Madras Week | Pose at one of Chennai’s oldest photo studios, thriving since 1930 despite the age of selfies

From glass negatives to daguerreotype cameras, 92-year-old Sathyam Studios in Mylapore is a testament to Madras’ rich history with photography

August 22, 2022 04:38 pm | Updated August 24, 2022 04:32 pm IST

Bharatanatyam dancer, Gopi Nath

Bharatanatyam dancer, Gopi Nath | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

RK Mutt Road in Mylapore is not the same without the original Sathyam Studios, which stood firmly behind the street’s old yellow and black name board since the 1960s. But, still supported by four-generations of loyal customers, the studio manages to stay afloat in a rented office space on a serpentine street, opposite its original location.

While the beloved CS Balachandra Raju, the third generation scion of the business has passed on, the studio continues to see the light under his son B Anand Raju. Guarded by two studio lights, he begins the conversation a disclaimer and a laugh: “My father would have had many more stories for you.”

A quick scan at their unassuming, now-digital archive throws up some conversation starters: from the portrait of a 15-year-old legendary singer M Balamuralikrishna to a beautiful 80-year-old image of Kapaleeshwarar temple, sans the famous bommais.

Today, over 400 glass negatives, two Daguerreotype cameras imported from Germany and a wooden handmade camera by Anand’s grandfather, apart from a Yashica Mat-124 are the sole reminders of the baby steps that Sathyam Studios took 92 years ago. “They even had a camera made with stone, which unfortunately broke,” says Anand, as he carefully unscrews the lens from a large daguerreotype and loads it into a wooden box labelled ‘Sathyam Studios, Mylapore.’

Started in 1930 at North Mada Street by his grandfather whose father had migrated from the then Princely State of Hyderabad, the studio was taken over by Balachandra Raju, and moved to Brodies Road (as RK Mutt road was called) in 1961. “My great-grandfather and his siblings were State artists for the Nizam of Hyderabad. They had intentionally come here to start this business,” Anand says.

Tamil Nadu, Chennai, 18/08/2022 : For Metro Plus : B Anand Raju, third generation owner of Sathyam Studios, one of the oldest existing photo studios in Chennai. Photo: Ravindran R/The Hindu

Tamil Nadu, Chennai, 18/08/2022 : For Metro Plus : B Anand Raju, third generation owner of Sathyam Studios, one of the oldest existing photo studios in Chennai. Photo: Ravindran R/The Hindu | Photo Credit: Ravindran_R

As a kid, Anand remembers rushing to the studio after school every day. One of three brothers, a middle child, the biggest highlight of Anand’s childhood when he was allowed to take a box camera with him for a school excursion.

“We had curtain backgrounds that were very popular in the ‘90s. We had only three to four backgrounds. Artists would come to the studio to paint them,” recalls Anand. Though he doesn’t recall his first-ever click, Anand distinctly remembers that his father’s first-ever group photograph was that of the students of IIT-Madras.

At a time when weddings are characterised by 4,000 to 5,000 pictures, save-the-dates and pre-wedding photo shoots, it is difficult to imagine that almost 80 years ago, a single photograph of the couple in their wedding attire, was the only material memory of the day. Anand continues, “Around the 1970s and 80s, for funerals, the person who passed away would not have had a single photo taken. So, for the obituary, they would ask us to come and take a picture of the corpse! ‘ Ayyo, photographer vandhutanee’, was also a funeral cry!”

An old photograph of Sathyam Studios

An old photograph of Sathyam Studios | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

The digital transformation in the 2000s, which Anand credits the reason for their survival, was not all that easy. “I used to get scolded by my father, almost on a daily basis when I brought up the idea of going digital. It took time for him to understand its importance. In 2005, we completely changed to digital.” Anand poignantly remembers the time he had to teach his father, a pioneer in photography, the basics of digital photography. “But, I have to move according to the times.”

Now, people frequent Sathyam Studios for passport-size photographs, and “sentimental reasons”. But Anand is sure that there is a growing trend of people choosing “retro” photographs. What does he mean by “retro”? “Many come here to recreate their ancestors’ old photographs. They wear similar clothes and pose in the same way.” Couple portraits that mimic those of a bygone era — where the woman sat on the chair and her husband stood beside, administering a fleeting touch of the shoulder (the maximum extent of PDA) — are also coming back.

A glass negative of a couple portrait

A glass negative of a couple portrait | Photo Credit: Ravindran_R

To the suggestion that a fifth generation takeover should happen, Anand pensively nods. He looks at his eldest daughter, a student of engineering, and says, “If they wish to continue, I would let them.”

The late CS Balachandra Raju in the old building

The late CS Balachandra Raju in the old building | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

This story is part of a four-article series about old Chennai businesses that have stood the test of time and technology.

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