Hurgaalu & Black Dog on the way to Vaikuntapura

SUNAAD RAGHURAM writes: On 13 December 2009, The Picture Editor upstairs decided to set the shutter speed of the life’s camera of a venerable man to a metaphorical 1/125.

On that day, the shutter curtain of one of the finest photo-journalists of his era opened and closed even before anyone could realize what had come about.

T.S. Satyan lay still, his eyes closed for ever.

He had become one with his Maker.

As the tongues of flame began to lick his pyre at the foot of the brooding omniscience of the Chamundi hills in his favourite city of Mysore, the sun was about to set in a haze of orange; the mynahs among the branches chirped faintly; a cow mooed in a tone of voice that heightened the feel of the sepulchral.

Satyan was on his way out to a “happier world”.

Soon, in six to eight hours, they said, the ashes of his mortal body would collect on the platform of aged stone, the very platform that was facilitating his passage to the world beyond.

As I stood close to the pyre, along with my friend Saggere Ramaswamy, staring in blank confusion at the ways of the Creator, the terms and conditions of whose policy make it incumbent on all those alive today to die some day at some pre-ordained hour, the chirpy, friendly, adorable, gentle and affectionate man called Satyan came back alive.

In my thoughts.

My mind began to travel to the time when the two of us had been such good friends, friends separated by a mere four decades plus a little more in age, but gloriously united in spirit, completely because the man in question had been endowed the power, among the rarest a man can hope to aspire, of making every single person he met, feel so completely at ease and disarmed.

Not for Satyan any form of aggrandisement in the heat of his stupendous achievements with the camera as also the pen.

Not for Satyan the importance to the self, the blowing of the bugles about some photograph well composed or some prose well conceived, although there were perhaps a few hundred or even a thousand such creations in both forms of his craft that he could have spoken about, bragging almost without end.

Not for Satyan the postulation of a hoary past where men of his type, men who could wield the camera and the pen with such complete unequivocal ease and chronicle an event or even a whole era with such stupendous impact, were as rare as hen’s teeth.

Not for Satyan even a suggestion of pompousness or supercilious patronizing when it came to life; life post-retirement, in the old, quiet suburb of Saraswathipuram, where the neighbourhood did not exactly boast of men and women who had been trail blazing world beaters of any kind in their time.

The sight of Satyan walking to the post office on 10th main road with a suggestion of a arthritic shuffle or to the Canara bank next to the park on the same road, simply amazingly did not give away the secret that he was a man, who in his time was one of the greatest of his tribe.

A man who presided over the very manner in which photojournalism in our country took shape in the 1940s, at a time when the camera as an instrument of the media and its infinite chronicling power, was as well known to the masses as shark fin soup to a traditional vegetarian.

Satyan was a remarkable man, which is like saying, the elephant is a very huge animal.

But for someone like me, who had the opportunity to be friends with him and share moments of such grace and gentility issuing forth almost endlessly from the man who could hold nothing but warmth in the cockles of his soul, to make a feeble attempt to explain his persona is a tad difficult.

For, Satyan epitomized such wonderful qualities, that anything I say could seem to veer towards the text book definitions of how an evolved man should be.

But that was the man. A man whose very face mirrored the mellow, nuanced emotions inside him, his large cheerful eyes conveying a sense of bonhomie and vivaciousness of spirit, never mind even if they were some 80 odd years old.

And spirits he had but in small measure. Of the alcoholic kind I mean! Scotches and preferably Black Dog, if you please. Pouring a small measure and suffusing it with copious soda enough to drown a man, he loved long conversations while his right hand gently picked either ground nuts or hurgaalu from the side-table next to him.

Speaking of the Mysore of his days, the Maharaja’s College, his friends of the likes of H.Y. Sharada Prasad and R.K. Narayan and the legendary writer’s love of “mosaranna with uppina kayi“, which he insisted on having every time he dropped by at Satyan’s, his interesting trysts with the royal family, reminiscing the time when he trod the back alleys of Shivarampete, the studio where he got his early prints done; Satyan loved to languorously travel back in time, like an accomplished collegian remembering his kindergarten days.

I particularly remember the trip the two of us did together for eight full days in my jeep in January 2007 when we travelled to some of the most fascinating places of such infinite charm and beauty in Malnad. Sringeri, Kasaravalli, Megharavalli and even Mathoor.

It was Satyan’s desire to shoot the fascinating interiors of century old Malnad homes, one of which was the devastatingly beautiful and richly carved 250-year-old ancestral home of the famed cine director Girish Kasaravalli. The manner in which Satyan composed his shots in that locale with the grand rose wood pillars of such humongous girth was an expression of complete passion for his craft.

The positioning of the camera, a Nikon of indeterminable vintage; the angle, the composition of the frame, the optimum use of the naturally available light, the checking and re-checking of the parameters, bending and peering through the lens time and again, in spite of his painfully arthritic knees, the gentle readjustments, the tiny shifting of the camera position before he was convinced that all was well for a perfect shot.

Just one click of the button and there would be a classic to hold in your hands.

I was mesmerized as I stood on the sidelines and watched the master at work. So far removed indeed from the regulation photographers who shoot with their SLR cameras of high sophistication, as if they were handling a self loading rifle in the face of an enemy onslaught.

Satyan was precise, to the point and clear as to what he wanted his camera to do for him.

On that trip, we drove leisurely around the countryside, endless hours of chatting and joking with Satyan even breaking into song at times.

At Sringeri, he asked me to take him to a century-old ‘agrahara’ (Brahmin enclave) called Vaikuntapura, where incidentally, the famous Kannada film, Vamshavruksha had been shot.

Satyan himself had shot a famous picture of his here. A photograph which features a wizened old woman with her shaven head covered, sitting on the parapet of the veranda of her ancient tiled house, and smiling amusedly into the camera with a baby close to her, and rain drops falling in a small slender cascade from the roof!

An old man recognized Satyan straightaway as we walked into the narrow alley of the agrahara. He remembered the famous photograph and remarked that the small baby in that picture was now a mother herself and living in Bangalore!

Satyan was pleased to be there and pointed to me the various houses he had spent time in on that assignment.

As we returned to Sringeri and entered the temple precincts, he wanted to know the whereabouts of ‘Moorne ManeRam Bhat, the chief priest of the temple in the 1970s, an imposing man he had framed with a Palmyra umbrella in hand and in conversation with another priest in front of the imposing arch of the famous temple.

Ram Bhat had since been deceased but the other priest in that well-known photograph, who was his understudy at that time, was still around to greet Satyan affectionately!

And then onto Manipal, where he suddenly decided to meet his old friend M.V. Kamath, the legendary journalist and editor. It was a sight to see the two old friends exchange pleasantries and settle down for coffee. Satyan even addressed impromptu, a gathering of journalism students at the media institute there at the behest of Kamath, who introduced Satyan as one of the living legends of Indian photo-journalism, nothing less!

Indeed, Satyan could write prose with such effortless lucidity and simplicity that the sentences flowed like a beautiful stream making its way through a carpet of flowers somewhere in the mountains, uncluttered and without a stutter. So much like his mind, simple and unostentatious. This was rare indeed.

For a photographer to have the twin gift of being able to wield a pen with such felicity. A photo-journalist nonpareil.

To me, Satyan even in death, is alive and clicking!

Photograph: T.S. Satyan at work during his 2007 sojourn with Sunaad Raghuram at a Catholic home near Manipal. (‘AstroMohan/ Karnataka Photo News)