Seated in a chair in a corner, hugging a pillar, T.S. Satyan is clearly uncomfortable. This is not where he belongs, as the cynosure of a dozen shutters. He models according to instructions, presents his best profile, but when someone thrusts a camera into his hands, he protests for the first time. “I never used such a long lens,” he says.
The photographer quickly removes the offending equipment, and then hands Satyan his camera so that the 85-year-old can look at its digital screen. “Yes, that’s a good shot,” Satyan says and the photographer glows with pride.
Nehru was one of Satyan’s favourite subjects. Hemant Mishra / Mint
Satyan, after all, is a doyen of Indian photography, though he hates being referred to as a photographer. “I think I was the first Indian to have a letterhead that said ‘photojournalist’,” he says. Now, as he stands amid the 46 enlarged, smartly framed black-and-white prints of his work spanning 57 years, he symbolizes the coveted crossover from humdrum news photography to something like art. With his works selling for anywhere between Rs40,000 and Rs1 lakh, it’s easy to see why today’s press photographers— paparazzi to the common perception—should look up to him.
“But I never thought I was creating art,” Satyan says, as he looks around at the walls of the Tasveer gallery in Bangalore. “These were photographs I shot when opportunity presented itself. In fact, if I have one regret now, it’s that I never spent more time on my portraiture, with my subjects.”
One of the more arresting frames in this exhibition captures Hindustani classical diva Gangubai Hangal as she balances a cup and saucer with a megawatt smile. “That was shot on the go, I just dropped in at her Hubli home and she offered me a cup of tea as well,” Satyan says.
The comfort levels between the subject and the photographer are evident in most of the celebrity shots on display, from the classical singer Mallikarjun Mansoor giving his grandchild a piggyback ride, to the philosopher and former president of India Dr S. Radhakrishnan stretched out on his bed, surrounded by books and papers, and Maharani Gayatri Devi campaigning in Tonk for the 1962 parliamentary elections.
Belonging to a liberal, Western-educated generation from Mysore that includes the novelist R.K. Narayan, cartoonist R.K. Laxman and musician V. Doreswamy Iyengar, Satyan discovered the camera while still in school and quickly realized that he’d have to get out of the small town to pursue his passion. After a stint with the Deccan Herald in Bangalore, he moved to The Illustrated Weekly of India in Mumbai in 1950 and then to New Delhi, where his talent quickly came to the notice of commissioning editors of iconic people-centric photojournalism magazines such as Life.
Sometime in between shooting government events and pictures of “sites and monuments” sought by the Illustrated Weekly, Satyan had begun to re-educate himself on people photography. In his autobiography Alive and Clicking (2005), he describes discovering French cleric J.A. Dubois’ Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies (translated into English in 1906). “I read Dubois’ book and documented the ceremonies he wrote about—those relating to birth, marriage and the like. With so many children at home, something was always happening… I wanted to record people and their work.” So, when Life called, he was ready.
“Satyan was definitely the first Indian to look beyond the single image and tell a story through photographs,” says photojournalist Prashant Panjiar. “He was also the first one to work internationally and challenge the scale and scope of work that Indian photographers and photojournalists could do.”
Today, as a series of photos of wrestlers at a Mysore garadi (gym) taken in 2007 shares wallspace with celebrities, you could say he’s still shifting the focus.
A Long Exposure organized by Tasveer, shows at The Stainless Gallery, New Delhi, 17-24 January
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