Back in 1982, a young woman who had no formal training in photography, who didn’t even own a camera, dared to step into the office of Mathrubhumi, the prominent Malayalam daily in Delhi, to ask if she would be given some assignments to cover.
Her aim was to somehow get government accreditation so that she wouldn’t be prevented from covering major events. Legendary journalists, VP Ramachandran and VK Madhavankutty were at the daily office then. They told her, “What we need is results. Will you be able to deliver?” She said: “I am not asking for a job. You give me assignments and pay for the photos I shoot.”
She was given a letter, allowing her to cover the 1982 Asiad – the previous avatar of the Asian Games.
That was the first major break in the career of Saraswati Chakravarty, one of the first women photographers based in Delhi. She hired two cameras to shoot the grand sports event. “Though I portrayed a confident self to them (Ramachandran and Madhavankutty), my heart was beating fast. I had never covered a sports event before!” Saraswati says.
Speaking to TNM on the sidelines of the International Press Photo Fest organised by Kerala Media Academy in Thiruvananthapuram, the 68-year-old photographer says, “I hired two cameras. Those days we had to change the film camera rolls and the Asiad being a big event, one camera wouldn’t work. My first picture was that of elephants being arranged gracefully for the inaugural event. Mathrubhumi carried the picture prominently, and I gained a lot of confidence from it.”
Recalling the Asiad coverage, Saraswati says that all the photographers who had come to cover the event from various parts of the country were given rooms at the Yatri Nivas. That gave her an opportunity to interact with other photojournalists. She showed her negatives to a photographer from The Hindu and asked him how she could improve. “He told me that I needed to get more close-up shots, since it was a sports event. I internalised that,” Saraswati says.
By the time the 15-day event was over, around 250 photographs shot by Saraswati were carried by various newspapers, including Mathrubhumi, and Dinathanthi in Tamil.
Armed with the photographs, she approached the Press Information Bureau to give her accreditation, which they duly granted.
Belonging to Kerala, Saraswati’s family had migrated to Bangalore as it was known then, where she was born. They later moved to Delhi. It was one year before the Asiad, in 1981, while working as a stenographer at an office in Delhi that Saraswati decided to fill the void of not having a woman photographer in the male dominated field. She was watching the annual Republic Day parade, when she noticed that not a single woman photographer was present there. Saraswati sought the help of her photographer friends, went into the dark room where they worked and borrowed a camera to shoot and began her tryst with photography by taking pictures of social gatherings.
“But if I had to cover the Republic Day parade, I needed accreditation. Going to Mathrubhumi office was the first step towards it, and I thought that my Keralite identity would help me,” she says.
The following years, Saraswati’s life took a complete U-turn. Leaving a comfortable, fixed-hours office job for a hectic, vibrant one, was of course not an easy decision. She had to take care of her two kids, who were less than three years old. Back at home, she had to answer uneasy questions.
But this was going to be a momentous journey for Saraswati.
In the beginning, she used to hear murmurs from her snooty male colleagues: “Let us see how long she will continue in the profession,” they would tell each other.
“Each time I heard that, I reassured myself that I won’t quit the profession for as long as possible. What’s more, I was wearing a saree all the time, as my in-laws wouldn’t allow me to wear a salwar. Later, things changed. When I would step into a place, male photographers began to say madam has come, give her space. I am short which was an advantage as well as a drawback at the same time, as a photographer. I needed space at the front to get good clicks, but at the same time I wouldn’t trouble others since I was short,” she says.
The other photographers and political leaders as well, used to recognise her. Indira Gandhi used to tell the male photographers when they would request her to pose for some more time, “Look at her (Saraswati), she would come, simply finish her work without me even realising it and go.”
Saraswati says, “I had to do everything quickly, take pictures, develop the films in the dark room and rush to the airport to send the pictures to Kerala, to Indore, to Chennai… In the 80s, there were numerous freelance photographers who were ready to give a picture for Rs 20. But even at that time, I was not ready to do so. I gave one picture for Rs 100 because I believed that we should give dignity to our work. That is the basic lesson for women, never underestimate or under-sell your work.”
The assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 was a life-changing moment for Saraswati. “She was bold and had the ability to carry out things. When she was killed, every newspaper wanted pictures, irrespective of their quality,” she says.
In 1986, Dinathanthi sent her to Sri Lanka to accompany Rajiv Gandhi. “While the Prime Minister was about to sign a pact with the Sri Lankan president JR Jayewardene, N Ram of the Hindu was out of films. It was my photo which was later used on the front page for their story.”
Saraswati also used to work for Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra media to cover their government functions in Delhi. For Tamil Nadu, she covered both MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa. For Andhra Pradesh, when NT Rama Rao was the Chief Minister, Saraswati met with an incident that ultimately led her to change her attire.
“He was arriving at the airport, everything seemed organised. But when he finally arrived, his party members and fans – all those who had gathered there – ran towards him. What I later witnessed was total chaos. After it was over, I noticed that my saree was not on my body and a cleaning worker was holding it. She even scolded me for being absent-minded while working. That day I countered my in-laws and decided to wear the salwar to work,” Saraswati recalls.
Saraswati also worked for the British High Commissionerate and covered the visits of former PMs Tony Blair and John Mayor. “When Pakistan president Zia Ul-Haq visited India, seeing me alone among the male photographers, he asked, beti thu akeli ho (are u alone)?”
In 1987, she joined the PTI, after completing six months’ probation. She was hired after being assigned to cover the Dalai Lama’s visit to Dharamshala. She was sent to Kerala to cover the National Games in December the same year. “January 1988 marked a big turning point in my career. There was an agitation between the police and the lawyers. Kiran Bedi was the Delhi Commissioner of Police. While we were covering it, Bedi ordered and said maro unhe (fire them). I was hit on my head, my camera which I had bought from Singapore with my hard-earned money, was broken. My editor’s name was also Bedi to whom I elaborated what had transpired. I was even admitted in the ICU for three days. My editor, who personally used to dislike me, fired me.”
“I had covered Prime Ministers from Indira Gandhi to Manmohan Singh. But the impact of the trauma the PTI incident caused still haunts me. As my son told me once, I worked like a dog and what did I get in return? I fought a legal battle, the lower court judgment was in my favour. They approached the high court, three years ago, the verdict came in their favour, that was the final blow. Till date, I don’t know what crime I committed.”
Saraswati’s husband Sankar Chakravarty is a photographer with The Hindu. Her son Subramanian is a photography trainer in Canada, while her daughter Ambika is also settled there. Living with her husband in Delhi later, Saraswati continued to do freelancing and frequented Kashmir to shoot pictures. “My dream is to bring out a book, be it about the Kashmiri women who are very hardworking or others. But it will be on women,” Saraswati says.