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‘I watch plays only through the viewfinder’

Theatre photographer S Thyagarajan on capturing drama in frames.


Updated: January 14, 2014 11:02:28 pm
Theatre photographer S Thyagarajan on capturing drama in frames. Theatre photographer S Thyagarajan on capturing drama in frames.

Theatre has proved that the whole world can be contained in a stage. Within these curtained perimeters, every event becomes momentous, every emotion is heightened and every colour runs deep. Only time acts like a bubble blowing in a breeze. “If you lose a moment, it is gone forever,” says S Thyagarajan, 58. Unlike the audience, the veteran photographer of National School of Drama (NSD) does not have the luxury of being carried away by the tales of high passion. He must capture integral moments before they disappear. “For 23 years, I have watched plays only through the viewfinder,” he says.

Thyagarajan’s albums run into hundreds and contain most of the major Indian plays of the past two decades, by directors such as BV Karanth, Mohan Maharishi, KN Panikkar, Ratan Thiyam and Anuradha Kapur. Among the eye-catchers is a shot of Thiyam’s Nine Hills, One Valley in which actors stand in a line with a statue so that it is impossible to tell them apart. The treatment of Pannikar’s recent play, Chhaya Shakuntalam, is revealed through its medieval costumes and postures, and is composed differently from the lavish span of Maharishi’s MainIstanbul Hoon. There are images of individual characters, highlighting expressions or costumes, such as Tripurari Sharma’s Hamlet, in which a protagonist is dressed in headgear and skirt of jute strings. Among the clutch of foreign plays are Ovalyakuli Khodjakuli’s The Persians in which the photographs captures a floor made of water and hoops of fire overhead. A selection of his photographs is on display at an exhibition at NSD — as part of its annual drama festival, the Bharat Rang Mahotsav — on stage adaptations of William Shakespeare.

“Theatre photography comes with several challenges — one has to follow the lighting and keep an eye on the action, all the while creating a composition. Lighting on stage is not uniform, sometimes, only the main action area is lit and the rest of the stage is dark; at other times, the lighting changes every moment. Over the years, I have build an instinct for adjusting exposure,” he says.

Theatre regulars would be familiar with Thyagarajan as the man in C11 — the hallowed third-row, seat number 11, which gives the best view. “One has to be mindful of the audience. Moving around the hall would disturb them,” he says. There are other self-imposed restrictions, too — he never uses motor drives because it would make a noise and, during silent sequences, he never takes a shot.

Thyagarajan is “more bothered about lighting than storyline”, but is aware how dramatic his own story is. A boy from a small village almost 70 km from Madurai, Thyagarajan was brought up by his uncle after his father died early. “My uncle was an artist and photographer and I had the task of turning our small sitting room into a dark room after dinner every day. I would lay out the table and the chemicals,” he says. His journey to NSD began when a student group led by Bansi Kaul arrived in Madurai for a workshop and Thyagarajan, a chemistry graduate with a secretarial course under his belt, was hired to maintain the registers. His first job at NSD was as an accountant —  including a depressive phase in the college canteen — before he was signed on as a dark room assistant in 1980. “I would work during the day and learn photography at a workshop in the evenings,” he said.

Eight years later, he was appointed senior photographer — cementing his unusual affair with theatre. Thyagarajan is set to retire in three years. “Then, perhaps, I will watch plays for pleasure,” he says.

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