The Museum of Art & Photography Exhibition on T.S. Satyan's Photojournalism
By Sudhi Seshadri
“With great ease: The photography of T.S. Satyan,” the centenary exhibition, opened in Bengaluru's Museum of Art and Photography, MAP, on 12th August and runs through till 20th November 2023. An inscription opposite the entrance confronts the viewer with “What does it mean to look with love?” In the gallery images, starting with the ones on child labour and universal franchise, the exhibition offers different answers to diverse viewers.
T.S. Satyan, born in Mysore during India's colonial era, emerged as a pioneer of Indian photojournalism. His coming of age was during the struggle for independence and World War II. He offered the nation its inaugural lens into its own soul, capturing the lives of both the powerful elite and the marginalized. In doing so, Satyan's lens explores a vast array of themes and subjects: personal moments like weddings and maternal care, contrasting street scenes of disasters and tranquility, people immersed in their daily labour, be it in hospitals, paddy fields, or junkyards. Life and death are depicted, from preludes to war declarations to the conduct of war itself. The prints capture diverse faiths and rituals, reflecting humanity's plurality. The exhibition curates photographs from Satyan's extensive archives, generously donated to MAP by the T.S. Satyan Family Trust. The three-and-a-half dozen prints the exhibition curates represent less than three per cent of his photographic legacy.
In the rush of movement, the photograph aspires to be the single all-important frame. Satyan, in an essay showcased at the exhibition, asserts that the artist always discerns that one fleeting image never surpassed in the viewer's eye, regardless of how many they could create. As one young viewer aptly put it, “Satyan's images seize the perfect moment, in contrast with our multiple cell phone shots which most often go awry.” In Satyan’s images, one moment reigns supreme: the turning-point, irreversible. In one instance of such defining moments, a refugee hefts his meagre bundle of salvaged possessions as he transits a railway station, his expressions spelling the story of dislocation and chaos, while framed momentarily in the crook of his elbow is the face of a next-generation immigrant. In another, all eyes fixate on milk cascading through the hands of a bride and groom, as the auspicious and fateful betrothal moment dawns on them.
The auspicious moment
Must an artist “look with love” to reveal the essence of a moment? Across literature, art, and photography, it's difficult to envision artists and creative minds seeing beyond surface appearances without a profound empathy for their subjects. Satyan compels viewers to rise to this challenge, fostering empathy where it may initially be lacking. His discerning eye defies expectations. His images, always captivating, often unravel a narrative divergent from our initial perceptions.
For instance, one viewer commented, "A seemingly tender moment between a man and child on an inflated tire-tube actually captures a street crossing during a sudden flood in the nation's capital." This image is used in MAP’s press release on the exhibition. In another photograph, seductively titled Bhadravati Iron & Steel Works, a smiling woman hoists and balances two oil drums in a junkyard. You wonder if the juxtaposition of affection and irony, as seen through Satyan's lens, exposing the chasm between aspiration and reality, defines “looking with love”.
A moment of balance
The exhibition is located on the ground floor in a spacious, accessible gallery. MAP features large interactive screens displaying detailed catalogue information, allowing you to easily browse and zoom in on high-resolution images. MAP encourages you to email or download your favourite images through a mobile app, while enjoying the gallery's appealing ambience. Satyan's early photographs feature monochrome silver gelatin prints, while his later works burst with brilliant colours. The technical virtuosity is evident in every print.
A moment of communion
Satyan employs dramatic lighting and shading, as seen in the famous image of India’s first Prime Minister retreating into the gloom of a Parliament Hall corridor. The contrasts may also be seen in the female labourer's oil drum balancing act referenced earlier. His camera work skilfully captures both near and distant details, exemplified in images like the sleeping dog against a traditional Mysore portico backdrop or the intense gaze of a soldier on the front lines with comrades in the background.
A moment of resolve
Speculating on the connection between the iconic image of the Prime Minister's pre-war declaration at Parliament Hall and the poignant moment among combatants on the front lines, we find two solitary yet deeply nationalistic moments. However, it is no speculation that Satyan's work clearly captures a nation discovering itself for the first time, inviting us to witness its journey. Through his lens, we see the narrative of community, self-determination, transformation, tradition, ageing, birth, domesticity, and shared spaces with animals — timeless tales of life. In the image of women awaiting a post-natal hysterectomy, they symbolically anticipate the care and guidance of a benevolent state. In the images of boys, one weaker with crutches and the other stronger or the blind boys exploring together, the exhibition’s narrative beautifully illustrates how people seek and share love, both among themselves and with the viewer.
Remarkably, in these images of people observing themselves, the subjects often seem to gaze back at the viewer across the ages. In the image of a row of newborns, all but one cast their loving glances towards us, the custodians of their futures in many ways, mirroring the affectionate gazes of the nurses tending to them. Satyan's work possesses a timeless, post-modern quality.
A moment of trust
Photography today serves artists in diverse ways. For example, performance artist Puspamala N. employs photographic images to engage in visual dialogues with India's history. Her photographic installations offer novel, contemporary reinterpretation of recent colonial and distant mythological pasts, skillfully interweaving and satirizing images from popular culture. In contrast, Satyan's images capture the past as an immediate present, portraying moments beyond the artist's control – they just happen!. One of Satyan’s pictures is reminiscent of Pushpamala N.'s work, which can be found in other MAP exhibitions. In this image, we witness the tension between a bollywood Romeo and the affronted object of affection, leaving us wondering if the moment will culminate in a slap or a kiss. In another image, a tribe of black-faced langur monkeys licentiously celebrate their status atop a licensed tourist taxi. Tongue-in-cheek, Satyan entertains us with how kitsch reflects upon itself.
MAP deserves praise for their thoughtful presentation of Satyan's work. Each elegantly framed photograph is given a label and a vantage point, or they are grouped for effect. Their chosen images reflect the ongoing process of nation-building and emphasize that it is a collective endeavour. The exhibition remains devoid of demagoguery and celebrity glorification, not always the case in today's gallery exhibitions. The curation is MAP’s, the photographs are Satyan’s, but in the images, the ownership of the moment is of the people, the agency is by the people, and the purpose is for the people.
A few bones I might pick are: The contact print displays could have been enhanced with a corner slide projector and seating, ideally extended for a more comprehensive experience. Many more prints could then have been visible as slides. There's a missed opportunity to create a short video documentary on Satyan, featuring his images, and content from his memoir Alive and Clicking. Satyan Nagendra, his son, would be a valuable resource for this project, as he oversees the family trust. Nagendra gave me some further insights into his father’s work, which I have permission to loosely quote:
“Our concept to honour Dad in his centenary year was to convey to the younger generation what he would have thought of as his legacy, communicating, in a world class gallery, the historical context and circumstances. All prints MAP used were existing ones from the archives – no new ones were made for the exhibition. If he were alive, Dad would have greeted the visitors in person, dressed casually in half-sleeves and sandals. Of his personal friends only a few could come for the inauguration. The stalwarts he grew up in Mysore with – the RK brothers, Laxman and Narayan, Doraiswami Iyengar, BKS Iyengar, Sharada Prasad, UR Ananthamurthy - that generation has passed. He would have spoken of the photographers who were colleagues – Kishore Parekh, Raghu Rai and his elder brother, S. Paul, Raghubir Singh, James Burke, and how they all were influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s humanism. He would have spoken of his initial camera, a Rolleiflex 120 mm, and graduating to a Leica 35 mm, through a couple of the Nikon F series. How he used Kodak Plus X and Tri X film rolls, which, given their limited exposures and high costs, put a hard ceiling on how many pictures he could take. How he never worked with a flash, but always sought out natural light. And he would have shared stories of his assignments all over Asia, like the one where he trekked pre-dawn along the planned route Vinoba Bhave would take on his Bhudaan padyatra to determine and set up his gear for when the sun in the sky and the path by the river presented the perfect photographic moment.”
Nagendra Satyan, first from left, at the opening of the exhibition. Third from left is
the founder and chief benefactor of MAP, Abhishek Poddar.
As I write this, it strikes me that I, born and raised in India a generation after Satyan, consider myself as cynical and blasé as the next guy. Yet, experiencing his work, I was moved by the images of a perceptive observer capturing a youthful India. It evoked a powerful mix of affinity, connection, sympathy, and admiration for his subjects. On a cognitive level, it deepened my appreciation for the multifaceted layers of a nation by a trail-blazing photojournalist - its processes, decisions, and cultural essences.
I highly recommend this exhibition to all photography enthusiasts, especially those in visual communication professions. It's equally captivating for enthusiasts of contemporary India and a must-see for tourists exploring Bangalore. Above all, regardless of your background, you're bound to leave with a fresh outlook and a profound understanding of ‘What does it mean to look with love?’
Sudhi Seshadri writes on contemporary themes such as climate change, business, policy, technology, and the arts. He has published opinion pieces and research papers. He aspires to be a fiction writer as well, but doubts he has the chops. He has been a faculty at leading B-schools in India, Singapore, and the USA.