He’s scaled new heights in each of his diverse avatars: as a tech pioneer, innovator, founder of a global consulting firm, passionate filmmaker or even compulsive photographer. But L C Singh’s ethos and credence is not merely a sum total of his sterling achievements across spheres. It’s defined by his unique mystical probe that delves deep, defies norms and yet delivers the goods in every endeavour – be it raising the bar with software services and making breakthroughs in IT consulting, deciphering Sartre and drawing from Bohm, clicking a picture and playing the piano or projecting thoughts on screen and orchestrating emotions on stage.
Sudhir Raikar in conversation with the legendary thought leader and transformation architect…
How was life during your formative years in terms of passion and preoccupation?
I have been a dreamer all my life, rather as long as I can remember. I have always been in love with the stars, the moon and water. Physics and Geometry continue to fascinate me. Intrigued by Godmen and scriptures, I spend several hours thinking in solitude about the purpose of life and at times about nothing in particular. On the purpose of life, I feel I am somewhat at peace now. In my early days, my grandfather, and later part, FC Kohli both have been great influences in my life, thanks to the absolute conviction in their knowledge.
Your career strides are marked by a penchant for innovation, creativity and branding - traits rarely associated with tech minds...
Recently one of my close friends publicly described me as ‘Creative mind trapped in business suit’. I am not sure about being trapped ever. I was always sure of my facility for expression. To me life is a series of paths that one treads almost accidentally, yet under the pretence of having made a choice. I certainly know that I never made any of those choices. They were system-driven.
I believe I was fortunate to have received my initial technology training at IBM and TCS that paved the path to contribute to changing the lives of millions. While I attended the training programs at Nariman point, I regularly listened to the initial discourses of Acharya Rajneesh (OSHO) at Cross Maidan. I learnt the intricacies of technology by choice but I am also a keen student of human mind. Communication, branding and marketing fascinate me. Perhaps that’s why my professional traits were manifested on the cusp of the two spheres.
How was life at TCS? Your tryst with E.X. proved historic…
A good part of my adult life was spent at TCS. I joined as a Consultant in ’81 and left as Senior Vice President in ’98. For the major part of my stay, Mr. FC Kohli was my direct boss. He stepped down in ’96 and I quit two years later. E.X. was conventional accounting software with a huge potential appeal. But in those days, computers didn’t have the market acceptance of today. That’s why we decided to bank on the drama of human emotions rather than harping on features selling. Accordingly, we sold the product using theatre, video and movie-like ads. The entire marketing effort proved to be a landmark achievement but most important, it was great fun.
If one can recall, we had key dealers and Keymen selling the E.X. And you might be tickled to know that one of our keymen was today’s model-turned-star John Abraham who was studying at Xaviers at that time. His biggest qualification for the job was the fact that he owned a bike.
There’s a moment, etched in my memory for life: the day was 18th Sept ’91. We were launching E.X. at Nehru Centre before an august gathering of media and industry stalwarts from all over India. We had hired the Yatri theatre group to present the event in play form but Mr. Kohli was not aware of it till the D Day. He was obviously tense since our reputation was at stake. He asked me about the event plan but I was hardly left with any time to explain. “Sir, it will be fine” was all I could manage to say. At the end of the play, he embraced me publicly, overwhelmed with emotion. That was a great moment in my life, a moment of true jubilation and achievement.
How was Nihilent born?
Since I was heading the marketing function at TCS, we were always looking at greener pastures. My role was entrepreneurial as the focus constantly shifted from one opportunity to another. After TCS, I worked at Zensar as its President and CEO and introduced a number of initiatives of lasting value. But after a brief stint I felt brave enough to start Nihilent.
Nihilent is derived from ‘Nihil’, a Latin word meaning ‘Nothing’. It epitomizes the simple philosophy of the whole creation emerging out of nothing, which essentially is the driving force at Nihilent. Nihilent emerges as the 'Unseen Intelligence' - whether technology solutions or consulting breakthroughs - which manifests itself necessarily through its creations.
The industry changed directions after 2000 and we had to invest in consulting frameworks and patents and re-brand the company’s edge with creative flair. It is during this period that we focused our attention to emerging markets and positioned to play the leading role in African market.
What motivated you to make a film on Banaras? "Creating a thirst for treading on an uncomfortable exploratory path" is how you place the film in perspective. Could you elaborate a little more on this?
Banaras was never to be a movie for making money. It was to share with the world, and leave a testament of, my understanding of the truth. The film’s premise is very simple: We are born with a primordial ‘fear’ instinct that thrusts upon us set notions of what fear is as also the need to protect ourselves from it. The system creates fear at multiple levels and, to fight it, we seek refuge in the manufactured concepts like GOD and religion. At some point, we must realise the futility of the fear dynamic and fathom the true nature of life. The movie offers no ‘ready to deploy’ solution but challenges you to probe your own understanding of the truth. It does leave a clue all the same when it says ‘Truth is simple’.
Your interest in ontology and epistemology - does it stem from your insatiable urge to probe deeper?
It is my understanding that learning is a function of curiosity which follows a certain pattern. I wrote a paper, published some time back, on ‘Theory of Learning’ formulating a system of thought and learning. On existentialism, someday, I wish to write a book describing the complete system from birth to death and in between, encompassing the entire human existence and control mechanism. The purpose is to illustrate that there is no ‘need’ for a God to be ‘overseeing’ our lives. The whole pursuit is to encourage people to tread on a path of ‘doubting their beliefs’ in order to seek the Truth.
What, in your reckoning, should Indian software firms do differently to enhance their competitive edge?
The rate of Change is accelerating so we need to be more agile and responsive than ever before. The demographics are changing which means that new competitors could spring from just about anywhere. While we must consolidate on our laurels, we must keep experimenting in emerging technologies lest our growth is arrested in paradigm shifts. Nihilent is focused on the problem solving space. We will be in products, services and whatever else it takes to serve the customer.