In the course of a long and distinguished career spanning over six decades, T. S. Satyan—one of India’s earliest photojournalists—photographed political luminaries, royalty, famous personalities and celebrities; chronicled some of India’s most significant historical moments and influential figures; as well as produced a large number of landscape and architectural photographs. However, it is his documentation of the anonymous ‘ordinary man’ that is central to his humanistic vision and that dominates his photographic archive. The MAP T. S. Satyan Archive hosts not only the artist’s photographic prints but also his negatives, transparencies, digital assets, writings, research, honours, as well as collected writings about him.
Reflections: T. S. Satyan on photography, his work and life
(Edited excerpt from the artist’s writings now part of the MAP T. S. Satyan Archive)
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.
In its own unique way, a picture can activate the conscience. A sensitive photographer helps us ‘see’ what the eye has noticed but the mind has not absorbed. It is here that a photographer can become an artist. Without being preachy, he can sensitize, motivate and subtly show is the need to search our own hearts. If my works looks as something inseparable from art to some people, I feel a sense of fulfillment.
My photographs are slices of human life, gentle and personal. Their aim is to let the viewer see all by himself. They tend not to preach, not to pose as art. The pictures are not the result of encounters between events and me. They are a witness to interesting moments in time and in the lives of people I have met with. Photography has enabled me to save them from vanishing into thin air and to give them a life of their own.
‘How do you develop the eye for photography?’ is a question that I have been asked by people who have been my subjects, and by those who have seen my pictures in newspapers and magazines, books and exhibitions. The short answer to this is: ‘I didn’t get it. It was gifted to me by the place of my birth.’ I grew up in an ocean of beauty in the Mysore of the 1930s and 1940s. I stayed in a room on Ashoka Road (that I had rented for Rs. 4 a month) whose windows gave me a spectacular view of the city’s palace. I went to the breathtaking Nishad Bagh to study. Vegetables displayed in the city market had an innate sense of neatness and order. How difficult it is to have your visual sense not excited by such images of beauty! The eyes conduct a dialogue with the world. There is beauty all around. It is there, talking to and challenging the eyes. The great motivation is to discover and design the beauty, to communicate the beauty.
Photography is a wonderful way to explore the planet we live in. It is also a fascinating way to explore the human psyche. However, one should always bear in mind that it takes a lot more work than most people would imagine. Great pictures are made, not taken. There is no room for being casual. There has to be time to spend with the subject. One should not be easily satisfied. It is only then that the image transcends the merely documentary.
It is the prerogative of camera to record the present as a reliable witness – and this is what is going to make photography a witness to the past as well as the future. Photography is history and life. The major contribution of the photographer has been to preserve for posterity the memorable moments of contemporary history, which, I think, is the ever lasting aspect of photojournalism.
T. S. Satyan (1923-2009) was born and raised in Mysore, Karnataka. Among the first to take to photojournalism, he remained a freelancer for the most part of his professional life, doing special assignments for national and international publications. His pictures have been published in several publications including the now defunct The Illustrated Weekly, and Life, Time, Newsweek, Outlook and India Today. Satyan has also done special assignments for international agencies like UNICEF. To mark the International Year of the Child in 1979, the UNICEF organised an exhibition of his pictures of children at the UN headquarters in New York. Satyan has also published photobooks on various themes such as Exploring Karnataka, Hampi – The Fabled Capital of the Vijayanagar Empire and In Love with Life – A Journey through Life in Photographs. In 2005, his memoirs Alive and Clicking were published by Penguin. Satyan was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1977 and in 2003, the Mysore University, his alma mater, conferred on him a doctoral degree honoris causa—that now forms part of the MAP T. S. Satyan Collection.