A camera and an extraordinary friendship catapulted two boys off the street and into the limelight, says Rishi Majumder Photos by Vicky Roy and Haran
WINE GLASSES clink to celebrate the launch of Vicky Roy’s exhibition. The 22-year-old photographer is one out of four in the world, chosen by the Maybach Foundation to photograph the reconstruction of the World Trade Centre in New York. At the launch in New Delhi, he mingles with journalists, artists, social workers and socialites, pausing to grin, widely, at other photographers clicking his picture. This is Vicky’s third big solo exhibition. The homeless boy, who was collecting empty water bottles at New Delhi Railway station till a decade ago, has by now had his photographs exhibited around the world. The last speech marking the launch is by Sanjoy Roy, founding trustee of Salaam Baalak Trust, whose branch, Apna Ghar, in Pahadganj, was Vicky’s foster home. Vicky adopted Sanjoy’s surname as his own and refuses to talk about what his name was before this. “And we mustn’t forget the first photographer to come out of Salaam Baalak,” Sanjoy Roy’s speech ends. “Vicky’s friend, who inspired him, Haran? Can we have you here please?”
Haran is 24 and has the persona of a rock star. The next day we are at his studio — leather sofas, electric chandeliers and a good looking guitar. His bed has tiger print bed covers and large plush cushions, with beautifully framed photographs of him. Perched on a closet in the living room are awards Haran has won for his photography. And on the walls are the photographs which won him those awards, as well as a United Colors Of Benetton Photography Scholarship to Venice. One of these photographs, dona ted to Salaam Baalak, auctioned for Rs 5 lakh.
“I live only for today,” says Haran, mildly hungover from the previous night. “I have no savings. I have to spend about Rs 60,000 a month, and earn that much to spend it.” The studio itself cost him about Rs 3 lakh to do up. So he takes on a lot of commercial work along with his art photography – top advertising campaigns like Honda India, and Diva Divine, New York.
Vicky joins us here, and we go on to his flat, which he shares with two other boys. As close as the boys are Vicky’s lifestyle is very different from Haran’s. He does not smoke or drink. The only adornment in his monkish room is a shiny red star, hung awkwardly on the wall. Vicky wants to wait for a while before setting up his own studio, because “art photography doesn’t yield an income quickly”. A large portion of what he earns, goes to his family.
We drive towards New Delhi Railway Station. A young woman comes up to the car window to beg, and both leap out of their seats to say hello. “She was one of my first subjects,” says Haran. “She was so small then. A child…” When Har – an and Vicky were trying to put up their first exhibitions, they were asked what difference they would bring to stre et photography, an overdone genre. “We will show happiness,” Haran and Vicky had each said. “Everyone sees the beggar on the street as a sad despairing urchin. We will show his personal side – where he finds joy, where he finds companionship.”
At the station today, the two friends click pictures of one another before the sun sets. They had arrived here as children, seperately, before they knew each other. Haran had run away from home, at Alaknanda, a south Delhi neighbourhood, to escape a beating from his father, an office manager. Absolutely disinterested with school, he had bunked a month’s classes, and a letter to that effect had been sent home. He had already been beaten by his father before, so he stole Rs 20 from his father’s pocket and went to Okhla Station, where he boarded a train that stopped at New Delhi railway station. “This was a new Delhi for me,” he remembers. “It would be my Delhi.” He worked as a coolie here, and filled empty plastic bottles with cold water from the station water cooler to sell it to ‘general’ compartment passengers for Rs 5 a bottle. “I learnt who the goons around the station were, and how to avoid them, as well as the police”.
Then one day he met the Salaam Baalak Trust counsellors and went with them to the Trust’s centre, Apna Ghar at Paharganj, to get a free meal. He was about to run away after the meal, when he thought: “I’m tired of this life. I don’t have to worry about the police or goons here. Let’s see if I can get back to school.”
Vicky came to the station from further off. A tailor’s son, he lived with his grandparents, his uncle and his aunt at Taldanga, a village in Purulia, West Bengal. He hated that he was never allowed to go out and play, so he planned his escape. “I thought I would earn my own living and travel,” he remembers. So he stole money from his uncle and caught the Nilachal Express from Bankura. At New Delhi Railway Station, he worked at collecting and selling empty plastic bottles. But the elder boys would take all his money and give him only enough for a meal. So he quit, and took up a job for Rs 500 a month at a dhaba near Ajmeri Gate – washing utensils and making rotis. Someone had suggested he go to a Salaam Baalak Home. “But I was scared that would mean giving up my freedom.” Eventually, he too came to the Apna Ghar centre.
At Apna Ghar today, there’s a small uproar. The boys at the home crowd around Haran ‘Bhai’ and Vicky, smiling, grinning. Haran shoots Vicky with his friends on an old, very weathered couch. Vicky shoots Haran in the room where the boys from Apna Ghar sleep. Painted on the wall is an image of Krrish, Hrithik Roshan’s superhero avatar, and subject of one of Vicky’s older photographs. “People wonder where the street children find their family,” Haran had said when we met. “Films are our family.”
This was where Vicky and Haran became close friends. So close that the joke around the centre was that when asked a question, they would react with the same answer in unison. Both went back to school, then completed matriculation through open school. Haran took to photography because of an international photography project called Home/Live organised for street and shelter kids at Delhi. He went around with a Ko dak KB 10 camera and shot “a lot of random pictures, which people seemed to love”.
Haran says, “That was the first time I thought of becoming something.” He persuaded photographer Amit Khullar to let him assist him. Haran went on to be mentored by photographer Gurinder Osan, work as photo lab assistant at Rai University, and momentously buy his first camera (a Nikon F-55). When he had his successful solo exhibition in 2005 his photographs were selected by the legendary Raghu Rai. He was offered a job at The Times of India and later won the Nirman award
Vicky had seen Haran going to this workshop. He saw that two children from the workshop got a trip to Indonesia. He remembered he had left home to travel. He thought and said to everyone in earshot: “I too must learn photography.” A documentary photographer, Dixie Benjamin who was shooting at Salaam Baalak, heard and asked Vicky if he would assist him. Vicky, who after a language class in New York now charms audiences with a little speech at his exhibition launch, wasn’t as well versed in English back then. All he remembers saying is: “Yes. Yes. Photography – I want.” But Vicky’s true mentor was found in photographer Anay Mann: “He taught me not only how to shoot pictures, but everything from how to dress, to how to plan my career.” He is still in Mann’s employment and assists him in shoots throughout the country.
The boys don’t thank god for their success. They thank themselves and their mentors. They thank Salaam Baalak Trust, which let them play and play out their dreams, which their homes didn’t. And to play now, like the very young men they are, they have worked hard. Both Haran and Vicky have served as waiters in hotels, to finance their film and photography equipment. Haran, when seeking (and denied) sponsorship for his first exhibition, was told, “What’s the point of this exhibition? It will be your five days of fame before you go back to the street.” This only made him work that much harder. Vicky prides himself on the fact that he has gotten everything he set his eyes upon, from a camera, to a Mac, to his trip to New York. Perhaps then it’s only fitting that they drop their old names and assume new ones. It’s what Krrish had done.