationalize her spend on a luxury product. Love in the time of cholera— or terror in this case, to paraphrase Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book.   One reason to buy something beautiful and unique during difficult times is if it is a message that helps the greater good; if you can view it as a retaliation to the fear and horror that has been wreaked by the terrorists. There are endless options for what the message can be for there is the will to commit; to take a stance.

Crafting such a message, either by one brand or a coalition of all the French luxury brands, is explicit, no doubt.  Brands may think it uncomfortable and out of character.  but the results, both in terms of goodwill towards the brand and commercially in terms of customers buying your product or remembering your brand could be tremendous. Coming up with a common message is hard to do but would reduce single-brand risk. It would be somewhat akin to musicians coming together to sing, “We are the world,” still remembered after all these years.

Perhaps it is time for the top French luxury brands to stop playing ostrich. Perhaps it is time for them to speak out in unison against the carnage that global terrorism has wreaked on their home ground. Perhaps it is time to stop worrying about the risks of saying the wrong thing and speak from the heart: authentically, emotionally and fearlessly. Why? Because it is Paris. Because it is the way forward. Because, “Qui n’avance pas, recule”

 

Shoba Narayan agrees with Arthur Rimbaud that Paris has “shed more tears than God could ever have required.”