The Common Man's Resilience: Inside The Legacy Of Photographer T.S. Satyan

T S Satyan ignored sensationalism and embraced humanity instead.
T S Satyan ignored sensationalism and embraced humanity instead.L: Dinodia Photos/Getty Images, R:
"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."
T S Satyan

The leafy bylanes of Mysuru in the 1920s were enshrouded in a languorous stillness broken only by the kicking of feet and clacking of sticks in the dust, as children clamoured over football and chinni dandu (or ‘gilli danda’ in Hindi). If you happened to be sauntering around the suburban alleys during twilight, you could catch the aromas of hand pressed coffee and fenugreek dosas wafting from the gabled houses and over the weekends, you could pay two annas for a seat inside a safari style tent or dera to watch a film. Such was the tranquil, otherworldly simplicity that one of India’s earliest photojournalists grew up in.

One of the earliest pictures T.S. Satyan took depicted a child absorbed in playing at the abacus. He won a contest for this submission from the (now defunct) Illustrated Weekly of India and impressed by his sincerity, his English teacher loaned him six rupees to buy his first camera ever. Since then, every single moment he has captured, became mystically entrenched in the melancholia of passing time.

In his first year of BA at Maharaja’s College (Mysore University), Satyan witnessed the Quit India Movement in 1942, whence students cut class and trickled into the streets to protest against the British Raj. After graduating, Satyan dabbled in many professions like being a newsreader for radio, a teacher and even a secretary at the Adult Education Council before finally moving to Bengaluru to become a staff photographer for the English daily — the Deccan Herald. He recalls how at his first stint as an engine inspector for Hindustan Aeronautics in Bengaluru, “I asked them to sack me because one month’s additional salary would get me three months supply of film!”

While India attained freedom in August 1947, Mysore did not dispense with its identity as a princely state for some time. Satyan recounts photographing the first Chief Minister of Mysore, K. Changalaraya Reddy and his cabinet colleagues when they spoke at the massive public meeting held at the Subbarayanakere grounds. In the early 1950s, Satyan was freelancing with the New York-based Black Star Publishing Company and while documenting the Jain anointment ceremony of a 57 ft statue of Gommateshwara Bahubali, he met the Life photojournalist James Cobb Burke who commissioned Satyan for two assignments. Thus, five photos of Satyan’s, covering the first Legislative Assembly elections to take place in the state of Andhra Pradesh, made it into Life magazine in 1955.

Indulgently humanist in his lens, T S Satyan rejoiced in what he called ‘intimate intrusions’ into the lives of shri saamaanya or common people, crafting evocative portraits of women working or children feeling their way around in a world still fairly unknown to them. Whether he was snapping shots of luminaries such as B.K.S Iyengar teaching yoga and Yehudi Menuhin at Nehru’s residence or monkeys perching atop a car for Newstime, Satyan’s imagery reflected his pursuit of heartrending austerity in life.

For half a century, by opening his eyes and heart to the Indian subcontinent and peeping at ordinary moments of drudgery, he was able to glean the serenity of the human spirit. Even in the thick of tragedy like the flash floods of 1970 in Delhi, Satyan could spot a father and child surrendering to the chaos and staying afloat in spite of the helplessness of their situation. Between 1961-63, he also photographed the mass immunisation under the smallpox eradication campaign by the World Health Organisation, which led to him eventually being published in their official magazine. These photos grabbed the attention of a former director at the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF). He was propelled Satyan to worldwide fame after being invited to showcase his work at the 1979 UNICEF 'Year of the Child' exhibition titled 'Little People' in New York.  

T S Satyan was known for highlighting the resilience of human spirit.
T S Satyan was known for highlighting the resilience of human spirit.Museum of Art & Photography
"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."
T S Satyan

For Little People, Satyan recorded instances of child labour, especially one arresting close-up of a young boy carrying a block of stone on his head at a construction site, with a mournful look in his eyes and beads of sweat on his upper lip. In his own words, it was “the prerogative of (the) camera to record the present as a reliable witness” and in an unbiased style he fluidly painted visual narratives in the second half of the twentieth century. 

Among the other seminal chapters of Indian history, Satyan covered Acharya Vinoba Bhave in 1951, the resistance against Portuguese presence in Goa and the aftermath following the assassination of Bangladesh’s President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in 1975.

Passionate about saving slices of life and the cultural zeitgeist for posterity, Satyan would intermittently drop his proletarian muses to photograph luminaries like CV Raman, Dalai Lama and Indira Gandhi. However he took great care to not be overawed by his more powerful subjects, subtly imbuing them with a humility by staying alert for those telltale signs; when a photographer can sense a mask is about to slip.

Indira Gandhi was among the several other politicians Satyan photographed without glamour.
Indira Gandhi was among the several other politicians Satyan photographed without

Satyan recalls one such moment when he was able to see beyond C.V. Raman’s grim and foreboding exterior into the playfulness of the trickster underneath. When he went over to the Nobel Prize winning physicist’s house, Satyan was surprised to find him surrounded by a gaggle of local convent children and like a magician at a circus, Raman led them into a dark hall filled with assorted minerals and crystals promising them something beautiful. When Satyan commented how the rocks looked ordinary enough to him, Raman switched on an ultraviolet lamp and sure enough, all the exhibits were glowing with bright colours. The children could not believe their eyes and Satyan found himself sharing their incredulity at the wonders of rudimentary science.

Besides publishing his photos in several publications, including Time and India Today magazines, Satyan also released his own books on photography — Exploring Karnataka (1981); Hampi: the Fabled Capital of the Vijaynagar Empire (1995), In Love with Life (2002) — and two memoirs, Kalakke Kannada (2003) in Kannada and Alive and Clicking (2005) in English. Honouring his unmatched oeuvre, he was dubbed the ‘Father of Photojournalism in India’ and awarded the Padma Shri in 1977.

Satyan’s family recently lent a precious repository of over 21,000 photographs, negatives, and the copious notes he kept under the care of the Bengaluru-based Museum of Art & Photography (MAP). Digitising and cataloguing the archives, the museum has now organised a retrospective — 'With Great Ease: The Photography Of T. S. Satyan', that will grant viewers an opportunity to access a curation of Satyan’s high contrast street images. Invoking the bygone era, his photos preserve the shopkeepers and schoolchildren, the pilgrims and daily wage workers with ‘reverent empathy’. His sensitivity in not exploiting the poor for their misery, instead restoring their dignity to them in various stations of life — ‘at the well, beside rivers, in crowds and in solitude’ — has become the primer for professional photojournalism in our country. 

The exhibition is running from the 12th of August until the 20th of November at the Infosys Foundation Gallery on the ground floor of the Museum of Art & Photography.

You can find more details on the museum's website.