Where the fuchsia sky meets the zardosi pink and the twilight catches fire from the diamonds on the women’s necks, and music and dance are whipping up the air, and the young couple steps out of a fairytale castle, there, in the middle of this big Indian wedding, stands Malvika Periwal, looking for moments to create lush visuals that will capture the event forever.
Malvika, just about to turn 35, is one of the leading wedding photographers in the city. She shoots the most glamourous weddings, in the city or at destinations abroad. Always busy; when not shooting, she is editing, selecting images out of many thousands shot at an event. “Even during Covid the wedding market has not gone anywhere,” she says.
Wedding photography is no longer a few shots of the bride and the groom and random Bollywood soundtracks. Even drones at weddings are old hat. Malvika has to keep up with both trends and technology. But she met a far greater challenge very early in life.
She was born 90 per cent deaf. Her parents found out about her disability when she was a little more than one.
We are meeting in Malvika’s spacious family house in Alipore in southwest Kolkata. A very pleasant and attractive personality, Malvika can both hear and speak clearly now, lipreading and using a hearing device. Stuti, her sister, is helping her with the interview. The sisters speak almost together, and when Stuti speaks about her sister it seems she is telling her own story.
Malvika’s parents would not stop at anything to get her treated. She has two younger siblings, Stuti and a brother.
Belonging to a Marwari business family, Malvika’s parents were helped by their resources, of course, but the couple put in an extraordinary effort. “I was taken to John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles. There they were advised that I was not to be treated as a special child or treated differently, and I was to learn only one language,” says Malvika.
She would be a “speaking child”, because sign language would have been less effective in the Indian environment, her parents felt, and English was the language chosen for her. “You have to shout at her if required, they were told. If I grew up like other children, it would help me to assimilate better,” says Malvika.
On their return to India, chance led her parents to speech therapist Prema Kini, who lived in Bengaluru, then Bangalore. Malvika’s parents took a radical step. They relocated to Bangalore, so that Malvika could train with Kini.
“Mrs Kini” changed Malvika’s life. From the time Malvika was two till she was 11, Mrs Kini taught her, rigorously, continuously, with Malvika’s mother Madhulika firmly there, carrying out each of Mrs Kini’s instructions faithfully, even if that meant being very strict to her child.
It was hard for Malvika, who would wear chunky hearing aids with wires as a child. Cochlear implants were unheard of then. “I was scared of Mrs Kini,” because she was very persistent, Malvika explains with a smile.
She was going to a regular school. After school, she would visit Mrs Kini. The mother and daughter would sit with her, sometimes for hours, repeating the same word again and again, till Malvika got it right.
“I studied for hours and hours,” says Malvika. “That was her biggest problem when we were children,” laughs Stuti, who is five years younger than Malvika. “Why did I have to study so little when she would study the whole day!”
Malvika is overcome with emotion as she speaks about her teacher and her mother.
The family had to return to Kolkata when Malvika was in Class V. They began to live in the Alipore house again. Though it was difficult for her, their grandmother, too, spoke in English for Malvika. Her grandfather said she was going to do everything with the family, go everywhere.
Her relentless routine continued, though. In Kolkata, she was admitted to Calcutta International School, which allowed her to study one language. There, she made good friends. In the city she also found her counterpart to Mrs Kini in speech therapist Jaya Gangulie Mitra, “Jaya Auntie” to Malvika.
“I came home at 4pm, ate, and began to study with Jaya Auntie. After she left, I had to finish school homework,” says Malvika. “Our parents were very indulgent, but also very tough with her,” says Stuti.
And Malvika pushed herself. “She is a go-getter, a workaholic,” laughs Stuti. Malvika has not opted for the cochlear implant, a later development, because it would require her to adjust to new sounds that she probably hasn’t heard before. She feels that she cannot spare the time now, given her work commitments.
After Class X, she went to Mary Hare Grammar School in Berkshire, England, the first school for deaf children that she attended. At school in England, Malvika discovered photography as a subject. It made all the difference.
“In art, it didn’t matter if I couldn’t hear. It was about expression,” says Malvika.
Making images freed her. Silence can help in this. “I like the sound of silence. Because I can’t hear, it helps me to focus on other things better,” says Malvika. “I like to apply that in my art, my photography.” At a wedding, it helps her to observe better and she can capture that special moment. Her hearing aids can reduce background noise, so that she can hear her interlocutor more clearly.
To understand what someone is saying, Malvika has to face that person. She can hear with the help of the device, but lipreading helps her to connect the sound with the word more clearly.
Malvika graduated in fine arts from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, London, in 2009, majoring in photography, after which she came back to India with a passion for candid fashion photography, especially portraiture. She trained with celebrity photographers Ratnani and Rohan Shrestha in Mumbai.
Then her mother suggested wedding photography, which was evolving a new aesthetic, bringing together many of Malvika’s interests: candid images, fashion, expression.
Malvika got her first wedding work in Terrigal, Australia, in 2013, with other photographers. Soon she was working independently, travelling through India and to other countries. She works with a team now. Malvika makes images, wedding videos or trailers, or all of it, depending on the client’s requirements.
“I have shot more than 200 weddings in the last 10 years,” she says proudly. “She was one of the first women wedding photographers in Kolkata, which had its own challenges. But now it helps. She gets better access, going in where the bride is getting ready, and she also gets the emotional moments right,” says Stuti.
Malvika hopes to find love one day, too, from someone who can accept her as who she is: with her disability and with her success. She and her family strongly feel that there should be much more information and awareness in the public domain about hearing disability and efforts to make cochlear implants and also hearing aids more affordable.
She also hopes that one day all films will come with subtitles at the theatre, because she cannot understand dialogues on screen by lipreading. That would also help so many others like her to enjoy a Bollywood dhamaka as it should be: as a blast.