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There’s no better time than now to support someone like Kabir

Anand Mahindra on how his company's investment in the arts ties in with brand building, being a blues lover and the role of art in building bridges

(from left) Quinn Sullivan, Buddy Guy and Nikki Hill at the all-star jam at the Mahindra Blues Festival 2015.
(from left) Quinn Sullivan, Buddy Guy and Nikki Hill at the all-star jam at the Mahindra Blues Festival 2015.

When it comes to support and patronage of the arts, no other Indian conglomerate perhaps is as committed and successful as Mahindra & Mahindra. In the past decade, the company has invested in, honed and popularized cultural properties such as the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards (META), the Mahindra Blues Festival, the Mahindra Sanatkada Lucknow Festival and the Mahindra Kabira Festival.

The Mahindra Blues Festival, held at the majestic Mehboob Studio in Bandra, Mumbai, is Asia’s largest blues festival, an annual destination for fans from across the world. Buddy Guy, Quinn Sullivan, Derek Trucks—its list of performers is eclectic. This year the festival will be held on 11-12 February and the line-up of performers includes Blackstratblues, Blu (this year’s winner of the Mahindra Blues Band Hunt), Janiva Magness, Sullivan, Gráinne Duffy, Shemekia Copeland and Supersonic Blues Machine featuring Billy F. Gibbons and Eric Gales.

Anand Mahindra.

“Every year, a guy from Texas comes to the festival," says Anand Mahindra, the group’s chairman and managing director, when we meet to talk about the company’s involvement in India’s performing arts space. Mahindra is a blues lover himself.

He isn’t an expert on Kabir’s dohas though, which is what the Mahindra Kabira Festival is about. Nor is he highly knowledgeable about theatre. Yet, this hasn’t stopped the company from choosing a variety of art forms with diverse audiences—from elite, urban blues aficionados to indigenous and rooted crafts and performance verse. With carefully selected and rigorous juries and curators, each of these festivals has evolved in quality and range over the years.

Edited excerpts from an interview with Mahindra, Jay Shah, head of cultural outreach, Mahindra Group, and V.G. Jairam, co-founder of brands solutions firm Fountainhead Entertainment Pvt. Ltd.

There is performance, there is poetry, there is blues. All your cultural programmes cut across audiences, even art forms. Tell us how the agenda is shaped.

Mahindra: I am concerned about the line between me personally and the cultural outreach of the company. Why does Mahindra do these things? Jay Shah is the head of the cultural outreach unit. While my interest in the arts is obvious, which helps motivate me, I have to have a very rational reason for why we’re spending shareholder money.

Am I a Kabir aficionado? We all grew up on Kabir poetry in school, but that’s not why we’re doing the Kabira festival.

The blues I happen to like, but there is a very strong rationale about why we undertook the Mahindra Blues Festival. The same goes for theatre—I’m not someone who was knowledgeable about theatre, but why we are promoting it has to do with our corporate credo and our brand. We don’t go down these paths because of my personal reasons.

I have been asked before, what triggered your interest in blues and META, and my answer is that I wish I could give you an anecdotal moment of epiphany, when I suddenly woke up and said, Eureka, Let’s do this! What really happened was that a group of people internally (Jay Shah and Rajeev Dubey, who is the group president, HR and corporate services, and CEO of the after-market sector of Mahindra & Mahindra) sat around and talked about what we as a group are trying to do with our brand.

In the old days, CSR (corporate social responsibility) meant you write a cheque for something which goes in the arts bucket. But that’s not what cultural outreach is about. It’s not about allocating something to the bucket of philanthropy. This is not about CSR (cultural outreach comes under our corporate brand custodian budget, not CSR). This is really about building a strong connect with the consumer. It is linked intrinsically to our corporate credo, which is “Rise".

The Rise credo is about accepting no limits, alternative thinking, and driving positive change—the three pillars.

Let’s take the last pillar, driving positive change. Our credo says that in the end, we want to drive positive change in the lives of our stakeholders and communities across the world, enabling them to rise. What does it mean to enable someone to rise? The reflexive reaction to that would be economically, and obviously that’s a very large part of it. But for us, the Rise philosophy means that when you enable someone to rise, it’s not only about their economic circumstances improving, but also their quality of life improving. And we believe that we cannot have the quality of life of someone improving very strongly simply by fattening their pocket, but also by improving the access to culture.

So when we say that we want to drive positive change, it also means that in our cultural outreach, we’re undertaking things that are enabling them to rise.

A poster for the Mahindra Blues Festival 2017.

You got Derek Trucks, who is perhaps not known to many Indians, down to India to perform at the Mahindra Blues Festival (2014).

Mahindra: Yes, he played at the White House. So did Keb’ Mo’ (Kevin Roosevelt Moore). He came the year after. They all became stars thanks to (Barack) Obama and his blessing of the blues as well.

The brand logic here was this. Our fastest-growing market in the world in tractors is the US. It’s a faster growing market than India. Who are our buyers there? They come from places like the Mississippi delta, which is the home of the blues. So how do we connect with them? We could have just done another blues concert over there, like anyone else. Then how do we differentiate ourselves? How do we tell people we are homegrown; we understand you, and yet we are different? So we created a property that became Asia’s biggest blues festival, and the biggest online blues community in the world. The Facebook community page of the Mahindra Blues Festival has over 196,000 “likes". So what we are signalling to the world is that not only do I respect your culture, I propagate it. I have taken what was a dying art form there, with less and less support, and you put it centre stage out here—what does it tell the Americans? That you’re a real believer, and you’re not just supporting another festival in New Orleans. You’re such a believer, you’re taking it across the world. That’s how you create empathy, trust and admiration.

We have a guy from Texas, Richard Acres, who travels here every year for the blues festival. He’s come from the first festival (2011) on. So while the world gets divided, we create links.

So do I like the blues? I love the blues, but I love a lot of music. But why we did it is because of how it would help us propagate our credo.

The same thing goes for Kabir. The fact was that Kabir is an icon—he was a humanist. And everything he did brought people together. Much before Brexit, or the US election, when Jay and I were brainstorming on the next kind of thing we want to do, within our Rise credo—and there is one more stream within this, which is that we like to encourage new talent and young people—and we thought of Kabir. There was no better time than now to support someone like him, who built bridges between and unified people.

A performance at META.

After you decide this is a property you want to do—like the Mahindra Blues Festival, or META—what goes into the curation of the programme? META, for instance, has a highly experimental and unusual line-up of plays.

Shah: META is not a curated programme, but a call for competition. So we get over 350 entries from all over the country, from cities to small towns and villages. And then a selection committee views these plays. Ten plays are selected, which are then showcased in the national capital. The jury then watches these plays live. I remember with Ravi Dubey (the late creative director of META), I used to go to smaller B-towns, trying to propagate this idea that corporate support is not just about writing the cheque, but the commitment to support theatre is there. Earlier, we did go from pillar to post talking about the property, and encouraging people to (participate). Some of the theatre troupes don’t really have access to anything. Coming to Delhi is a big expedition.

Mahindra: There is a link to what I said earlier. Everything we do is to discover the undiscovered, and look at the neglected. It would have been far easier for them to concentrate only on the metros. But it’s not only about finding the best play, or asking someone like Javed (Akhtar) saab or someone else to tell us whom to back this year, and then showing it, or helping theatre by staging plays that might get a large crowd. We have obviously had to deal with very challenging logistics here. The idea is that we have to ensure a kind of inclusiveness, and we have to try and discover neglected talent.

How do you curate the blues festival?

Jairam: The festival is always co-curated with the audience (they ask for suggestions from the Facebook community page)—what do they want to hear, what are the trends, etc. We have artistes coming from Scandinavia, for example. We have also built a platform for young talent within India with our Mahindra Blues Band Hunt, and now we have expanded this to Asia. Last year, we had a winner from Bhopal. We also have an all-star jam. Now, all the artistes asked me to put them in touch with each other, and are discussing how to make it more interesting.

Mahindra: Buddy Guy started this. Last year, Joss Stone, who is a young Englishwoman, and is not mainstream blues, was the final act, and I was worried how Keb’ Mo’ will come out when Joss Stone says, “Jam." Why would he defer to it? She was such an alpha female, she just went out there and got everyone up, made everyone jam.

Shah: We also take great care in presenting different styles of blues. Also, we ensure it’s an inclusive festival, and that there is representation of gender and race.

Tell us about your interest in film-making.

Mahindra: I have personally invested in a company created by Rohit Khattar—Cinestaan Film Company. But that’s what I do personally. So I don’t want to blur the boundaries between that and the cultural outreach of Mahindra & Mahindra.

I also learnt film-making in my undergraduate (years), but I made up for my sins and went to business school afterwards. Mira Nair and Sooni Taraporevala were a year junior (at Harvard College). Mira always says I sold out to the establishment.

I just did it as more of a catharsis, of proving my point that I am independent. I hated growing up with everyone presuming what I would end up doing with my life, which was to follow my father’s business. So I chose something that was so removed from daddy’s business that nobody could say that I had got a leg up. But having made my thesis film, I proved my point and then, as I said, went on to make up for my sins and earn a living. And happily found that creativity has a place in business.

The cultural scene in terms of support for the arts has always had a very “festival of India" approach, which has left very little space for supporting actual innovation and experimentation in the creative arts. Can the government help patrons of the arts like yourself?

Mahindra: We have never looked for subsidies in the work we have done. We have been doing this because it is our brand. Why should we ask the government to subsidize that? There is no logic to that.

But to your point, there are always agents of change. Look at Amitabh Kant (the then joint secretary of the Union tourism ministry, who together with the then state tourism secretary T. Balakrishnan and the public-private partnership of Kerala Travel Mart Society, is widely credited with changing light in which Kerala was perceived as a tourist destination). Don’t forget, before that was Rajeev Sethi. He took the exhibition Golden Eye to New York, which offered a completely new view on how artisans can, in combination with designers who understand the global sensibility, use craft to fashion objects that are desirable around the world. So yes, individuals can spark a change and institutions can catch up very quickly.

So, rightfully, why would the government look sympathetically at providing a subsidy to a large corporation that is building its image? Nor are we here to sermonize to them. If we do well and are emulated then that’s a collateral benefit.

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