Women in the World

07.10.12

A Fashionista’s India Dream: Indrani Changes the Fate of Forgotten Girls

Model and photographer Indrani spent her childhood in a 300-room palace in India. She turned that ancestral home into a school—and is fighting to give girls a better future. By Abigail Pesta.

She grew up in a crumbling ancestral palace in India, with trees sprouting up through several of its 300 rooms. Later she became a teen model, traveling the world from Tokyo to Milan. Then she picked up a degree from Princeton. Along the way, she met a handsome older man, fell in love, and became a fashion photographer in partnership with her lover, taking stylish shots of celebrities including Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and Katie Holmes.

Sounds like fiction, but it’s real life for Indrani Pal-Chaudhuri. Today she lives in New York, where she works in photography and film. But her heart, she says, remains in India.

There, she has put her old palatial home to use, filling it with children. She turned the family mansion into a school for poor kids in 1994, using her earnings from modeling to do so. The school, called Shakti Empowerment Education, now hosts some 300 girls and boys in West Bengal, with an emphasis on the rights of girls. “There’s a problem in India so difficult and so entrenched—a vast devaluing of women,” she says, noting that girls are often abandoned at birth, married off as children, or sold into sexual slavery.

Attacking this problem has been a lifelong pursuit, Indrani says. To that end, she recently shot a short film called The Girl Epidemic, depicting a futuristic world in which girls are treated like an infectious disease. Shot in the slums of Mumbai, the film is the brainchild of New York ad agency Strawberry Frog, which produced the film for a nonprofit group, Project Nanhi Kali, that works to raise awareness for the plight of Indian girls. “We created a metaphor,” Indrani says of the film, which shows men in white masks, swooping up girls and whisking them away from their homes. “The real situation is much more diabolical.”

Indrani, who now goes by her first name only, says she left her hometown of Ranaghat, just north of Calcutta, at the age of 7, when her parents, both accountants, moved to London and then Toronto amid violent Maoist uprisings. She remembers her early years in India as “like a paradise,” filled with “friends of all kinds.” Her father, Ajay Pal-Chaudhuri, hails from a wealthy, historic Indian family of merchants; her mother, Greta, is British. Her ancestral home, known as the Pal-Chaudhuri House, was built more than 250 years ago by a legendary ancestor named Krishna Panti, a one-time panhandler turned successful merchant, later known for building charitable hospitals and schools.

Indrani also saw a different side to India when she was a girl—the devastating poverty that stood in stark contrast to her own childhood. “Many people had no running water,” she says. “Homes were built on top of giant garbage dumps. People had to make such extra efforts to just get water or do basic things, to start at the baseline that we all take for granted.” Those images stayed with her, tugging at her, she says, to go back one day and help.

Her new life in the West was a major adjustment. “It was really hard for me to leave India, to leave my family,” she says of her childhood move from home. “I had a huge extended family, with hundreds of people. My parents left everything behind,” she adds, noting that they struggled financially in their new world. The immigrant experience came as a rude shock. She remembers the kids at school in Canada acting as if she had landed from Mars. She looked different, sounded different. “They thought I was an alien,” she says. “I was such a nerd.”

Not everyone agreed with that assessment. When Indrani went to interview for an internship at a Toronto photo studio, the photographers decided she should be in front of the camera, not behind it. They recommended that she try modeling. She signed up with a modeling agency, and at age 14, found herself doing photo shoots around the world for magazines such as Glamour and Elle, and ad campaigns for companies including Benetton and Nescafé.

It would be easy to lose your head. But “fortunately, I was extremely insecure,” Indrani says with a laugh. “I didn’t believe any of it,” she says, referring to people who showered her with flattery and praise. She did “dabble in partying,” she says, amid “the extremes of the modeling world,” but felt a stronger pull toward a different life—back home in India. “I always had that perspective, that goal,” she says. “I wanted to go back. I had this big house—this ancestral home—which was pretty much empty. I was very aware of the waste, which is very typical in India: the wealthy are so extravagant, and the poor have so little. It was always my dream, and my father’s dream, to go back and do something.”

When she turned 18, she made good on her promise to herself, returning to India. She traveled around the country for six months, taking photos and stopping at ashrams, where she would spend time in quiet reflection. “I was looking for a deeper sense of purpose,” she says. And then she figured out what to do with her family home. With her earnings from modeling and the help of her father, she opened her school for poor kids in 1994, bringing children out of the fields and factories and into the classroom. Her dad stayed to run the day-to-day operations. “That’s what really kept me grounded,” she says, as she continued her modeling career. “I had hundreds of kids to take care of.”

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Indrani's ancestral palace, photographed in the 1940s. ()

At a photo shoot in New York that same year, she met Markus Klinko, a man who would take her life in a new direction. A Swiss-born classical harpist who was in his early 30s at the time, he had decided one week earlier to become a photographer, Indrani says. “He had never done photography before,” she says. “But he had a huge amount of confidence.” The two sparked up a love relationship as well as a working partnership in New York, taking photos together “for a few little magazines here and there,” she says.

She remembers her parents thinking “it was all a phase,” she says. “They wanted me to be an accountant,” she jokes. “But they supported me. They’re very creative and adventurous themselves.”

In 1996 Indrani began attending Princeton University, working toward a degree in anthropology, while continuing to build her photography business with Klinko in New York. She graduated from Princeton in 2001.

She did “dabble in partying,” she says, amid “the extremes of the modeling world,” but felt a pull toward a different life—back home in India.

Her first big break in photography came when iconic British fashion editor Isabella Blow tapped her and her partner to do a fashion shoot for The Sunday Times magazine. After that, David Bowie asked them to shoot the album cover for Heathen. Iman came along next, asking them to shoot the cover for her book I Am Iman. Album covers for Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, and Mariah Carey followed. The photography duo has since shot a wide range of celebrities—Kim Kardashian, Kate Winslet, Anne Hathaway—for magazines such as Vanity Fair and Vogue, as well as ad campaigns for companies such as Elizabeth Arden and L’Oréal Paris, among others.

Indrani and Klinko are no longer romantically involved, although they still work closely together as a photography duo known as Markus + Indrani. In 2009 their lives and work became the focus of a Bravo reality show called Double Exposure.

Indrani admits that it was difficult making the transition from lovers to friends—they were a couple for eight years—but says the two “get along better than ever before now.” She adds, “We still fight a little bit, but that’s part of the creative process. We’ve never stopped working together 20 hours a day. Our work really is like our children and really took over in every way. It was a natural transition. It’s never easy, but we’re closer than ever before now.”

Video screenshot

In Indrani’s film “The Girl Epidemic,” girls are treated like a disease. The video caused a stir in India, with some opponents calling for it to be banned.

When Indrani met Lindsay Lohan at a photo shoot in 2009, the tabloid rumor mill started churning, saying the two women were having an affair. “I think people’s imagination just got carried away,” Indrani says, dismissing the gossip as a “silly media frenzy.”

Currently she's focusing on commercials and films, recently directing a short film called Legend of Lady White Snake, starring socialite Daphne Guinness. In October, a book of her photography called Icons hits shelves. Indrani visits her school in India every year, which she continues to fund with her own earnings, as well as with donations. She has also worked on human-rights campaigns with organizations including the United Nations and Keep a Child Alive, the charity run by musician Alicia Keys, dedicated to combating AIDS in Africa and India.

“It’s what inspires me,” she says of her activism. When she goes home to her school in India, she says, the kids shyly approach and shake her hand. “They’re not used to foreigners,” she says. “Most of these kids are the first in their families to become literate or to get any kind of education at all. Our goal is to help them see outside the box—to make changes in their world.”