The Essai Files: 8. Tahira Chawla


When essai found out that Tahira was back in Delhi for a flying visit, we demanded that she make time in her hectic social schedule for this long-awaited edition of essai files.

Essai: It’s always great to see you Tahira. We first met you about two years ago when you had just finished Lower 6th (Class 11) and you were back in Delhi for your holidays from boarding school in the UK. Do you remember that first visit to R-19?

Tahira: Yes, of course! That first meeting at essai was a turning point for me. Throughout Lower 6th I’d been partying a lot, messing around in classes, just assuming that everything would work out. But when I was faced with Nick and Farhad grilling me about my future, I was actually embarrassed about how bad my grades were and about my lack of excuses for my poor performance. They made me realise that if I wanted to get somewhere in life then I needed to start taking responsibility for myself and start working in school.

E: You did a remarkable job of turning your school academics around, but despite this new resolution, you quickly dropped your intentions of taking the ACT and going to university in America. Why?

T: Deciding not to take the ACT was one of my first steps in realising that I couldn’t just go along with what my family and peers expected of me. In Delhi it’s completely normal to live your life according to the plans laid out by your parents, working for family businesses or going to their parents’ former colleges, but I had to follow my own interests.

E: These interests being?

T: It was about this time that I seriously started trying to explore the world of art and the history of art. I’d been told that it wasn’t a proper subject for university, but at my school it was actually pretty popular, and my teacher was very inspiring. Now I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. Actually, it was when I was travelling with my friends and family that it became most obvious to me that History of Art was something I wanted to pursue. I remember this one trip to Paris with my Mom when she wanted to shop and I wanted to go to galleries… Also there was this time when I literally had to drag my friend around the MoMA in New York… And this time when…*Tahira spirals off on three different tangents*  

E: Okay, okay let’s re-focus!  

T: Sorry! I really can’t tell a story with getting distracted by another story..

E: So going back to your realisation that you weren’t a ‘typical’ Delhi girl… what, in your opinion, did that mean, and where did this difference come from?

T: Everyone says that Delhi society is a privileged bubble, and I’d largely agree with that. Some people are able to live happily inside it; others are suffocated by gossip and claustrophobia, and some - like me - can only survive by following a cycle of escape and return. I moved from Shri Ram to the UK for boarding school in Class 7, and from this point on I could never fit comfortably back into my old life

E: What was it about boarding school that instigated this?

T: Being surrounded by friends from all over the world and being forced to take on a lot of independence certainly opened my eyes to how spoilt and spoon-fed my peers and I really were. I began to make a conscious effort not to take my privilege for granted; now I’m grateful to my parents for the opportunities they’ve given me. It’s certainly true that living away from home forces you to understand the real value of money and the fact that it’s not an unlimited resource to enjoy.

E: Did you face any difficulty in making the transition to a new school and a new country?

T: My Dad moving to the UK with me was incredibly helpful - I was able to adjust to my new life easily because I knew that I could see him on the weekends and during vacations. He was - and is - my best friend.  

E: What about making new friends?

T: I was staying in a big dormitory and the other girls were very welcoming. If you are literally doing everything with your classmates then you bond quickly – they become more like family. Playing netball, golf, and swimming was also a good way to socialise with girls in different year groups.

E: You moved to Marlborough School after two years at Port Regis, and your academics started to slip.

T: Like a typical teenager, I fell in to bad habits of choosing fun and parties with my friends over study. It’s hard when you haven’t got parents right there on your back to push you in the right direction – even though they did try from afar!

E: Now we’re back full circle to when you first came to essai! Can we jump into the present day and find out about life at The Courtauld Institute of Art in London?

T: I’m having the best time in London, and I’m definitely loving History of Art more and more as the terms go on. I guess you can use me as an example of someone who dramatically turned their attitude to life around just before it was too late, ‘followed their dream’ *everyone collectively cringes at the cliche*, and doesn’t regret it!