T. S. SATYAN: A tribute on his centenary
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T. S. SATYAN: A tribute on his centenary

December 13, 2023

By Ashvini Ranjan

December 18, 2023, marks the birth centenary of T.S. Satyan, a famous son of Mysore, a renowned photojournalist.  Satyan’s photography skills were legendary, displayed at the United Nations Headquarters building in New York in 1977. He received the Padma Shri award in 1979 from the Government of India, along with numerous other awards.

His photos graced prestigious international magazines like Time, Newsweek and Life. In India, he worked with the now-defunct Illustrated Weekly of India and Deccan Herald newspaper. During his peak, he photographed great personalities like Rabindranath Tagore, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, among others. He also undertook projects for the World Health Organisation (WHO) with the one on Small Pox Eradication being well-known. Rich and famous sought his skills, yet his passion lay in capturing the images of common people in their everyday lives and habitats. 

I first met Satyan in 1998 through his son, Nagendra, the CEO of a software company in Bangalore. Nagendra approached me, as a stranger, to rent a building we owned in Bangalore. In the course of discussion, he disclosed his Mysore roots and about his father.

T.S. Satyan on a photo shoot.

Delighted, I had no hesitation in expressing my admiration. This revelation facilitated the quick conclusion of negotiations, making Nagendra’s company the tenant of my building. Upon my request, Nagendra introduced me to his father.

Satyan’s house in Mysore was a mere ten-minute drive from mine, a case of ‘so near yet so far’ from meeting a childhood hero. As a young boy aspiring to become a photographer, I had admired Satyan’s photographs in the Illustrated Weekly of India. His Black and White pictures of common people were unique and candid. I assumed he would be a ‘larger than life’ figure, but upon meeting him, I was impressed with his gentleness, simplicity and warmth. He insisted I address him without a prefix, calling him Satyan. Excited about meeting him, I invited him and his wife Rathna for a meal at my house, a request he accepted gladly.

In 2002, my wife Shashi and I embarked on a journey to start Pratham Mysore, an NGO focused on educating slum children. Satyan, always drawn to the magic of capturing children through his lens, frequently joined our activities.

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It was during these moments that I had the privilege of observing him in action. His ability to connect with the subjects and bring out their natural expressions was a true art form. When I asked him for the secret behind his photography, he offered a simple yet profound piece of advice: “Keep trying, and you will get there.”

It took ten years to learn the essence of taking good pictures. I had all along focused on his camera and technicalities, but I had missed the man behind the camera. Satyan’s celebrity status never influenced him; he was short, soft-spoken, gentle and smiling. This persona put his subjects at ease, as he seldom showed his camera until ready to shoot. The naturalness of the subject is lost when people are self-conscious or intimidated by the sight of a camera. Satyan’s camera came out of his bag when he decided to shoot, disappearing once the picture was taken. The biggest lesson was clear: to take good pictures, the person behind the camera is as important as the camera itself.

Ashvini Ranjan with T.S. Satyan.

The nature of the man reflected in his speech and writing. Regardless of the language he spoke, he connected with common people, displaying a remarkable sense of humour. Most of the time, he would be the butt of jokes, putting people at ease. His writing mirrored his speech, gentle and easy-flowing. The combination of writing and photos enhanced the quality of his pictures, earning him the title  ‘The Father of Indian Photo Journalism.’

Despite acquiring money, name and fame, Satyan was generous, giving away many of his famous pictures free of cost. Even I possess one such autographed photo. After his demise, Satyan’s family generously donated all photos to charity and to the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) in Bangalore for posterity.

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In an emotional conversation at my home one evening, Satyan shared his thoughts on the transient nature of life, stating, ‘we will all vanish one day, leaving behind only prose and poetry.’ True to his words, he left behind a rich legacy of prose, eloquently intertwined with his indelible photographs, a form of poetry that will endure.

Beyond the celebrity, beyond the photographer and a photojournalist, Satyan was, to me, a cherished friend and, above all, a good human being. His passing on December 13, 2009, was an irreparable loss. A fitting tribute to this illustrious son of Mysore would be the establishment of a government gallery, a place where his photographs can continue to weave their magic, captivating generations to come.

It must be a multi-purpose Art Gallery where not only photo artists but also fine artists could hold their exhibition and sale, apart from a seminar hall and classroom for conducting creative workshop.

T.S. Satyan may have left this world, but his art, his warmth and his lessons endure, ensuring that he lives on in the hearts of those who had the privilege of knowing him and seeing his photographs.

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