I like the attitude; that’s good energy,” says fashion photographer Tarun Khiwal, clapping. “Let’s do a happy jump,” he booms with the flourish of a conductor taking charge of his stage.
Tarun Khiwal, Photographer
The symphony comes to life, the model jumps, flashing a perfect smile, hair flying in precisely determined directions; the thump of techno reverberates in the background; and the camera whirs furiously.
Khiwal, 43, is at work, and he seems to be enjoying every moment of it. Life, however, hasn’t always been fun; getting to where he is today has been a struggle.
Born in the dusty Uttar Pradesh town of Mathura, Khiwal started shooting in school on a camera his father—an Indian Railways official—had gifted him. Without a camera, he was a shy child; with it, he became the most popular boy in school. “The camera,” he says, “became my language of communication.”
Photography was expensive and time-consuming in the early 1980s. Neither was it considered much of a profession. So Khiwal enrolled at the Institute of Tool Room and Training, Lucknow, for a four-year course in mechanical engineering. By his own admission, he wasn’t the brightest student in class, but he “wasn’t terrible either”.
The next step, predictably, was getting a job. In 1989, he joined West India Power Equipments Pvt. Ltd in Jagdishpur, 90km from Lucknow, as a designer of press and die-casting tools. The next eight months were, at best, lackadaisical. “One day,” says Khiwal, “the technical director of the company summoned me. He said I wasn’t showing any interest in my work, and handed me a book, The Magic of Thinking Big.
Picture perfect: Tarun Khiwal avoids talking about the many awards he has received. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
It was a turning point. “Those years of engineering had showed me exactly what I did not want to do,” says Khiwal. A few days later, while returning the book, he also handed in his resignation.
His parents were worried. But he was determined to become a photographer. “The only way I could do that was by destroying my past,” he says. Dramatic as it might sound, that’s exactly what he did, burning all his certificates.
In November 1989, he moved to Delhi, staying in a small flat his parents owned. Someone had given him the telephone number of Hardev Singh, an architectural and interiors photographer. “I pursued him for months,” reminisces Khiwal, “and finally he agreed to take me on as an apprentice.”
While he did the scutwork that apprentices usually do, packing bags, loading film, setting up lights and so on, he learnt the ropes of the trade.
Singh remembers him as being completely “raw”, but a fast learner. He noticed that his young apprentice was “interested in developing a style of his own and was sure of what he wanted to do”.
Apprenticeships with Atul Kasbekar and Prabuddha Dasgupta followed. Finally, in 1995, Khiwal set out on his own, working with magazines such as Society and First City. Soon, the contacts he’d built up over the years in the fashion industry started giving him work.
Then came the awards. In 2004, he won the Lycra MTV Style Award. The next year, he broke into the international league, winning the prestigious Hasselblad Masters Award.
The greatest thing about the job, Khiwal says, is the travel. One week he’s in Mauritius shooting underwater, and the next, he’s flying over a glacier in Alaska. In between assignments, he spends time “watching movies and playing with his children”.
Would things have been different if he’d stuck with engineering? “I’d be either in an asylum or dead,” he says. “I can’t even think about it.”
The remarkable thing about Khiwal, according to Dasgupta, is his unflinching commitment. “For a boy from a non-metropolitan background who barely spoke English, abandoning a career in engineering for photography was a very big step,” he says. “It’s that dedication which sustains him even today.”