For 35 years, throughout the course of his entire life, Vikram’s father has been a school teacher at a government school in rural Uttar Pradesh, one of the poorest states in India. Until February of this year, Vikram had never once been to his school. Vikram’s wife tried on multiple occasions to organise a visit, but his father refused each time. Only when he told him that he wanted to do a photo story before he retires next year did he begrudgingly arrange a visit.
His father is the son of a farmer, the youngest of six children who survived infancy. The school in which he works has no electricity and in the hot summer months, classes are held under a large Ficus tree. In the spring, during examination season, Vikram marvels as he watches him write results in large exam ledgers spread across his parents’ cofee table. When he fnishes, he rolls the ledgers, which look as if they had survived the Victorian Era.
His father was 25 when he was arranged into a marriage with his mother, who was only 16. Less than a year later, Vikram was born. By the time he was three-years-old, his father had sent him to a boarding school in the Himalayan foothills, not because he did not love him, but because he wanted a better life for him than what he had for himself, a better life than the children at the village school where he taught.
For the 1980s, his father was incredibly progressive and forward- thinking. He and his mother had no other children, as they knew they could not aford this type of education for more than one child. Really, they could not aford it for him either. They lived in a one-room shack for eighteen years while Vikram played cricket and studied physics with the sons of diplomats.
This year, on the Indian festival of Holi, Vikram received a phone call from his cousin, who still lives in his father’s ancestral village with his mother and father, as well as his wife and two kids. He was drunk when he called. He asked about Vikram’s life in the UK, and he lamented about their other cousin who has been missing since they were children. When they hung up the call, Vikram knew he could have been his cousin.
The children in these images are beautiful, playful, diverse—simply, they are human. Yet, their intellect and talents may never fully be expressed as they are also poor. These children represent Vikram’s family—every member of it having been educated in a school like this... except for him.
There is a cliché about being a photographer—that photographers are both part of and yet, inherently sepa rate from what they are photographing. Photographing in his father’s school, Vikram felt deeply part of the scene. His meagre government teaching salary somehow, against the odds, provided Vikram with an extraordinary life—one in which he became a photographer (a profession his parents still do not understand), married a foreigner (another difcult concept initially for them) and moved abroad (perhaps the hardest of all for them to accept). This government school is the India Vikram came home to during school holidays, while his classmates went on lavish vacations to Dubai and America. Of course, he never told his classmates that his father taught in a government school. To avoid being bullied about his impoverished background, he lied and told them he was a teacher in Delhi Public School, which was far more respectable. Photographing at his school, he knew it was both his India and not at all his India. Despite being quite a simple man, his father knew there was more to the world—beyond dirt- foor classrooms and decades-old textbooks. He wanted him to fnd what was out there, even though it meant that he would leave him behind, time and again. Yet, as in most journeys, there is a return, and after seeing so much of the world, really, what Vikram wanted most was to come back to his father, to know him and his life, and to understand his sacrifces.
By Julie Bolitho
Vikram Kushwah was born in New Delhi, India. He is a fashion and art photographer based in England. His work was shortlisted by the National Portrait Gallery, London, for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2019 and he is the Portrait of Britain 2018 and 2019 winner. Whether artistic or commercial, his pictures have a dream-like quality, in which the boundaries between fction and reality are blurred. In addition to being inspired by his own childhood memories, as well as childhood stories such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Vikram’s artistic infuences include the photographers Guy Bourdin, Tim Walker and Deborah Turbeville, as well as the work of the Surrealists, the Romantics and the Pre-Raphaelites. Vikram strives to draw viewers into phantasmagorical worlds through his meticulously staged photographs. In 2008, Vikram arrived in London to undertake a post-graduate diploma in Photography at the London College of Communication, after which, in 2010, he completed his MA in Photography at the University for the Creative Arts in Rochester, England. He has since been practising in Britain and India, working for reputed publications such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Elle and showing his work in galleries in the UK, Europe and the USA. His works form parts of private and corporate collections, spanning Europe, America, Australia, Middle-East and Asia. Vogue Italia featured him among their New Talents and selected his work to be exhibited in their Milan exhibition, Best of PhotoVogue in 2012. His work for Grey Singapore won a Cannes Young Lions Award [bronze] in 2013 for Best Photography for his Duracell batteries campaign. This year, his Women in Bathing Suits series has been shortlisted for the AOP awards.
Vikram lives in his Oxfordshire country home with his wife and a menagerie of pets.