‘At the end of our lives we will all be stories — better make it a good one’

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As a well-established infrastructure tycoon, Sameer Sinha understands best how design and art underscore how we seek refuge and find meaning in life. An aficionado of good aesthetics himself, his dynamic insights into the altering digital landscape of art are both practical and carry a keen vision, as he reveals some of them to Abir in our latest Samvaad

 

Art happens to be that inescapable, indelible strain running through almost every sphere of life that one can imagine. For instance, if not nature, take even the urban cityscapes that surround us. There is art in every landscape, every metropolitan horizon, every structure, and the meticulously laid out designs that make these constructions not just key habitats, but also aesthetic marvels. “For art to enter the public consciousness, the onus and responsibility on real estate developers, architects, builders and designers is huge. We have to not just bring about that change but also start with ourselves,” says Sameer Sinha, who knows this industry and its artistic life blood like the back of his hand. The influential developer from Ahmedabad started his professional career far away in Chicago, USA, dabbling in multi-million dollar infrastructure projects in the ’90s. Following this, he returned to India and started the Savvy Group. Today, this enterprise has made a roaring name for itself in the real estate arena of Gujarat, and is credited for millions of square feet of residential and commercial projects, acres of townships, golf course and country club. Moreover, Sinha is not just a Council Member of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Ahmedabad, but is also deeply committed to sustainable development, as chairman of the CII-Indian Green Building Council (IGBC), Ahmedabad, and member of the IGBC National Executive Council. And, to add to his long list of merits, he is also a friend and supporter of Abir since the very beginning of its journey.

This bond has, luckily, not been disturbed by the unsettling events of the year gone by. While it was an undeniably difficult phase in almost every other sector, including his own, Sinha retains an optimistic outlook about the aftermath, believing that things can only look up from here. At the same time, he is not shy of admitting to introspective turns taken during the lockdown. “One thing that really transformed me over the last year, interestingly, is that I became a much calmer person, more comfortable in my skin than I used to be before. I am sure the lockdown has had this effect on practically everyone… but the whole boredom of being indoors and not being able to go out and do many things or travel has been palpable. I cannot even believe I have not stepped out of Ahmedabad since March last year! But somewhere in this process, I have learnt to deal with anxiety better. Now, I am not so anxious about anything other than the health of my family, my children. If I can deal with that, I can take on anything!” he professes candidly, adding, “The biggest change in our collective lives, for me, is that we have stopped travelling. It is a huge negative and the biggest loss that we are no longer experiencing different places and cultures and people like we used to. I do hope that comes back. My biggest hope for 2021 is that we can travel the way we used to. At my age and stage in life, travel and exposure to different cultures and countries is the best way to grow. So, I miss that the most. But, I am very, very positive about it and hopeful, as I don’t think things can get much worse. There is only going up from where we are. The economy is bouncing up and the vaccine is being doled out. But while things are coming back to normal, people are still being very careful, so we probably need around three to six months more before things can get a little like the way they were before.”

Asked what kept him sane during the locked away months, the entrepreneur who handles projects worth multi-crores readily confesses: “A whole lot of cooking! With my children home due to the pandemic, our entire family has been together and I have enjoyed cooking for them the most. It continues as a passion at least once a week even now, but my staff at home hates it, thanks to the mess I make trying to use all sorts of difficult-to-find ingredients and utensils!”

With access to the world that existed before Covid-19 yet to return to normalcy, cooking perhaps is a form of art that Sinha connected with to keep close to a realm that is rather special to him. A regular connoisseur at exhibitions and a collector of art from around the world, Sinha admits, “Let’s just say I cook because I cannot paint! As far as art is concerned, Covid could not affect my relationship with it. It is almost at an esoteric level. I connect with things I like and I appreciate most good things that life has to offer, like fine art and good design. Design is a big factory of life and impacts us more than anything. The effort that goes into it, keeping in mind proportion, scale and colours, is mind-boggling. Design has the power to hold us and our way of thinking more than anything else. Take a simple good piece of furniture — once you experience that level of design, it changes the way you experience any furniture, and your comfort level alters. Or take even a good coffee machine, for example. If its design and way of functioning is a great experience, we are suckered into using it. Even a good car… anything well designed could have a great impact on our life and our understanding of art. The way I see art is — I do not look at signature, only at the painting or sculpture or whatever it may be. I do not want to bias myself with who has done it or what is the value. That is why I never go with a brochure. If I like it, then I worry or think about it. And then what excites me most is to have a conversation with the artist about what is the story behind that piece of art. I am a sucker for stories. I think we are all here and at the end of our lives, we will all be stories — so better make it a good one! We have to be an interesting story and everything we encounter should have a nice story to it. If there is a painting I connect with and that has an interesting story or perception that the artist had in mind, I like to explore how it matches or conflicts with my perception, what it means to me versus them. Their thoughts may be totally different, or the scenario they are trying to convey different from what I perceive. But if the conversation is interesting and connecting at a different level, then I am attracted to that art.”

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The conundrum persists, however, of the many unheard artistic voices of India that are yet to even become that ‘signature’. Often, when a senior curator/art enthusiast/buyer purchases some art, it changes the scenario for that artist. And just as often, this also becomes part of the problem, rebranding that art and the domain in its entirety into something elitist. How then can that major shift be made so as to brand art for all? Says Sinha, “Art needs to be more affordable. We are often overpricing ourselves out of the market. For years now, I have visited annual exhibits, and it is amazing to see how one Lalit Kala Akademi award quadruples an artist’s prices. This is making art elitist and exactly what it should not be. Think about it this way — there are houses on houses being built in Ahmedabad alone, with people spending lakhs of rupees on interiors. How many genuine young artists’ paintings go into those houses? Very, very few! People hang prints and posters, but because there is not enough exposure or sometimes art is overpriced, artists are not able to tap that huge market of homes. The housing industry is huge in India and it is still growing at 10-15 per cent a year — just think of the number of houses growing in every small town becoming a city, and ever city becoming a megapolis. All these are adding aesthetic elements like furniture, cupboards, bars, wall paintings, etc. Why then are people forced to go looking for digital artwork downloaded from the internet, printed and put up? It is a huge market that needs two or three aspects looked into. One is pricing. Now I may be criticized for this and let me be clear, I am all in favour of artists making as much money as they can — but they are sometimes overpricing themselves out of the market the minute they get really successful. Two — there are not enough forums for people to buy art, so where do they go? This is where I applaud your kind of portal, which connected buyers to young artists. Thirdly, I feel there is so much potential in the young artists of our country. I have come to Abir exhibitions for years and am amazed at the kind of showcasing of artists you do, whether from Jharkhand or Odisha or down south — the caliber of their art is so amazing! I would encourage people to look at these young artists and use their works in their houses instead of this digital print business. And I think it all boils down to exposure.”

With the emphasis lying on exposure, the online art sphere takes on an added importance. Post-Covid, when Abir First Take 2020 had to be cancelled, literally thousands of profiles of eager young artists flooded in. A huge gap exists, with hardly any places for these creators to showcase their work — and this is not a pandemic problem, but has been around forever. What then could diverse young Indian artists be doing to get their name up there on Google, maybe to compete with the global contemporary artist? Sinha rejects the divide of looking to Western art versus “remaining indigenously rooted”, and insists, “Young Indian artists should expose themselves to any and every possible kind of art. We are a global village today, and it is no more just about Indian art, as we can buy from across the world, and the world can buy from us. Just recently, I came across an artist from Germany named Max Gunther on social media after someone sent me an Instagram link and I followed his page. He dabbles in digital painting and does great mixed media work which really impressed me! In this way, we are no longer restricted by geography. That being said, we have tremendous artistic potential in India and must encourage that. But these kids need to look at as many different kinds of art as possible to assimilate from them, because then even the quality of art that they produce will improve. There is a huge market for traditional rural art, tribal art and modern art. If we can provide the platform and give exposure to young artists, they will find buyers and appreciators for all their work.”

As we change our habits and the way we interact with art, Sinha the art aficionado has unending practical suggestions readily at hand. He enthusiastically offers, “We also need to change now how we display art. If you see traditionally, online art portals show the painting, and maybe you can zoom in. But I feel it also has to be showcased in perspective, maybe hung on a wall with furniture around it, so that you can understand its scale. It is difficult for the layman to understand this at the moment. In this way, maybe art could be displayed better. Imagery is important in a digital platform and instead of just the photo, perspective and size being figured is a huge factor. Like why do we put clothes on mannequins? At the end of the day, we have to make that extra effort to convince the home buyer.”

Indeed, with his unique insight into the ways in which art and design collide in civilizations that build cities around these concepts, Sinha sums up, “You are in the digital world now, and there are limitless possibilities!”

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