Photojournalist as psychiatrist of life
By M.V. Kamath
Alive and Clicking: A Memoir by T.S. Satyan, Penguin Books, 322 pp, Rs 375.00
Ask any reasonably knowledgeable Indian reporter to name some distinguished photojournalists and in all probability he would name Margaret Bourke-White or Henri Cartier Bresson or someone like Larry Burrows and Brian Brake. It would be most unlikely that he would name someone like Raghu Rai or Raghubir Singh or T.S. Satyan. And yet, Indian photo-journalists can hold their own against their foreign colleagues anytime, anywhere.
The trouble is?and it has always been so?that Indian photojournalists have seldom, if ever, given themselves to hype. They have been happy to remain in the background, indifferent to name and fame that should be theirs for the asking. Cartoonists can become icons, columnists can elicit praise or blame and today'stelevision reporter can turn out to be an instant hero, but who on earth has ever heard of the photographer who has risked his life to record a scene that has made history? It is such thoughts that come to mind as one reads T.S. Satyan'smemoirs, aptly entitled Alive and Clicking. Yes, clicking and not kicking.
Satyan, to tell the truth, has made history by recording it in his long lifetime. All praise to him. If Satyan had done nothing else but taken pictures of major events, he would still richly merit the deep gratitude of his countrymen. But Satyan, it turns out (though not to the surprise of those who have known him from his early days in Mysore), is as good with his typewriter as he is with his camera and his reminiscences prove it beyond question. A warning, therefore, to all prospective readers of this book: Do not pick it up before dinnertime: you may miss both your dinner and your sleep. Once you start reading the book, nothing else would matter. It is so attention-rivetting. Whether he writes about R.K. Narayan (who, incidentally, was responsible for persuading Tambarahalli Subramanya Iyer Satyanarayana Iyer to metamorphose into T.S. Satyan!) or General K.M. Cariappa, or Chandrashekhara Venkataraman, or Sir M. Visvesvaraya, or Sirimavo Bandaranaike or the Dalai Lama (name an Indian celebrity and Satyan has discovered something novel about the personality), Satyan has something novel to say that others would not have known or even suspected. It is that, one suspects, that is the secret of Satyan'ssuccess.
A warning, therefore, to all prospective readers of this book: Do not pick it up before dinnertime: you may miss both your dinner and your sleep. Once you start reading the book, nothing else would matter. It is so attention-rivetting.
Satyan and his camera tell the truth. If the camera cannot lie, nor can Satyan. A most revealing story is recounted by Satyan concerning his work and his attitude towards it. Unconsciously, he also presents his basic philosophy which is that a good photographer, like a good investigative reporter, should never give up. And why? Because ?a good picture makes its own statement.?
The story concerns his coverage of Vinobha Bhave'sfamous bhoodan movement in the course of which he walked over 25,000 miles. Satyan had been asked by Life magazine to do a photo essay on Bhave'stravels and Satyan, true to his profession, had walked with the sage for full five days, taking some of the most unusual and startling pictures. And yet, for all his expertise, Satyan was an unsatisfied man. There was something about the nature of the pictures he knew that was missing until he remembered what he had read a long time ago about making silhouette pictures in moonlight, juxtaposing the subjects against water to dramatise a character. But Bhave was literally travelling through a desert. Where could one possibly find a stream through which Bhave could be persuaded to wade?
How Satyan discovered just such a stream and how Bhave was led to it without his being aware that he was being literally taken for a ride make for a delightful story. Bhave had started his journey when it was still dark and the moon was still shining. Writes Satyan: ?Vinobha took the ?slightly? longer route to reach his destination in Rajasthan. If only he knew! He stepped on the stone path in the middle of the water lit by moonlight. Bird song pierced the silent night. My finger gently pressed the camera shutter. The mood shot, that would thrill my picture editor, had been frozen on film. A little later, when the first mellow rays of the sun lighted up Vinobha'sform, I clicked again. These last two frames turned out to be vital and led to my photo essay, that was featured on the pages of Life.?
Satyan had manipulated Bhave'sjourney without the latter being aware of it. Years later, Satyan was again to meet Bhave. Of that meeting, Satyan writes: ?I met him and showed him the copy of Life with pictures of his walking tour in Gujarat. I casually asked him which ones he liked most. He pointed his finger at the two pictures I had shot before sunrise. I summoned enough courage and went on to tell him the story of the little trick I had played. I begged him to forgive me?? Bhave did not at all seem to be hurt but merely mentioned that means are as important as ends, which thereafter became the subject of his talks to thousands of villagers.
Reading Satyan is like going back into other times, other days. But though many are the celebrities that Satyan has photographed, his basic interest remains centred on ?slices of human life, gentle and personal?. He says of the pictures he has taken in over six fantastic decades: ?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 the people I have met.?
Alive and Clicking is a record of Satyan'slong journey of discovery of what life is all about. It is in its own way a unique record. Once, after taking pictures of Sir Visvesvaraya, Satyan sought the great man'sblessings. ?Who am I to bless you?? wondered the great man, but added: ?You are your own master and can make a success of yourself. Work hard and with dedication.? Which, in the end, is what Sayan did and this book tells it all.
If Satyan had not taken to photojournalism but had stuck to the printed word, who knows, he may well have rivalled Rasipuram Krishnaswamy Iyer Narayanaswamy Iyer (otherwise known as R.K. Narayan) in transforming facts into fiction. After all, what is great photography but the art of going beyond truth to life itself? Ask T.S. Satyan. He knows.
(Penguin Books, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017.)