(This is a weekly series on advertising professionals who have enriched their own lives and their audiences as performing musicians, artists, painters, actors, singers, mime artists. We will bring a new adman-performer every Thursday.)
Opting to study art against his father’s wishes, Mahendra Bhagat, National Creative Director, FCB Ulka, has come to love his passion more than anything else in his life. After shuttling between advertising and art for over two decades, Bhagat finally chose to blend the two when he joined FCB Ulka in 2016 as National Creative Director.
Bhagat firmly believes incorporating art into advertising. “This is the best time for people to follow art with advertising. This year’s Cannes Grand Prix winning campaign idea has come up from a person who is all about art. Airbnb recreated the Van Gogh room, which gave an impressive return on investment.”
When he joined the agency last year, Bhagat suggested how he wanted to fructify his idea. He said, “I had an idea of how I am going to use different art forms in advertising. Advertising is nothing but influence of different art forms. It is about ideas and communication.”
Bhagat, son of a deputy collector father and a housewife mother, was born in a small town in Maharashtra. His love for the canvas was well appreciated right from the beginning by everyone, including his father, till he made public his desire to taking up art as his profession. Despite his father’s lack of consent, Bhagat went to JJ School of Art, Mumbai. Staying in a hostel with people who were passionate about art, one form or the other, Bhagat started trying his hand at other forms of art and moved beyond the canvas. From sculpturing to pottery, he explored it all. It was, as Bhagat describes it, a true eye opener.
Asked about his favourite art form among charcoal, water colour, oil on canvases and sculptures, he said, “When you are exploring, you want to try everything. You want to enjoy the journey, more than getting expertise in one. Also, being in advertising teaches you to try out different things, mediums with different expressions. I am an explorer.”
In the first year of JJ School of Art, he won the prestigious State Art award. This, Bhagat said, was a defining moment of his life. “I was the first student to win the State Art award and I got a Gold medal from the government.” Bhagat’s works have found place in some prestigious art shows of the Bombay Art Society and Art Society of India.
After graduating from JJ School, Bhagat started off with his advertising career with Lowe Lintas. His contemporaries included the likes of Josy Paul, Prashant Godbole, Kiran Khalap and Rahul daCunha. In fact, Bhagat mentioned that Khalap was an important reason why he ended up in advertising. “Kiran had told me, ‘Try advertising for six months and then decide if you want to continue.’ But I stayed on.”
Later, he worked with The Enterprise, SSC&B Lintas and then moved back to Mumbai in 2006 with JWT where he worked with Agnello Dias. In Mumbai, he lived in Colaba as most art galleries were based there. His art journey began again.
In a few years, he had the desire to take up art as a full-time profession rather than just a hobby. It was during the same time that his college mates, Bose Krishnamachari and Sunil Padwal, had already earned a name and had become highly revered artists. Not one to step back from the unknown, Bhagat decided to leave advertising to follow his passion for art, after a long gap of 15 years.
“Advertising was a very demanding profession, but I wanted to follow my passion and do something that I am really crazy about. That’s when I took off from advertising and went on to set up my own studios – a painting studio and an art installation studio.”
His knack for experimenting with new ideas became evident in his practice, as he created over 300 art forms, from large canvas paintings to sculptures. He then went on to participate in art shows and auctions across Mumbai, Delhi, Dubai, Singapore, Amsterdam and London. His creations not only received wide acclaim but were also highly appreciated by art aficionados. So much so that the opening day of the Delhi Art Fair saw five of his creations being auctioned to the highest bidder.
One of the biggest art collectors in India, Harsh Goenka, once tracked him down to purchase a certain sculpture after seen it at the Tao Art Gallery. The fact that Bhagat’s creations have featured next to the works of masters such as FN Souza and Anjolie Ela Menon, speaks volumes about his talent. His sculptures adorn the interiors of the famous Jumeirah Towers in Dubai.
Bhagat has also been part of multiple art residencies – a one-of-a-kind concept where artists from around the world come together to live and co-create. It was there that he got to work with artists from Japan, Poland, Russia and even Kazakhstan. He also began a unique start-up, Artmeter, with the aim to combine the concept of artistic recreations with hotel lodging.
Having being an artist for three years, Bhagat started missing his advertising days, overnight discussions with his team and the solutions that he created for his clients. “As they say, ‘The grass is greener on the other side.’ I left advertising for art and when I was pursuing art, I missed advertising. Art is like a solo tree. Working for 15 years in advertising had conditioned me to be around my team. I started missing the chaos, deadline and collaborating with people,” reminisces Bhagat.
For someone like Bhagat, who had won nearly 30 international awards in his previous stint in advertising, including coveted awards like D&AD Showcase, Clio Awards, the New York Festivals, the London International Festivals and Cannes, hopping back was not an issue.
In 2016, Bhagat decided that it was time to go back to advertising. Making a comeback, he joined FCB Ulka Bangalore as National Creative Director. There, he adopted a fresh new approach to designing communication for brands where he integrated his lessons learned from his artistic endeavours. Ever since then, there has been no looking back.
In his illustrious career of art and advertising, Bhagat has been to many prestigious art galleries in the world, from the Tate Modern in London to The Guggenheim in New York. Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai, Gallery Maskara and Sakshi Gallery are some of his preferred galleries in India. His list of favourite artists holds a variety of names, each for a different reason. He appreciates the works of FN Souza for their boldness, Atul Dodiya for his style and versatility and NS Harsha for depicting Indian themes in a miniature way. Bhagat also likes the works of Surendran Nair, Manjunath Kamath and Dhruv Acharya, among style.