Monday Mentor: Arundhati Ghosh, India Foundation for the Arts

Arundhati Ghosh, Executive Director – India Foundation for the Arts

oruArundhati’s journey has been one of the most exciting ones and I had the good fortune of sharing her journey for some time.

She is one of the few people who had successfully navigated the bridge between corporate life and not-for-profit organisation.

A staunch supporter of the arts and a woman who lives on her own terms, she can be intimidating at first until you get to know her.

Here she shares some of her leadership and life secrets. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your current role and what are your responsibilities in the current role?

I lead India Foundation for the Arts (IFA) which is the only independent, national, not-for-profit organisation that supports arts and culture projects across the country. IFA was established in 1993, and has till date made over 450 grants to artists, scholars and researchers with a commitment of Rs 22 crores to the field. The results of these engagements today are out there as books, films, archival materials, performances, exhibitions, courses – touching, influencing and impacting lives every day. We see our role as a facilitator, catalyst and provocateur in the world of the arts and culture.

As the Executive Director at the foundation my role is to lead the organisation in all areas of its work – programming and grant making, resource mobilisation, building collaborations with like-spirited organisations, enable the visibility of the organisation in media, outreach, representing IFA and its cause at various national and international forums, advocacy for the arts, and writing about the arts and culture world. It also includes building connections with the Board, donors, the arts sector, grantees and our various collaborators.  I also sit on a few boards and advisory committees of other arts and culture organisation.

How did you get here? Tell us a little bit about your past history that led up to this role.

I started my working life in the corporate sector after I did Economics and Management. But after some years, I grew restless and discontent with the way of life as well as the meanings of what I was doing. I shifted to the world of not-for-profit and the arts about 15 years ago. Since then it has been an amazing journey for me.

The journey of life is a series of events and activities, some of which make a lasting impression on us – we remember them and try to imbibe those characteristics. Across your journey, what the three key things that you have learnt and imbibed.

  1. Have patience: Everything takes its own time
  2. Be passionate: It’s infectious
  3. Remain open: There are always possibilities

What do you think is the role of a manager or leader in today’s world? What makes a good manager or leader?

I believe in collective leaderships – an approach that sees the leader as the first among comrades, rather than a general or a guru. The role of such a leader is to enable, motivate and inspire the members of the organisation to constantly move towards achieving its vision that is an expression of collective aspiration.

Such a leader needs to be reflective and critical, challenge conventional approaches and continuously push the envelope. She needs to be empathetic and brave with a clear understanding of the conceptual frameworks and contextual realities within which the organisation functions. She needs to believe in the power of possibilities and have an acute sense of what remains unheard and invisible. She also needs to be self aware, understand where she stands with respect to her politics. A deliberate, constant student, who is willing and curious to learn from her colleagues and the world around her, makes for a great leader. A deep sense of alignment of personal and organisational values is a must, I believe.

If I flip the above question around now, when you are hiring for your team or your organisation, what are some of the key traits that you look for, irrespective of the role for which you are hiring? What traits should today’s young professionals have?

  1. Courage
  2. Curiosity
  3. Compassion
  4. Collectivism

Life is a series of ups and downs. Can you share with us some of your biggest UP and DOWN moments and what did you learn from them?

There have been so many.

I remember that when I entered the world of arts and non profit as a fundraiser it was hugely frustrating. I had taken a big cut in my salary and privileges of the corporate sector to come here and I was a complete failure at raising funds since convincing people to support the arts was a really hard task. I kept wondering if ever I would ever see the light. I think it was partly my pride and ego and partly a strong sense of connection with this world that kept me going those days. I also remember times when inspite of all my contributions a few of my earlier colleagues raised questions about my knowledge of the field and my ability to lead. It was heartbreaking, and I would, in really bad times wonder if I was at all in the right place for myself.

But I have learnt that over a period of time, your work speaks for you; the relationships you build speak for you.  I have also learnt that self doubt is often a good thing. If you take people’s criticism of you as an enabler of growth, you can really learn. You don’t need to love them or even like them – but taking on board what they say rationally and analysing it to see how you could make the most from it helps. Also, if you keep doing what you are doing, and better every time, with patience and strength, it works. I had so much help from friends in the arts world at times like these – they enabled me to feel confident, encouraged me to learn more, and continuously stoked my passion for the arts. I am forever indebted to those pillars in my life.

The good moments in this journey has filled me with so much gratitude. There have been awards and recognitions, assignments where I have excelled, problems I have found solutions to, talks that people have felt inspired by, spaces I have built with the spirit of sharing – all of which has made me richer in so many ways. Sometimes it all seems so unreal, so unexpected. I truly believe that the world does not owe us anything. All the good things that come our way therefore one must be grateful for. One must also remember the transient nature of the accolades. One has to keep doing good work inspite of them 🙂

How important do you think is the function of Marketing to your organisation’s success? As a leader, what do you look towards marketing to deliver?

I would say building relationships is key to the work we do. Connecting with people – their values, desires and dreams – is at the core of our work in the arts. Whether it is artists we make grants to, the larger arts and culture community, students, donors, general public, or the media – we look for common areas of concern, questions and challenges. We attempt to make the arts reflective and relevant to our contemporary lives in its myriad contexts. These relationships are built on mutual trust and a sense of learning, experimenting and working together to build a collective future.

On a lighter note, what are you passionate about? How do you de-stress?

It is my immense fortune that my work and life are inseparable and focus around my passion for the arts and culture.  So I could actually say I am hardly stressed J However, on those crazy days when I am, there is nothing that a good conversation with a dear friend cannot cure.

And on a parting note, what advice would you give to our readers?

Not advice – perhaps a sharing of what had made my own life a wonderful journey across this world. To live with curiosity and explore the various possibilities in this world across professional and personal spaces. To remain true to one’s own values, have faith in people around us and believe in the collective. To know that change is inevitable but the course of change can be influenced and impacted for a more just and equitable world.

Let’s do a quick rapid fire round:

  • Your favourite holiday destination?
    • Anywhere I have not been yet.
  • Your favourite food?
    • I am very experimental with food – mostly non vegetarian. But my comfort food remains Biriyani and that spicy Andhra Chilly Chicken from Nandhini.
  • Your comfort movie and/or book?
    • Poetry from across the world.
  • Your most prized possession?
    • My sense of adventure.
  • The most adventurous thing you have done?
    • Living fully in each moment of life.
  • A word or a phrase that defines your core life philosophy?
    • Hazaron khwayishen aisi, ki har khwayish pe dam nikle – Bahot nikle mere armaan lekin fir bhi kam nikle. (Ghalib saab)


One response to “Monday Mentor: Arundhati Ghosh, India Foundation for the Arts”

  1. Anamika says:

    Greetings! Very useful advice within this article! It is the little
    changes which will make the largest changes.
    Thanks for sharing!

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