No two days are alike in theatre, even when the same play is being staged for an extended period. The cast and crew are aware, as the house lights dim, that every performance is new in a live art form. For more than 30 years,
S Thyagarajan, ace photographer at the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi, followed plays through the viewfinder of his camera. “If you lose a moment, it is gone forever,” he once said.
Thyagarajan passed away on April 28 in his home in Dindigul, a town near Madurai in Tamil Nadu. He has left behind an archive of thousands of images that preserve almost every important play that has been performed in recent Indian theatre history. At a memorial held at NSD, Suresh Sharma, Director-in-charge, NSD, stated, “I don’t think that, in the next 20-25 years, anybody will be able to take the place of S Thyagarajan”.
In Thyagarajan’s images, future students will find the plays of BV Karanth, Mohan Maharishi, KN Panikkar, Ratan Thiyam and Anuradha Kapur, among others. There’s an evocative shot of Thiyam’s Nine Hills, One Valley, in which actors stand in a queue with a statue so that it is impossible to tell them apart. Pannikar’s oeuvre comes through in the images of Chhaya Shakuntalam, with its medieval costumes and postures, while Maharishi’s vast imagination is expressed in the lavish span of Main Istanbul Hoon. There are powerful shots of veterans such as Zohra Sehgal, B Jayashree and Maya Krishna Rao as well as a look at Seema Biswas, Irrfan and Ashish Vidyarthi when they were students.
“Theatre is very difficult to photograph because you have to catch an image as well as the meaning of an action. I knew Thyagarajan when I was a student at NSD, between 1979 and 1982, and I saw him grow and become one of the greatest photographers in theatre who had peaked in the last few years,” says Anamika Haksar, theatre and film director, most of whose plays have been shot by Thyagarajan.
Anuradha Kapur, former Director of NSD, says Thyagarajan “breathed with every show. He was one of the greatest theatre photographers of our time”. In an era when cellphone photographers have become a major distraction during plays, Thyagarajan had the ability to disappear while shooting. “He came with his camera and lens but we never found him obstructing anything ever. He called for no attention when he was shooting. He could completely ‘invisibilise’ himself,” says Kapur. As a result, students and veteran actors never felt self-conscious when he was around. Theatre veterans associate this self-effacement with his gentle nature. Thyagarajan was famously calm at all times, approachable and soft-spoken.
Sharma recalls that, as an actor, he would go through Thyagarajan’s photographs and wonder, “Did I really have such a powerful posture and body line in the play? Did I really make this gesture?” “I have to confess that, when actors saw themselves in his photographs, we used to feel very proud of ourselves. Thyagji could pick every moment with such beauty,” says Sharma, adding that NSD is planning a major travelling exhibition of Thyagarajan’s work.
Thyagarajan came from a small village, almost 70 km from Madurai, and was raised by his uncle after the early death of his father. “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 had said. Thyagarajan was a chemistry graduate with a secretarial course under his belt when a student group led by Bansi Kaul arrived in Madurai for a workshop and employed him to maintain the registers. Thyagarajan’s first job at NSD was as an accountant before he was taken 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.
Abhilash Pillai says, “I once asked him, ‘How do you enjoy seeing plays from the camera? Theatre directors such as myself need all our senses to absorb a play completely.’ Thyagarajan replied with a gentle smile, ‘For me, camera is what the eyes are to you. When the scene is right, my finger just presses the button. It is my finger that takes the decision to click’.” In 2000 Pillai took his play, Saketam, to Japan and came across a photographer whose camera did not have a reel. He came back and told Thyagarajan about the wonders of the new digital camera and the photographer decided to acquire one. Pillai says, “The digital camera arrived and gave him a chance to click as much as possible. He shared his experience with me and said, ‘My finger, now, gets confused. Before, if the scene was set in terms of sound, visuals and even smell, my finger simply used to touch the click button. Now, I am confused what am I actually clicking’.”