How an IIT graduate broke his leg and found his calling as a photographer
I was good at math and physics in school. Which meant that like most good Andhra boys, I was expected to become an “ingineeru", get a job and get married with a fat dowry. At least that’s what most of my friends did.
My grandfather was a clerk in a rice mill who could barely pay for my father’s education. My father was the first in his family to graduate and got a government job as an accountant. When I cleared the mother-of-all-engineering-entrance exams, the Indian Institute of Technology-Joint Entrance Exam (IIT-JEE), my parents gave me no option but to join electrical engineering at IIT, Madras. I did not want to be an engineer. I had wanted to study physics at IIT.
I got into photography literally by accident. After graduating from IIT, I mustered the courage to rebel and went to study physics in Pune. My parents gave up on me as a hopeless case. A motorcycle accident on the university campus grounded me for a month with a broken leg. Having nothing much to do, I picked up a book on photography. From thereon, photography turned into an obsession.
My move from physics to photography baffled my parents. For them, cameras come out of the closet only during weddings and vacations. My maternal grandmother was inconsolable. A proud woman, she had ruled like the feudal mistress of a large mansion in Vijayawada in her day. She refused to accept photography as a legitimate profession, certainly not after an IIT degree. She had grand visions of how I would become CEO of a company after my IIT, and drive her in a Mercedes car. Much to her horror, I was chasing grumpy CEOs for a photo-op and I drove an old beat-up Ford to work. There was also the predicament of “Which Andhra girl would marry a photographer?" Peace returned to the family home after we agreed on my job description as “someone who takes pictures of Americans and foreigners".
When I disclose my IIT background, people react with the suspicious you’re-pulling-my-leg looks or the incredulous you-are-a-freak look. Some also give me the dismissive you-are-a-total-loser look. A recent addition to this repertoire is the filmi so-you’re-one-of-those-3-Idiots look, referring to the Bollywood excess with Aamir Khan in the lead role.
A few years ago, I bumped into The Hindu editor N. Ram outside Columbia University in New York, US. I had met him earlier at IIT, where he was the chief guest for our annual hostel day. When he heard that I was a photographer, he semi-growled, “Photography? What a waste!"
Many IIT graduates have gone on to become musicians, writers, painters, poets, farmers and now even chief ministers (Arvind Kejriwal joined mechanical engineering at IIT, Kharagpur in 1985). Some sell soaps and shampoos. And they’re damn good at it too. They found their calling, and I found mine. The great Czechoslovakian photographer Josef Koudelka was trained as an aeronautical engineer before he saw the light and turned to photography. One less engineer didn’t kill anybody.
Top business leaders are always hard-pressed for time and they barely give more than a couple of impatient minutes to a photographer. On an assignment with Sunil Bharti Mittal, founder, chairman and group CEO of Bharti Enterprises, the reporter with me cheekily introduced me as someone “more qualified than the rest of us put together in the room". Mittal registered those three famed letters of my qualification and gave me a quick approving look. That also brought out the greatest smile he could muster in those 3 hurried minutes I got for the photo shoot. His portrait turned out great and ran along with his interview on the front page of Mint. That was one instance where over-qualification worked for me.
Bitten by the Bollywood bug, Harikrishna Katragadda has finally moved to Mumbai to pursue cinematography.