The photos may not be great, but they are vivid reminders of encounters with some extraordinary people.
I am not a photojournalist. Never was. But I did take my homely outdated camera with me whenever I interviewed people. And got some priceless pictures, which may have failed photography tests but told extraordinary stories. They are also vivid reminders of those interviews.
Like the one of D.K. Pattammal and her husband Ishwaran. When I asked whether I could have a photo of them together, she posed obligingly. But he jumped up from his chair saying “Can you wait for a minute?” He went inside and emerged wearing a brand new shirt. He even perched on the arm of her chair, smoothed his head and said: “We are ready!” That was my favourite picture.
Semmangudi “mama” was even more interesting. When my camera came out after our interview, he commanded me to call his cook from the kitchen. “She is my Annapoorna,” he said. “She gives me my food. Take her photo first!”
Some liked being photographed. Like R.K. Narayan who took me to his study and showed me his letters and other personal possessions with no inhibition. My husband doubled up as photographer that day and we captured RKN at his best in a series of delightful pictures showing him as a writer, a devoted family man, a sentimental collector of keepsakes. The best one shows him pointing to a picture of his great-granddaughter on the wall exclaiming, “She is the star of my life!”
My foray into photography was mostly a series of pleasant experiences. Like the time I met T.V. Sankaranarayanan in his rambling house in Mylapore. His mother, wife, daughter and son joined the photo session. He even posed for one with us while his young son clicked.
Then there was tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. I met him at the Taj Residency soon after a crowded press conference. I was alone with no camera. No prior appointment either. So, I was bowled over when he signalled a photographer to take a picture of us together. That picture occupies pride of place on my study table.
I wondered if any journalist did more foolish things than I when I found myself sitting in front of Nobel Laureate S. Chandrasekhar in the University of Chicago. My husband was taking pictures of his room! When it occurred to him to photograph Chandra talking to me, it was the last film on the roll. I had forgotten to carry spare ones after travelling across continents for this interview. But, the astrophysicist came to my rescue. “We will meet again in Bangalore and take more pictures!” he said with an indulgent smile. We did, six months later. This time I was smart enough to take along our staff photographer, Venkatachalam. Chandra was relaxed and spoke at length, lounging in an armchair. His wife, Lalitha, “who deserted physics for a physicist,” silently participated. But the one I still treasure is that fuzzy print taken with the last film in the roll. It shows his room with a portrait of Ramanujan behind him, his table with the statue of Michelangelo’s Moses in front, and Chandra himself sitting there with his chin cupped in his hands.
Some experiences, however, were disasters. Like meeting Bismillah Khan in his hotel room in Bangalore. He was lying on several pillows, his shehnai tucked under one. There were other visitors including cricketer Syed Kirmani and a film star called Tara. I gave my camera to someone to take photos. He did — of BK’s six sons. When the maestro finally sat up and asked me to sit next to him, putting an arm lovingly around my shoulder, the camera was empty. Then, the maestro asked Kirmani in Urdu to take a picture of us together. But, I never saw that photo despite repeated requests. I have always wondered if Kirmani had any film in his camera!
These experiences have become a thing of the past with instant shots and smart phones as have my clumsy days in photo journalism. No more hilarious experiences like Vishaka Hari walking up and down rocking her three-month old son, while I followed with my camera and notebook, and a pressure cooker blasting away in the adjoining kitchen. It was only her abundant charm that kept things going. Another was that of Kathak wizard, Birju Maharaj, lounging unconcernedly on a bed again, reciting exquisite poetry and ignoring me while I struggled to capture the moment.
Why were all these photo sessions in bedrooms? Whether it was documentary filmmaker M.V. Krishnaswamy in his own house, Ustad Vilayat Khan at the Oberoi or a Trichur Ramachandran in Janardhana Hotel sitting cross-legged on his bed in a zari veshti and japa mala or even the Kanchi Sankaracharya seated on an ascetic wooden bed while he munched and gave me pieces of jaggery and grains — they were memorable photo sessions conducted in the strangest of situations. A motley crowd of dancers, doctors, musicians, writers, filmmakers, scientists and sages were all grist to my little camera. And what an eclectic collection on my table!
There is the wheelchair crusader Ramakrishnan from Ayikudi. Here is Nagathihalli Chandrashekar of America America fame. What is Dhananjayan teaching this bunch of young Americans in Virginia? Here is the king of Kuchipudi, Vempati, performing the thandava as only he could. Or a nuclear scientist playing his favourite Listz on his Baby Grand. Or a Nedunuri seated on a mat and conducting a workshop. The one of the seer of Sirigere takes me back to that lovely pilgrimage to his ashram in Chitradurga. Just as those pictures of S. Rajaram seated beneath the great banyan tree wafts you into the peaceful environs of Kalakshetra. M.S. Subbulakshmi is smiling at a month-old baby on her lap, while a beaming Sadasivam watches her. And 99-year-old Nittoor Srinivasa Rao is watching them both. What an achievement for an amateur lenswoman!
The pictures may be out of focus. Under exposed or over exposed. They may never pass any test in photographic skills. Or, appear in newspapers or news magazines. But they are reminders of the most remarkable people I met in my career. They are now my armchair companions.
A weekly column on thoughts that pop up on weekends.