Shooting star

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By Award-winning photographer Tarun Khiwal is about to be catapulted into the global big league, says Neena Haridas
  • Published 13.11.04

Tarun Khiwal is in photographer?s heaven. The 38-year-old ace lensman has just won the photography world?s equivalent of the Oscar and he?s still pinching himself to make sure it isn?t a dream. ?After Hasselblad, nothing else matters to me anymore. There is nothing more I aspire to,? he says in an almost dreamy tone.

Khiwal is one of 12 photographers chosen from around the world to be a Hasselblad Master. That means he has been instantly catapulted into the global big league and will be holding exhibitions and taking part in Hasselblad events around the world for the next year. He?ll also be spending time in Paris and New York, shooting for the best of brands, attending photography seminars and holding classes during this time. ?Most importantly, I will get to work with the masters of this art and learn,? he says.

How big an achievement is the Hasselblad award? Consider the fact that no other Indian photographer has ever won the award ? and that includes Khiwal?s mentors like the famous Prabhuddha Dasgupta and celebrated contemporaries like Bharat Sikka. Also, it puts Khiwal in the same league as photography legends like Albert Watson, Nigel Parry, Lennart Olson and Luciano Monti. Says Khiwal, ?These are people I admire for their brilliance. I read books written by them to learn from their techniques. And today, to be a name taken in the same breath is totally unreal.?

Certainly, something has clicked for Khiwal in recent months. He has won the MTV Style Lycra Fashion Photographer of the Year and the Kingfisher Fashion Photographer of the Year awards for 2004. And, of course, he has shot for every Indian designer and every Indian model worth a mention. His favourite shoot is the one he did for Christian Dior.

Khiwal isn?t a nature photographer. It is not the beauty of the universe that interests him, but the beauty of real people. ?I am a people?s photographer. There is nothing more beautiful, interesting and intriguing than human beings,? he says. For him, beautiful people could translate into anyone from celebrity politicians and socialites to his neighbourhood milkman, a beggar on Janpath or dancers in Spain, his dream destination.

It is, in fact, his passion for people that landed this mechanical engineer in the rollercoaster fashion industry. Born and bred in Lucknow, Khiwal was what he calls ?a typical small-town boy" who grew up on a staple diet of Ram Lila and nautanki during his frequent visits to Mathura, where his grandparents lived. ?I loved the images of the multi-coloured nautankis. As child, they took me on a fantasy trip and I wanted more and more of it ? I didn?t really want to come out of those rainbow colours.? And he translated his desire to remain trapped in the colour spectrum by painting, which incidentally was his first brush with art.

Initially, Khiwal thought he?d be a painter, but soon succumbed to the middle-class ambitions of his father, who wanted him to be an engineer instead. And so he found himself studying dye-casting and pistons at Lucknow Engineering College, which did little to satisfy his growing creative urges. Then, came the decisive moment when he pulled out the camera that his father had gifted him when he was 15, and went on a shooting spree.

?I clicked and clicked and clicked. People, places, animals, everything. I was awed by the way mundane things transformed into larger-than-life images in my hands. It was like freezing time ? a moment, an emotion for posterity.?

He moved to Delhi in 1989 and became an assistant to the legendary Hardev Singh. During this time Khiwal learnt how the camera worked, the technicalities of photography and the intensity of imaging. After a point, Singh realised that Khiwal had learnt all he could teach him. So, he prodded his young prot?g? to shift base to Mumbai.

Once there, Khiwal fulfilled a few more dreams by working with Prabhuddha Dasgupta and Atul Kasbekar. ?I studied under the three schools of photography. With Hardev Singh, I learnt intense photography, Prabhuddha taught me fashion photography ? he was a student of natural light. And Atul taught me commercial work, which was important because by then I had realised that creativity alone does not fill the stomach.?

After almost five years of internship, Khiwal finally launched himself and plunged into the glamorous world of fashion photography. What set him apart from others was his interpretation of colour. His photographs are intensely colourful and he claims this is the influence of all the nautankis he has watched. ?My backgrounds are mostly stark, I like the challenge of making the subject stand apart and yet bombard the frame with colours.?

Now that he has won the Hasselblad, Khiwal will be able to fulfil many more dreams. But he has one rather unusual goal that might still be out of reach: He wants to shoot Madonna. ?I want to shoot this goddess of style for the sheer fact that she is the creator of trends not a follower.? But then that is a story for another day. For now, Tarun is simply enjoying the ride.