Tomorrow, December 13, is the third death anniversary of Tamabarahalli Subramanya Satyanarayana Iyer better known as T.S. Satyan, the legendary photojournalist and contributor and well-wisher of churumuri.
Here, a friend pays tribute.
All photographers working with life-forms, more so humans, would at some time or the other have wished they had the power to become invisible.
A power to enable them to take pictures without the subject becoming conscious of being photographed.
The sight of a camera has something hypnotic on the human mind. It deep freezes expressions and transforms them to look anything but natural. A kind of rigor mortis of the facial muscles sets in. Further damage is caused when the photographer announces his readiness by saying ‘smile please’.
Barring blissfully ignorant children who have not yet come under the spell of the camera, the effect is universal.
Even veteran actors struggle all their lives to look their natural self in front of a camera.
The incredibly true-to-life human portrait that T.S. Satyan was able to capture in his camera was largely due to his remarkable skills of camouflaging not only the camera but himself as well.
Satyan’s presence in a crowd was hardly noticeable. The man was of average height, lean, brown skinned, soft spoken, dressed in a dull bush shirt and pant, wore chappals for foot wear, and seldom established eye contact.
As nondescript as R.K. Laxman’s ‘Common Man’.
He even spoke the language of the common man.
Unlike most of us who are prone to draw attention or be recognized in an assemblage of people, Satyan worked hard on remaining unnoticed. He seemed to have perfected the art to the extent he came close to being non-existent. Being physically small made, his movement too was easy and without a rustle. He took small steps when he moved.
Everything about him was casual and unhurried.
Satyan belonged to the age of black and white films and SLR cameras. He refused to be lured by the technological marvels of the digital camera.
He remained a Brahmin in that sense.
The camera he used was basic, compact and each exposure required manual settings. He carried the equipment in a cloth bag slung over his shoulder which reached down to his hip. It had a wide opening at the top which enabled him to remove and slip in with ease.
The camera came out of the bag only after he had seen a setting worthy of a picture.
With a basic camera that Satyan carried, there wasn’t too much scope for fiddling with the settings. He seldom carried more than one lens and therefore no fuss about changing them and drawing attention. The picture quality was discovered only after the film was processed.
To Satyan’s generation of photographers, the mind, the eye and the body had to be in total sync, before freezing the frame.
Once I spotted Satyan in Devaraja vegetable market; his favorite haunt in Mysore where he has taken some of his best known pictures.
I resisted the temptation of catching up with him. Instead, I walked behind him keeping a distance.
There was a young man selling raw peanuts. Satyan stopped a distance from the vendor, stood awhile possibly assessing and exploring the possibility of a picture. He then went round the subject looking at the surroundings, frequently looking up at the mid day sun and the shadows it cast.
He then went and sat on a folded gunny sack used as a mat not far from the peanut vendor and the heap of his merchandise in front. The young man momentarily noticed the presence of a stranger sitting close by. I soon noticed that Satyan’s disarming smile and the banter that had put the youngster at ease.
After perhaps a few pleasantries, the peanut vendor went about his business unmindful of the stranger.
The time Satyan sat there hunched and cross legged, the world went by including the local populace. Neither the vendor nor the many shoppers noticed that the man sitting there was a celebrated photo journalist whose photographs had appeared in the prestigious Time and Life magazines.
A recipient of the coveted Padmashri award and a internationally acclaimed photographer.
Contrary to my expectation, Satyan did not take a picture of the young man. When he got up to leave, the peanut vendor picked up a fistful of peanuts and offered it to Satyan. The gesture was gratefully accepted and Satyan put the offering into his camera bag.
Later when I caught up with Satyan, I found him feasting on the nuts that he had received.
Curiosity got the better of me when I asked Satyan why he had not taken a picture of the peanut vendor. It was when he told me that the young man was too conscious of his presence. With this acquaintance established with the peanut vendor, he would come back at a later date to shoot him.
Satyan once volunteered to take pictures of children of the Pratham Mysore Balavadi schools.
When we arrived at Kesare, one of the less developed areas of Mysore, Satyan insisted that we park our car at a distance and walk the last stretch to the school where the children had assembled to make a quiet entry into the school.
He preferred to be by himself with the children and sat on one of the steps outside a class to talk to the children in Urdu as it was predominantly a Muslim locality. The chocolates that he had carried in his camera bag attracted the children like ants to a honey pot.
Of the hour that we spent at the school, Satyan played with the children for a good part of our stay. They were all over him playing and tugging at his clothing and his bag. All the pictures that he finally captured were taken in less than ten minutes.
The children continued to play paying little or no heed either Satyan’s camera or his work. Needless to say, the man had given thought of all possible situations that he was likely to encounter before venturing out on the assignment.
I met Satyan through his son Nagendra. I was drawn to Satyan from our first meeting both because of my interest in his profession, his inimitable sense of humor and his unique story telling abilities.
During our meetings, Rathnamma, his wife, would sit through the evening unmindful of the number of times she had heard the stories. Except for the occasional reminder not to exceed the quantities of his favorite cashew nuts, she remained the quiet dutiful wife.
On the 13 December 2009, I was away in Bangalore when I received a call from his son Nagendra informing me that Satyan was no more. By the time I reached Mysore that evening, the house was nearly empty with only members of the grieving family.
True to his persona, Satyan had made quick and quiet exit.
This time to remain truly invisible and forever.
Also read: Once upon a time, early in the morning