Why Ananya Birla's singing debut is applaudable

By Rajiv Agarwal        Last Updated: December 16, 2016  | 12:34 IST

I read a scathing critique on Ananya Birla's performance, and was curious. I had to accompany my children to the Coldplay concert, and I remember reading her name, as I perused the various acts. I reached late, and missed her performance - which I was told by the social media coverage "was lip-synced". I did watch the YouTube video later today and was very puzzled.

Let me explain. I am not impressed by blogs, and social media speaking profusely about various aspects of this debutante's performance, or by the launch party or the guests, or by the 4.6 million (and growing) views on YouTube, or the world-class people and fantastic efforts gone into making the single, and the video. Not even the Santa Catalina Island in California as the picturesque location impresses that much.

But what I am puzzled by is why she chose to do this.

Let us add a little perspective here. Ananya Birla is the next generation scion from one of India's most well-known families. The family has been media shy and is perceived to be traditional and conservative, but she has probably grown up with all the comforts which one would imagine. She has the option to lead a comfortable life, away in anonymity or in her own cocoon where she can escape reality completely, and live in her own self-created world. But she chose not to.

Let us consider the typical high-net-worth family. There is data to show that sometimes the next generation children in families of wealth are not able to reconcile themselves with the wealth, and can suffer from various insecurities and self-esteem. This also arises from their inability to relate to the real world, since they have always been in a protected world, walled in by exclusivity and various gatekeepers who have shaped their perceptions of reality. Therefore, when faced with facts that run contrary to their perceptions, the next-gen usually is unable to handle the truth, and seeks alternative means of coping.

Bernard Shaw had spoken of "where wealth accumulates and men decay", and this seems ominous. In fact, this is also the reason behind the well-quoted statistic of family businesses usually not lasting beyond three generations. (The reality and relevance of this statistic is the subject of another article.)

On the other hand, in words of Lansberg, next-generation children find that they have to face tests, which their immediate groups, family, and society impose on them, to evaluate their worth. These tests can be qualifying, self-imposed, political or circumstantial. The success of these children depends on how they perform on these tests. Most of them do not even attempt them, let alone try to succeed.

Qualifying tests arise out of academic and professional capabilities, shown by education, outside work experience in a non-family concern (hence the trend of for next-gen to apprentice in financial or consulting firms before joining). Self-imposed are targets that one sets for himself to achieve, and political are the ways the successor deals with the family and business politics. Circumstantial are those which are unforeseen events, which test the mettle of the successor, whether the successor fights and succeeds or avoids dealing with these. These tests usually serve to demonstrate the capabilities of the successor, almost like proving grounds.

Most successors fail, because they do not take on the challenges that they have been deprived of in their life of comfort. This is a shield used to protect the children from hardships, by concerned parents, who would not like to subject their children to the same adversity that they may have faced. This is a fair point. But the love and caring, if done in excess, does not allow the child to try and learn, or taste failure, in a situation where the family wealth or name may not help. Or where success is only by one's competencies and capabilities.

Our love for our children deprives them of the perseverance and hard work, which they would need, if they are to face the future challenges in their lives. And for this, their upbringing may become a handicap. They must learn to do things by themselves, rely on themselves, and to know what their true ability and worth is. A quote that I often use is, "they should have the opportunity to know for themselves what their true worth is. Are they being paid too less or too much? Do they deserve half or double of what they get?" This is important to build self-esteem for every next-generation child.

Children in these families are constantly being judged, evaluated, and every action may be subject to intense media glare. Their slightest actions can be critiqued by reams of newsprint and social media. Under those circumstances, where the entire world is more than happy to jump on you and let you know what your faults are, and how you have the reputation of the family on your shoulders, the pressure is tremendous.  Most normal people would crumble. Or would follow the safe path to avoid any negative comments.

So it was with this background that I wondered 'why on earth did Ananya Birla go on stage at the Coldplay concert?'

It takes a brave soul to venture out and follow one's dreams. To follow one's passion, to move away from the well-paved and maybe gilt-edged path, and to choose to carve out a path for oneself in a jungle, faced with uncertainty and definite criticism. The family wealth may give you a head start, but you would need ability to stay the course and succeed. Why still, would one still choose to go in front of a live crowd, who has come to see Coldplay, and one wrong statement brings disapproval. (The same crowd booed some very well-known people later during the event).

My guess is that there is something more than what meets the eye.

Ananya Birla was scheduled to be in Paris at the Le Bal des debutantes fashion event, one of the highlights of the year. She could have easily chosen to lead a simple uneventful life in her own environment. Yet she chose to start a micro-finance company and an e-commerce portal. I am not sure of the success of these ventures, but she did try.

She chose to go on stage in a Coldplay concert, and subject herself to public judgement, for her debut single. I don't know how many of us would actually do that. I am not the best judge to predict her success in her singing career.  

But I definitely know that what she did takes courage. Raw courage. Or maybe even foolhardiness. But whatever it may be, you have to admit, that she has shown the willingness to take on challenges. She chose to take on a tough challenge, performing before an 80,000-plus crowd, on a stage where her background may not have mattered or could have saved her from public opinion. And for that she deserves applause and respect. A good sign for any family business.

Ananya Birla, as far as I am concerned, I will stick my neck out to say, in my books, you have passed this test with flying colours. I give you an A+. On your own. Congratulations.

The writer is Associate Professor of Family Business at SPJIMR.

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