One of India’s earliest career photojournalists, Tambrahalli Subramanya Satyanarayana Iyer, better known as TS Satyan, is recognised for his black and white photographs of famous personalities, key moments in South Asian history and his images of everyday life in twentieth-century India. Satyan was interested in issues related to child welfare, education and medical advancement, which he supported through his photography. He believed strongly in the role of the lens as an impartial chronicler of the times and lived by that credo.
Born in Mysore (now Mysuru), Satyan cultivated his interest in photography early on. Impressed with his earnestness and skill, his English teacher loaned him money to buy his first camera, with which he won a contest held by the Illustrated Weekly of India, photographing a child using an abacus. After his graduation from Maharaja’s College, Mysore University, in 1944, Satyan pursued various lines of work: He was a news reader for the local radio station Akashvani, a teacher, secretary at the Adult Education Council and an engine inspector at Hindustan Aeronautics. During this time, he engaged in photography as a hobby, occasionally sending some of his works to be published in the Illustrated Weekly. In 1948, he moved to Bangalore (now Benguluru) to work as staff photographer for the English daily Deccan Herald, just before it launched in June the same year. Two years later, Satyan joined the Weekly in Bombay (now Mumbai), but finding the city stifling, returned to Mysore. After his marriage, he carried on his freelance photography there until 1957, when he moved to New Delhi. He was based in the capital for thirty-two years — travelling regularly on assignments around the subcontinent — before retiring to Mysore in 1989.
Satyan first met the eminent Life magazine photographer James Cobb Burke in the early 1950s, while covering the anointing ceremony at Shravanabelagola in Karnataka for the New York-based Black Star Publishing Company. Impressed with the young photographer, Burke later signed on Satyan to document the merger of Pondicherry (now Puducherry) and adjoining French territories with the Union of India in 1954. However, due to a shipping error, his photos of the momentous event would not be published in Life that year. His next assignment from Burke in 1955 proved more fruitful in this regard, with five images from his coverage of the Legislative Assembly elections for Andhra state (which later became a part of Andhra Pradesh) being featured in the magazine.
Among the political and cultural events that he covered in the Indian subcontinent were the non-violent march (padyatra) of Acharya Vinoba Bhave in Telangana in 1951, the satyagraha against Portuguese rule in Goa during the 1950s, Pope Paul VI’s visit to India in 1964 and the fallout of Bangladesh President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s assassination in 1975. He has also photographed several notable figures in Indian history such as the Dalai Lama, Jawaharlal Nehru, Satyajit Ray and CV Raman, as well as members of Indian royal families. During his assignments in places such as Afghanistan, Sikkim and Malaysia, Satyan also took slice-of-life photographs of ordinary people, usually in the backdrop of large-scale political change or upheaval.
He played an active role in the smallpox eradication campaign and the awareness drive on medical interventions for blindness, both organised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) between 1961-63. His photographs detailing the process of mass vaccination and treatment of patients with eye diseases were subsequently published in the World Health magazine. Consequent to his photography drawing the attention of a former director of the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Satyan was invited to showcase his work in 1979 at UNICEF’s Year of the Child exhibition, Little People, at the UN General Assembly in New York.
Besides contributing his works to several notable publications, including Time magazine, Satyan published his own books of photographs — Exploring Karnataka (1981); Hampi: the Fabled Capital of the Vijaynagar Empire (1995), In Love with Life (2002) — as well as two memoirs, Kalakke Kannada (2003) in Kannada and Alive and Clicking (2005) in English. In recognition of his outstanding contribution in the field of photojournalism in India, he was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1977. He also received an honorary doctorate of literature from his alma mater, Mysore University, in 2004. Notable exhibitions of his photographs include the travelling exhibition A Long Exposure (2008–09) first shown at Tasveer gallery, Bengaluru, and Recorder Of Life, Beauty And Truth (2011) at the Institute of Contemporary Indian Art (ICIA), Mumbai.
TS Satyan passed away at age 86 in his home in Mysuru.
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