Adventurer through life
Five decades of observation, of training the warm gaze of his camera upon life and the world around him and his zest for his favourite subject people are undiminished. JUNE GAUR on T.S. Satyan.
Boy with his pet, winter, 1985.
"LIFE is exciting, it has always been exciting, even when I was starting out and things were so uncertain," says photojournalist T.S. Satyan. Five decades of observation, of training the warm gaze of his camera upon life and the world around him and Satyan's zest for his favourite subject people are undiminished. "I plan to shoot fresh pictures and add them to my collection. By the end of next year, I hope to bring out a selection of my pictures of children," he reveals. Amazing, considering that he's also halfway through writing his autobiography, excerpts from which are being carried by Frontline. Amazing! But, for everybody who knows Satyan, quite believable. A day after his 52nd wedding anniversary and sometime after the release of his book, In Love with Life, dedicated to his wife Ratna, Satyan is in the mood to reminisce.
"In fact, it was Ratna who suggested that, since our children were not interested in photography, I should leave my work in one place, so that future generations could see life as it was ... "
In 1998, when Satyan turned 75, a retrospective of his work was held in important cities around the country and people got to see something of his impressive oeuvre. In In Love with Life grew out of the retrospective. A retrospective traces an artist's evolution, his journey from the tentative to the certain. Satyan has never quite forgotten the excitement, or the precariousness, of his struggle for recognition. But he has learned to take the rough with the smooth. A critical review of his new book doesn't faze him.
"The reviewer seems to have expected an encyclopaedia," he quips. Satyan is outspoken when it comes to what sometimes passes for photography today: We have now reached a stage where our minds crave for a visual statement to help us grasp the immensity of a situation such as a flood, an earthquake or a rail disaster.
All said and done, the best photographic scoops are the result of poor camerawork they get published because of their inherent news value and not because of any artistic merit. Photography is not really an art form but, like language, it is a medium through which a work of art can be made. To hear Satyan narrate the story behind each famous photograph is to know how exacting photography is.
"It was just after Independence and there was a market for Indian photo-features abroad. Life magazine assigned me to do a photo-story on the early morning march of Vinoba Bhave. I walked for three days with Vinobaji in Gujarat. On the fourth, I clicked him as he stepped onto a row of stones in a patch of moonlight."
Like most of his contemporaries, Satyan was influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson. "Cartier-Bresson's lesson to me was simply this great pictures are not taken, they are made. I would have to develop the kind of vision that would enable him to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. I would have to aim at capturing the decisive moment in the lives of my subjects." Satyan was a student at Maharaja's College in the 1940s when he started to take photography seriously: "I had no clear ideas about the profession then; I was reading Abbe Dubois' Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies. So I documented the ceremonies he wrote about birth, marriage, etc. My own family provided the subjects."
When, after a stint with The Deccan Herald, he went to Bombay to work for The Illustrated Weekly, he found that: "Photojournalism was still a nascent field. The Weekly, only published pictures of monuments, none of people. I had seen Edward Steichen's The Family of Man and I had told myself, `someday I will do work like this'."
So Satyan returned to Mysore to be surrounded once more by the "ocean of Beauty" that had first stirred his visual sense in the 1930s and 1940s. "One of my earliest photo-features, `X-raying an Indian Village', published in 1948, was about the sociologist M.N. Srinivas who later wrote My Remembered Village. I was also very fond of visiting the villages around Mysore, where the people were camera-shy.
Satyan got his lucky break with Life magazine when he sent them his pictures of the Mahamastiabhiseka at Sravanbelagola. "It was Life that put me on the journalistic map, so to speak. I travelled widely, photographing for Time-Life books. There were frequent assignments for Black Star and the U.N.. I also got a chance to interact with the greats who visited Delhi Alfred Eisenstadt, for one."
Subsequently, Satyan moved to Delhi to chronicle some of the most outstanding events of newly independent India. In 1973, he accompanied UNICEF's Henri Laborisse to Assam during the Brahmaputra floods and to Orissa during the Kalahandi drought. He shot some of his most eloquent pictures, later featured in his month-long UNICEF sponsored exhibition "Little People" held at the U.N. 1979, the Year of the Child.
As he makes plans for his new book on children, Satyan is full of optimism about the future. It is optimism that comes across as the lasting impression of Satyan's work and makes this pioneering photo-journalist such a tireless adventurer through life.
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