T S Satyan: Father of Indian photojournalism and a silent genius behind his lens

Satyan, a name to reckon with in Indian photojournalism, was dubbed as the "Father of Indian Photojournalism".
T S Satyan: Father of Indian photojournalism and a silent genius behind his lens
T S Satyan: Father of Indian photojournalism and a silent genius behind his lens
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Long before digital photography came to be and clicking pictures became accessible to almost all, there were those who took to the craft with pure passion and honed their skills with sheer hard work. This is the story of one such person.

Tamabarahalli Subramanya Satyanarayana Iyer (1923 – 2009), popular as T S Satyan, was born in Mysuru. He finished his schooling in the Bhanumaiah school in Mysuru and graduated in arts from the Maharaja’s college. His passion for photography began at a very early age. After clearing his SSLC exams in 1940, he bought his first camera for Rs 6. And thus began his long journey.

Seeing Satyan’s interest in photography, his English professor lent him Rs 350 to buy a reflex camera. When he went to return that money, the professor only expressed his wish for Satyan to develop a book on Karnataka. He fulfilled this wish by producing an excellent book of images with text written by H Y Sharada Prasad, another Mysuru stalwart, many years later.

Satyan as a photojournalist in 1948

Satyan began publishing his images in the now defunct Illustrated Weekly of India. In 1948, he joined The Deccan Herald as a staff photographer. This slow shift from a photographer to a photojournalist opened several avenues for him.

He was soon invited to work in Bombay at the Illustrated Weekly office and began capturing moments through his lens for posterity.

Be it the arrival of the Dalai Lama in India or the grand rituals of Mahamastakabhisheka in Sravana Belagola, be it portraits of presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens, to humble Agraharams and Ashrams, be it musicians and poets to writers and intellectuals, Satyan captured all of them through his lens.

During his career as a photojournalist, Satyan’s images were published in some of the most prestigious journals like Life, Time, and Newsweek. Satyan was a name to reckon with in Indian photojournalism. In fact he was dubbed as the "Father of Indian Photojournalism".

In the early 1960s, Satyan began doing a series of projects for the World Health Organization and photo-documenting several crucial events. Be it the smallpox eradication campaign or the school health programmes, Satyan was documented several important events in healthcare.

In 1977 the government of India conferred upon him the Padma Shri award. In 1979, when the United Nations marked the International Year of The Child, Satyan was invited to conduct an exhibition of his images at their headquarters in New York.

In a later interview, Satyan would speak about his photography and say, "My people are not the rich and the famous. They are the simple, ordinary folk. They do not hit the headlines, yet my people are people who matter.  They were there when I picked up the camera six decades ago, and they have been there every time I have gone back to capture  the interesting moments in their lives. In giving me privileged access at every step of my career as a photo journalist – even in their moments of despair or drudgery – they have never let me forget that photography is at once both an exquisite art-form and a means of communication. And that to lose sight of one aspect is to lose sight of both. Call it intimate intrusions, but it is these simple, ordinary people who dominate my oeuvre."

"Through a tiny aperture they allowed me to freeze-frame the cycle of life: birth, growth and death. In between, they showed me babies being born, babies being bathed, babies being suckled. They have let me in when children were learning, children were playing. They have allowed me to peep at adults at work, at worship, at recreation and adults at their everyday chores. And they have let me do so on the road, at the well, beside rivers, in crowds and in solitude. In the process, by making their private life public, they have enabled me to discover the extraordinary in the everyday," he added.

In 2005, Satyan published his memoir "Alive and Clicking", a first for any Indian photojournalist. Published by Penguin Books, the memoir is a fascinating read for anyone interested in the life and times of one of India’s finest photographers. Satyan captured greats like Nobel laureate C.V. Raman, film-maker Satyajit Ray, Pt Jawaharlal Nehru, the Dalai Lama and Pope Paul VI. He also formed lifelong friendships with his contemporaries and fellow creative geniuses like R.K. Narayan, R.K. Laxman, Sharada Prasad and musicians like Sadasivam and M S Subbulakshmi.

The book also takes you through his life as a photographer and places he traveled to like Sikkim, Afghanistan, Arunachal Pradesh and Malaysia. He describes historic events like the massacre of the non-violent Satyagrahis by the Portuguese rulers in Goa and the mayhem that followed the assassination of Mujibur Rahman in Bangladesh.

Satyan with historian Ramachandra Guha at the launch of his memoir

The book is a must-read for everyone and a significant document for posterity of an extraordinary life lived in some of the most interesting times in the 20th century. "There is still much of the boy in Satyan at eighty-one, he retains the same robust curiosity about the world that he did when he was eight," wrote historian Ramachandra Guha in his foreword to the book.

Satyan's advice to young photographers when he turned 85 was: "Those wanting to take to this profession must consider it carefully. You have to know more and work harder to earn less than in many other professions. You need the strength of a packhorse to carry around all the equipment. You must develop resourcefulness, ingenuity and adaptability to solve assignment logistics. Most important, you must stay healthy, always. You have to be your best self. The expectations of editors and readers are high. News photography in modern times is not only fatiguing, but also dangerous and calls for alertness and dedication. In India there is not much money for those wanting to work for the print media. No wonder more and more young persons are branching out to other areas like advertising, industrial and fashion photography." 

Having seen some of the most glorious days of Indian journalism and having worked with several legendary editors, Satyan also expressed anger in his later years. Speaking about a "concerned photographer" he said, "Indian editors are not bothered about him and his work. They are not visually thrilled. They don’t seem to realise that in its own way, a picture can activate the conscience of the reader. They don’t realise that without being preachy the photographer can sensitise, motivate and subtly show us the need to search our own hearts. It is unfortunate that rank commercialisation of the mass media has worsened the situation". 

After a long rich artistic life, Satyan finally made his exit from the world in December 2009. His books and images continue to be a dashboard of ideas for several photographers. Today as we celebrate another World Photography Day, it is only appropriate to remember the genius of Satyan and take inspiration from his life and work.

Images courtesy : Sudheer, Krishnamurthy, Satyan’s family.

(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at vs.veejaysai@gmail.com)

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