“I’ll just say I’m a boy next door.”
Bhaskar Krishnamurthy is an international photographer, filmmaker, and author based in Kansas City. He is the author of The Fragile Forest: Inside Brazilian Amazonia, and co-producer of the award winning documentary Elephants in the Coffee. An active member of the American Society of Travel Writers, Bhaskar is also a Fulbright Scholar and International Fellow of the Explorers Club. Bhaskar lectures about cultural conservation and social anthropology, and regularly collaborates with international organizations to develop social documentaries and travel stories. He’s won numerous awards for photography and his work has been featured in such publications as The Lonely Planet, Rolling Stone, BBC, UNESCO, and Insight. He’s the founder of the Augusta Photography Festival in Georgia, USA, and CLIC Abroad, an organization that facilitates international student exchange between India and the United States. He’s earned his degree as an engineer and later became an elephant population specialist in India where he’s developed his interest in photographing large mammals.
India to America
Bhaskar came to the United States in 2006. He arrived in Atlanta, Georgia “a whole different world to Kansas City.” He was totally unfamiliar with the empty roads, big buildings, and big cars. “You know I always tell a life of an immigrant begins with a suitcase. …we pack ourselves. And even when you are packing you’re restricted to your baggage limit. You have to plan well what to pack. Of course, the few things that will go is your pots and pans and your curries and maybe a photo, and, you know, clothes.” Kansas City was a bit of a shock to a man from India. “Perhaps if you come in September you don’t know what you are getting into in October in Kansas City or anywhere close. Because coming from a tropical country you will never imagine that it can get cold in October. So that’s how your life begins.”
America was a big change from where Bhaskar grew up. “I grew up in southern India, in a state called Karnataka in the heartland of south India … in a very small village.” Like many small towns around the world, people were close, helped their neighbors, and were drawn together by sports.
So here, like you have the Royals game, we had cricket. We grew up with cricket. Only one family in the entire three roads only had television. At that time, they owned busses, and they imported a Sony television from Dubai. It was a big thing, a really big thing. And there was a cricket match happening in Australia. Being in India, Australia was already ahead of time, it would start at three o’clock in the morning. And this family was so generous they would walk to every house in the road to invite them to watch a cricket match. That was the world we grew up in. That was the real experience of living in a road where people would all gather together for [something] as simple as a cricket match.
Success is Highly Personal
Trained as an engineer, Bhaskar worked for a time in a company that manufactured high tension electrical transmission cables. “So that was my first job. My first paycheck was, in those days with the currency conversion, about five dollars.” Then he moved to a food-grade oil refinery, where he supervised a shift that refined sunflower oil. He was at the start of a successful career, but he defined success in intensely personal terms.
…it’s not about whether I will be able to earn something or not. I am a person where I want to be active and engaged. … It is about how I can involve myself in doing something that I deeply care about, [am] deeply passionate about. If I continue to do that, I feel, you will always have a life full of experiences. And maybe ten years or fifteen years down the line those are the moments when you will take it forward, and those are the much beneficial and positive things that will make you a successful person.
Eventually, Bhaskar started working with elephants. “I was working on elephants. I was in a national park, I was staying in a little cottage. Those were the days when it was all very basic for us.” He met a gentleman who was working near him, exchanged pleasantries, but didn’t really talk to him until they were both leaving the national park.
I just asked him, out of curiosity, “What do you do?”
“Oh, I work in the Amazon.”
“Oh, I am a researcher working in the Amazon, and I am working on …”
It just went over my head; I didn’t even understand what he was talking [about], but the word that imprinted on my mind was the Amazon. For me, who was working in the jungles of India, that word really hit me. I said ‘Wow. I want to work with you.’ That was all I said, and he took it in such a positive manner ‘maybe, let’s see, if we can work.’”
Taking a Leap of Faith
The researcher arranged a grant for Bhaskar that would get him to the Amazon and pay everything but his daily expenses. The only snag was his job. He asked his supervisor for thirty days leave.
He said “No! I am not going to give you thirty days off.” I said “I’m ready to go without pay.” He said “No, I can’t leave you for thirty days.”… The very next moment, within the next five minutes, I put in my resignation letter. It was big, it was big, without knowing what my tomorrow is. Tomorrow could be cloudy, thunderstorm, but I am ready for it. I am ready to walk in the rain. And I did walk in the rain in the Amazon.
Bhaskar spent over a month in the Amazon, and has been back several times over the years. He values his experiences and the people he met. His book, The Fragile Forest: Inside Brazilian Amazonia, is the result of that trip and his connections to the land and the people.
So today if I am able to tell a story I need to understand the background and the backdrop of it. That comes talking to people, putting myself into the front of it. That’s how I feel, you know, collaboration is the key. I tell all the young people, ‘if you have to learn something first make your hands wet. Put your hands into the water to see if it is hot or cold. Maybe cold, but if you go a little deeper maybe the water temperature’s a little different.’
Children Learning International Cultures
Working with children is the center of CLIC Abroad, Bhaskar’s foundation. He’s found a way to bring children of different cultures together to explore elephants and India. “CLIC stands for Children Learning International Cultures. Now, I came here as an adult. … But there are many [young] people who are not so privileged who may dream big and want to see the other side of the world. So that’s the whole foundation.” CLIC Abroad’s first project was giving African-American children in Augusta, Georgia, cameras and training and having them document their world. Many children went on to document their worlds in writing as well as photographs. The photographs ended up in an exhibition at a large local museum, a venue many of the children themselves had never entered. CLIC Abroad then went to India.
And then I took some of the kids to Himalayas, to rural India, and then in the last few years I put them in front of the elephants. This documentary we produced [Elephants in the Coffee] is a part of how I have taken the students, collaborated, and then how I gave them an opportunity to be in front of the elephants… So when they stand in front of it, you should see their expressions. It’s unbelievable. So that’s the power of CLIC Abroad, of how we can generate experiences, how we can put them in front of opportunities, and that transfers.
Electricity and Education
Bhaskar has moved forward with his solar company, Choice Solar, and through it has started a project to electrify villages in the Himalayas.
I did a project in the Himalayas to electrify about eighty homes, at 12,000 feet. That was very powerful for me, you know. People who had never seen electricity all their lives when suddenly they see a pop-up light all around them. They have a temple, they have an elementary school with no blackboard, no chair[s], nothing. No electricity, but still students who want to go to school. … It’s a new journey. … our mission is how we can work with corporate social responsibility and empower people with not just electricity but education. How electricity can empower people to get educated. And how that can change the narration of their life.
Bhaskar Krishnamurthy, international boy next door is, in his humble way, a force for positive change in the world around us. He fosters collaboration among cultures, brings diverse children together, and works to make us intensely aware of the world we all inhabit together.