An Arty Affair : Interview With Manju Sara Rajan

Manju Sara Rajan is the first lady CEO of the spectacular Kochi Muziris Biennale

The Kochi Muziris Biennale 2016 has been the world’s largest exhibition of contemporary art that showcased 98 artists across 12 venues around Kochi. The third edition has literally been a game changer, not just for the Biennale foundation but for all its stake holders, artists, art enthusiasts and the general public.  RITZ is in conversation with the young and dynamic, Manju Sara Rajan, the first lady CEO of the spectacular experience.

Interview: Riya Sonny Datson 

Photography: Arun A Menon

With a background in journalism and being the founding editor of the Architectural Digest, how did the Biennale happen?

After almost 15 years as a journalist, I moved to Kottayam with my family two years ago. I wanted to spend my time writing and traveling and work was not on my agenda at all. Since I have known Riyas and Bose during my stay in Mumbai, when I met them at the Biennale, I started helping them out with the marketing and funding aspects and gradually, got more involved.

How does it feel to have shouldered the responsibility of being the CEO of KMB 2016?

I must say, we have an amazing team! They have been at it for the last five years and I have been involved with the team since January 2016, so taking up the responsibility of CEO was not too difficult.  Moreover, we don’t follow a top-down management approach. We work together as a team towards achieving a single objective.

What were the most challenging hurdles at the KMB? Did being the first lady CEO add to it?

Demonetisation was a very stressful phase as we had to handle so many payments. The weather in Chennai and Jayalalitha’s demise were other major hurdles as we had to transport our installations.  The funding also got delayed – but through it all, we have learnt a lot! What offset it all, was the amazing response we got. In terms of being a woman CEO, I don’t think I have had any major issues, mainly because as an organisation, we have a lot of women in the administration.

What were your learnings from the grand event?

The Kochi Biennale is relatively new and everything is a learning process. We literally learnt on the job. I think what we need now, is to be more organised and have more structure, so that the team can make careers in art management.  We need to expand access to art and extend more support to educational initiatives that reach out to the public.

Which exhibits or artists at the Biennale were your favourites?

The TKM Warehouse, the Anand Warehouse and Kashi Art Gallery were my favourite venues.

Has your encounter with art and artists changed the way you perceive art now?

I managed an art gallery some time back and have been covering art since 2006. But what I learnt is that, access to art is what is important. It is not necessary to understand art but accepting that expression can take so many different forms is vital!

How has the Biennale changed from its very first edition to now?

Every edition is different, the third edition has been the largest so far. The curator of KMB 2016, Sudarshan Shetty had an open approach, he left it to the audience to interpret the exhibits and chart out their own course at the exhibition. He also expanded the ‘realm of contemporary art’ as it is perceived, by inviting theatre artists, dancers, writers, poets and film makers into our fold.

Being a wife, a mom and a CEO….how do you manage it all?

I believe that when you face a particular set of circumstances, you need to prioritise and manage your time as best as you can. Especially when it comes to children, if you work towards a specific model, I think it’s disastrous! I try to spend quality time with my kids and let them have new experiences. I tell them that it’s important to be productive, to work and engage with the world outside. It’s also important to have a support system in place like your family. Thankfully, I work with the Creative industry where work is flexible and the main objective is to ensure that work gets done. Sleeping less is highly recommended (She laughs!). I am up by 4am so I have some time on my own. I believe that it’s a blessing to be needed in multiple roles in different places and I don’t take that for granted!

What’s your inspiration?

More than inspiration, I work on goals, I take each assignment very seriously and I feel your work needs to be beneficial to the organisation you work for. Like I said, I take it as a blessing to have so many roles, I think it can distract you from the problems of one to the other.

So what’s next on your bucket list?

Our immediate responsibility is to dismantle the installations and ship it back to the respective origins. We have already started working on the next edition of the Biennale and Ms. Anita Dube has been chosen as the curator for KMB 2018.