1. THE PORTRAIT:
How and when did you get interested in photography?
In Mysore when I was a high school student in 1937-1940. I found some classmates taking pictures with box cameras. When I passed my SSLC exam, my father let me buy my friend Kailasam's box for six rupees.
Can you narrate two most satisfying moments in your long innings as a photographer?
When I teamed up with LIFE photographer James Burke during the bye-elections in Andhra in the 1950's. He had a battery of cameras, a bagful of films and also a large heart. I had only one camera and some four or five films of 12 exposures each. When our pictures finally got published in LIFE, I was surprised to find that seven of my shots were used as against two by Burke. Instead of feeling jealous he happily told me that he would recommend my name to his editor to have me as their stringer in New Delhi.
Second: When my first photo feature: 'Anointing A Colossus - Gomateshwara Mahamastakabhisheka' was published in the popular picture magazine supplement named PARADE that was syndicated to 16 newspapers during the weekend. I had shot my story using black and white film while James Burke did his in colour. My photos were published before LIFE carried Burke's. Instead of feeling jealous of me, James Burke congratulated me and promised to help me progress in my career.
When did that transition from a photographer to photojournalist happen or was it the reverse?
Getting published in the print media was my sole ambition right from the beginning. So, there was no formal transition though I got my break when I joined the DECCAN HERALD in 1950 as a staffer. Having seen my work regularly getting published in the ILLUSTRATED WEEKLY OF INDIA and other magazines, the Manager, CGK Reddy and News Editor, Eric Scott, invited me to join them. I worked in Bangalore only for two years before moving to Bombay to join the staff of the ILLUSTRATED WEEKLY OF INDIA as Feature Writer. The then editor, Michael Brown, had invited me to join them.
How much did the milieu in Mysore and your education at the Maharaja's College influence your photography?
Any talent exhibited by students received instant appreciation and encouragement from teachers. In fact my English Professor, W G Eagleton, lent Rs. 350 to help me buy a reflex camera. When I went to return the loan, he declined to accept it saying that he would be happy watching my progress professionally. "I want you to publish a photo book on Karnataka," he said. His wish was fulfilled many years later with HY Sharada Prasad (also his student) writing the text.
Photography was an expensive art when you began, what gave you the courage to pursue it?
I was happy living from cheque to cheque. I happily accepted the challenge of insecurity and faith in myself. I used to reinvest my small earnings in travel and films. I was happy leading a frugal life.
Can you tell us something about the very first picture you took and the first one you published?
The very first picture I took with my box camera was that of my mother and her friend during their morning Tulasi puja at Chikkanayakana Halli where my father was a government doctor. She was anxious to see it published in the ILLUSTRATED WEEKLY OF INDIA but the editor rejected it. The negative itself was frilled at the edges and it was overexposed. I still have the negative. Much later, my second attempt with the box was a success. My picture showing a child using the abacus won the first prize (Rs. 10) in the WEEKLY snapshots competition.
You worked for many great publications across the globe. You also photographed for the UN and other international agencies? Can you share some of your experiences with these institutions? Which among them gave you the maximum satisfaction?
The maximum satisfaction came from my association with the ILLUSTRATED WEEKLY OF INDIA. It was the most popular picture magazine. The WEEKLY, in fact, helped me take to photojournalism seriously. In fact, for many years, I lived on the cheques that the magazine sent me. Mysore was then called a town and life was easy and comfortable for me. But for the WEEKLY I would perhaps not become a photojournalist at all. The editors were encouraging photographers and used to urge them to contribute. The first editor I came in contact with was Stanley Jepson. He was himself a photographer who loved India and its traditions. He was also using an 8 mm movie camera.
I was lucky to have been associated with the UN agencies notably the UNICEF. The latter's dedication to children coincided with my own love and concern for children. They noticed this element in my photographs at an exhibition on people I held in New Delhi. My exhibit had many child studies. My association with LIFEand the UNICEF was such that I had to shoot all over India and the neighboring countries. I was exposed to life and events at various levels. My professional horizon got enlarged. The UNICEF sponsored my photo exhibition in New York. It was exhibited for a whole month in 1979 at the public lobby of the United Nations building to commemorate the International Year of the Child. I felt humbled when I was asked to speak at the opening.
Can you comment on some of the great editors who published you?
Stanly Jepson, Michael Brown and C R Mandy were great editors of the Weekly. They were most encouraging for photographers and were considerate in their payments. Their professional excellence was inspiring. Their prompt response to either acceptance or rejection of a contributor's work was noteworthy. LIFE editors were extremely professional and encouraging. I particularly remember George Caturani, the photo editor. My very first assignment for LIFE ended in a fiasco. My coverage of the transfer of Pondichery to India never reached him on time. My story was killed and this hurt James Burke, my mentor, so much that he asked Caturani to go through the process of editing and laying out the story just for the heck of it, just to find out how many pages it would have got. Caturani accepted the request and put his men to work. He finally said that he would have carried two pages of my story. Getting that much of space in the magazine then was something big.
Can you run us through the kind of photographic equipment you have used since the beginning of your career?
I started with a box camera. Then followed an Agfa folding camera. I used the single lens reflex cameras like Rolleicord and Rolleiflex before completely switching over to 35 mm cameras like Leica to start with, then Pentax and finally the Nikon. There were occasions when editors wanted larger size transparencies. I was forced to buy the bulky Mamiyaflex camera. Right in the beginning, when I joined DECCAN HERALD in 1948, I used the bulky Speed Graphic press camera of those days. One used film packs – one sheet film for every exposure. And big flash bulbs.
How easy or difficult was your transformation to digital photography?
There has been no transformation at all. I have used only manual cameras all my life. At the tail end of my professional life I find no need for digital cameras. Just as an experiment I shot some digital images guided by an experienced friend, using his camera. I have sold all my old cameras. I now have only one Nikon body and four lenses. For me, my manual camera body is more useful as a paperweight! Or as a souvenir for my grandchildren! I have no regrets.
You grew up in the company of talented people like R K Narayan, R K Laxman, H Y Sharada Prasad, M N Srinivas and others, referred to as the 'Mysore generation,' how did they influence your work?
They were all most encouraging. Their dedication to work and single-minded pursuit of their vocation influenced me somewhat. The struggle of Narayan to succeed as a writer exerted a great influence on me.
Whose photographic work among your contemporaries you admired and were envious about? What about the present generation?
I must emphatically state that I am not envious of anybody's work. I have always admired the work of Raghubir Singh, Raghu Rai, my brother Nagarajan, Pablo Bartholomeo, Avinash Pasricha, Raghu Rai's elder brother S Paul in the creative field. In the field of excellent documentary photography, many names come to my mind. There is a growing band of young photographers with their own creative vision and I feel proud of them. Tomorrow's photography is safe in their hands. I have also greatly admired the work of Homai Vyarawalla and Kulwant Roy.
Can you tell us something about your meeting with the legendary Henri Cartier Bresson?
I met him briefly, only twice, at Jaipur during an AICC session many years ago. I followed him when he was doing street photography. Later, I found that he was staying at a simple tourist lodge on Mirza Ismail Road. He was occupying a room next to mine. I found him a very shy person but courteous. One evening he told me that if I got one wonderful frame out of a roll of 36, I should consider myself fortunate. When I visited Paris in 1965, I went to see him, but he was away traveling.
What compelled you to write your memoirs? You are perhaps the only photographer in India to have published your memoirs?
During my conversations with friends and relatives, I used to regale them with anecdotes relating to my life and work. Most of them urged me that I put down all I said in writing. I am grateful to my friend Krishna Prasad who urged me to write about my interactions with famous people like Nehru. On his suggestion, I wrote fortnightly essays for the SUNDAY OBSERVER where he was then working. Remembering my own past, my meetings with the famous and not so famous and my travels became an obsession with me. I sent samples of my writing to Ramachandra Guha. He liked my simple style and kept encouraging me to continue to write. It was at this time that the idea of my memoir came. Thus was born ALIVE AND CLICKING. More photographers must write their memoirs. Their life and the stories behind their pictures would be historical records that would also make interesting reading.
At 85, how do you think life has treated you?
I have no complaints. Starting some sixty years ago from scratch, when photojournalism was almost non-existent, I have traveled in the then unknown territory crossing many hurdles. I am happy with what little I have been able to do.