T.S. Satyan

Sugata Srinivasaraju on T. S. Satyan

It is entirely to Satyan's credit that he allows people much much younger to him, like me for instance, to call him Satyan. There is a certain informality in the dealings of this octogenarian. There is an amiable casualness of early youth; there is the creative restlessness of a teenager and the boundless energy of a child. There is also a matchless anxiousness and a disarming confession inside him. The mellowing that is usually said to come about with the advancement of age may not have been banished, but is certainly not apparent in Satyan. But then, if you go seeking these qualities in his photographs, you are bound to be disappointed. There is almost an irreconcilable gulf between the man that you interact with and the art that he has created.

Satyan's pictures are tranquil and leisurely. They carry a pining asceticism; reflect an uncluttered aesthetic enlightenment; they are pensive and reflective but never sad. And they are of course hauntingly embedded with the stillness of time. Satyan is engaged in a consuming search for human dignity in even the poorest of poor he shoots. Even when he photographed celebrities his lens scouted their simplicity and their human essence.  The questions that his many ordinary characters may throw at you about the paradoxes of life can never be captured in an intelligent caption-phrase. Those questions land softly on your mind, get caught in its gentle whirlpool and slowly make their way to you heart to stay there for a while. It is in this little journey and the resting lies the triumph of Satyan the photographer.

From where do these qualities that embellish every single picture of Satyan come from? You may get a range of clues in the answers below, but I would like to give a good share of the credit to Mysore. Satyan evolved in a remarkably progressive, most benevolent, fairly cosmopolitan and a liberal-human milieu of pre-Independence Mysore. He had great teachers and great friends who helped him answer his calling in life and nurtured his talent in its different bends. Mysore had a distinct worldview and Satyan carried it wherever he went. You can recover that worldview in parts in the novels of R K Narayan, in the cartoons of Laxman, in the music of Veena Doreswamy Iyengar, in the integrity of H Y Sharada Prasad (advisor to three indian prime ministers) and of course in the pictures of Satyan. Like ordinary people became an abiding interest for Satyan's lens, the common man with a keen eye defined the work of both Laxman and Narayan. Significantly, all of them were from the same Mysore generation.

Satyan insists that he is a photojournalist and not a photographer. For decades Satyan's pictures were accompanied by text, captions, historical contexts and the emotional exigencies of the time. But now, in an exhibition hall they stand independent. Even with the absence of paraphernalia that has dropped off in time, what still remains is a tribute to the pure serene of the human spirit. His pictures shun the modern and evoke nostalgia, but to read nostalgia alone in his pictures would be limiting their purpose. They certainly cross the boundaries of nostalgia to allow a sacred communion with life.

Here below is an excerpt from a lengthy conversation we had during a four-hour journey from Mysore to Bangalore, with the pictures for the exhibition lying bubble-wrapped in the car boot. The conversation is edited and presented in two sections. 


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.


As a photographer do you think you are a classicist?

Yes, I always look for form, aesthetic appeal, contextual importance and a meaningful moment. Very often I encounter a situation that has a universal appeal, that is not likely to repeat itself, nor can I plan for it. I manage to compose it in a form that is likely to have a lasting impact on the viewer. 

Why do you try to avoid the modern in your pictures?

I do not consciously avoid the modern for the simple reason that it is modern. I value the photograph for its association with an age or culture or a pure accidental happening, which cannot be replicated. In a fast changing situation resulting in urbanization, technology, development etc., anything that is modern is likely to be commonplace. Thereby, its aesthetic appeal is lessened. Hence, when I visit the countryside, I encounter a situation/picture which to my mind represents a slice of our culture which may not survive for long.  My career as a photojournalist goes back to sixty years. Many of the changes which we now see were not there in the rural areas earlier. So, the pictures that I shot so long ago in those places have an antique value and serve as a historical record of the past. They also have an aesthetic appeal today. They can be termed period pictures.

There is a certain metaphorical stillness in your pictures? Do you hate the speed of modern life?

Yes. I do not like the speed and noise of modern life. It is true that several of my photographs, which I value, were taken because they tended to satisfy my very personal feelings. It could be a situation, which appeared to answer my inner craving for peace, or a unique experience, however commonplace it might have been. They might have been feelings of sadness, poverty or sheer joy. I am happier living in a small town than a metropolitan city. In fact, I could have easily settled down in Delhi where I spent 32 years of my professional life. But I did not do so as my mind and heart craved for my roots in serene Mysore where I was born and educated.

Why do you most often go back to palaces, traditions, temples and the rural idyll for your pictures? 

Honestly. I am a photographer of the common people who hit no headlines but who matter. Most of them live and work in the rural idyll. They may be poor but have a dignified bearing about them, are hospitable, respectful of elders and cherish decent human values. They appeal to me.

Do you worry for things that are past and values that are gone by? 

I really worry about some of the values that have been devalued today in the family, social and cultural life. Temperamentally, I do not want to worry about things that have happened.  The process of worrying about the past, in my opinion, is not conducive to mental and physical well being. Certain of the values that carried great weight in the past like honesty, commitment, personal and professional discipline and service to the needy, influenced me personally as a human being and as a photojournalist. I hope my deep faith in life and its great values get reflected in my work.

How conscious are you of history when you shoot?

A great deal. Whenever I shoot pictures that have a bearing on the past I am influenced professionally by the fact that I am witness to an event that is important. Every photographer must have a sense of history. Photojournalism is undoubtedly the visual biography of man on earth. There is a great responsibility on us to document our land, our people and our culture vis-a-vis the deliberate engineering of social and other shifts in our rapidly changing society. All too often we become aware of the change when it is too late, when the new has supplanted the old. This utter lack of interest at looking at contemporary history with a future perspective has already cost us dear. Major personalities and events from our public life have often gone unrecorded in terms of photojournalistic documentation. Photography is history and life. The major contribution of the photographer/photojournalist has been to preserve for posterity the memorable moments of contemporary history which, I think, is the everlasting aspect of photojournalism. The photographer is a serious witness in the court of history.  The better photograph ceases to be a thing of the past. It acquires a life of its own and remains perennially fresh and relevant. 

Why do the rich, famous and powerful get so humanised in your pictures? Did you never want to capture their arrogance and violence?

I have not made any deliberate attempt to humanize them. I have been an honest witness to what I saw. Sometimes, it just happened that even such people you refer to presented their human aspects and I captured them that way.

Did Indira Gandhi fascinate you as a photographic subject as much as Nehru? 

No. I loved to photograph Jawaharlal Nehru. His charismatic personality and bearing and his many moods fascinated me.

Is poverty a great subject for photography?

Pathos is an integral part of life. Poverty enhances this. I feel deeply moved when I see such a lethal combination of poverty, negligence, ill health and a society indifferent to all this. By nature I am moved deeply at the sight of suffering of this kind and get concerned about it. The sight of a hungry child crying for food and a neglected diseased infant, stabs me with guilt and I feel that all mankind is guilty.

Are you a very cerebral photographer? Do you brood over your subjects?

No. I do not brood over my subjects but, on location, I might patiently wait during an event, anticipating a decisive moment. I do not also worry too much about camera positions, shutter speed and the lenses to use.  When I see something meaningful happening, my mind moves like lightning. All the time I am observing. Like any work of art, a photograph well conceived and properly realized, can awaken those who see it to the plight of the less fortunate. In its own way, a picture can activate the conscience. A sensitive photographer helps us 'see' what the eye has noticed but the mind has not absorbed. It is here that the photographer can become an artist. Without being preachy, he can sensitize, motivate and subtly show us the need to search our own hearts. If, to some, my work appears as something inseparable from art, I would feel a sense of fulfillment. 

How do you explain the effortlessness behind your pictures?

My work gives the viewer a feeling of effortlessness.  But behind it all lies concentrated observation, thought and concern for the subject and a sensitive mind-eye combination at work.  This combination, sometimes, helps me to find beauty even amidst seeming chaos. My pictures are slices of human life, which I have enjoyed seeing. They are gentle and personal. Spontaneity is the quintessence of a good picture. When I see that flowering in any individual's action or event, I go for it quickly and unobtrusively.

You are said to be a 'discoverer' and not a 'recorder'? Can you tell us how you 'discover' your pictures?

Sensitivity and freezing spontaneity is the quintessence of a photographer at work. It is all in the art of seeing and cultivating the art of omission – what to include and what to exclude. A sensitive eye can spot beauty even in chaos. The eyes conduct a dialogue with the world. There is beauty all around us. It is there, asking to be communicated, talking to and challenging our eyes.  The great motivation is to discover and design the beauty. Here comes the art of omission. The photographer-artist must know what to include - even amidst chaos - and what to exclude while focusing on the main subject of interest. A suitable example is my picture taken at Varanasi of a pilgrim (looking like Gandhi) engrossed in reading using a vyasapita. He is in the center of the picture frame and all around him is chaos of shrubbery, dirt etc. The overall effect is a symmetrical and well-designed frame that is beautiful and soothing to the eyes. 

How much do you engage your subject or how close do you get to him/her when you shoot? For instance how close did you get to Pandit Nehru or Mallikarjun Mansur or Satyajit Ray?

Except for normal courtesies and talk, I do not do anything else. It was different with Satyajit Ray. I used to meet him whenever he visited Delhi. On his invitation, I also visited him at Calcutta. I spent a whole week with him when he was shooting MAHANAGAR. His humanism attracted me. His friendliness was great. Whenever he had some leisurely hours on his Delhi visits, he used to shoot some black and white pictures of whatever interested him. He would come to my home to borrow my camera for the day.

How much does your own perception of the person influence the photograph you take of him/her?

It depends on how emotionally I react to them at a particular moment.. Can I capture the beauty of Gayatri Devi or the pensive mood of Jawaharlal or the Satyajit Ray looking like a Roman senator? I used to ask myself before clicking.

Where do you find the charm of a human being concentrated? In what gesture? In which part of the body?

The eyes. And, naturally, in the smile.

You have invested a lot of time shooting people, how serious a student of human anatomy have you been?

I am not a student of human anatomy in a textual sense. I love taking pictures of the common people. I am a photographer of people.

What is it in a woman that appeals to yours senses and lenses?

Anything that is expressive of a feeling. It could be a part of the body like a wrinkled face or hands.

There is a meditative/reflective quality in all your pictures. Nehru is pensive and also the man in the bazar sitting huddled in a basket. Can you reflect on this pensive quality of your pictures? Where does it come from?

I always react to people in their pensive mood if I chance to see them. I do not make an effort to particularly hunt them out. I like this pensive mood, which is directly linked to the mind and I wonder what is going on in the person's mind. Incidentally, I happen to be the product of a family culture with a strong religious background. My mother, in particular, has influenced my attitude which is somewhat meditative.  

Is it important for a photographer to have a social agenda? Or is it money that decides what he shoots?

It is very important for the photographer to always remember that he is an honest witness to history that is unfolding before him every moment. Documenting the world as seen by him can certainly be called his social agenda. Money is important but secondary. Don't let others refer to you as a mercenary. I would appeal to all photographers to be human. A super combination of integrity, humanism, modesty and a sense of service should be the foundation on which a photographer must build his life.

Do you shoot children because you like the condition of being a child?

Yes. Even at my advanced age, I keep craving for my childhood. I grew up in a family of fifteen children, I being the eldest. In fact, my own young brothers and sisters were my early subjects for the camera.  I also come from a tradition that has always regarded the child as the incarnation of God. Every child is everybody's child. No child can be somebody else's child. When I look at children I regain my own childhood vision of joy and wonderment.

As a photographer, how do you want to be remembered?

As an unostentatious person who loved people and remained humble.