WHEN Helene Alving picked up a bowl of water in the play Ghosts, photographer S Thyagarajan did not expect her to throw it at anybody. He watched through his camera as she moved to stand behind the kneeling Pastor Manders. “All of a sudden, she tipped the bowl over him,” says Thyagarajan. His image catches the water just as it hits the pastor’s head with a splash that covers his face like a veil — a fitting garb for a holy man. Ghosts was presented at the Delhi Ibsen Festival in 2012; the moment Thyagarajan froze for posterity is evidence of how Uzbek director Ovalyakuli Khodjakuli uses raw elements such as water to create arresting drama on stage.
Ghosts is one of the photographs being exhibited by Thyagarajan as part of the Bharat Rang Mahotsav, the annual festival of theatre organised by the National School of Drama (NSD). More than 160 photographs line the corridor leading to the Abhimanch Auditorium, which the audience members hurrying between shows stop in their tracks and stare at. Thyagarajan’s visual documentary involves a number of stellar moments of Indian theatre and the artistes who created them. There is Zohra Sehgal emoting through every line of her face in 1992’s Din Ke Andhere, Jilmil Hajarika channelling her musical and sensual prowess as the favourite singer of the gods in Indra Sabha and Roysten Abel’s experimental work, Old Town, which recreated a village fair on the grounds of NSD in 2012.
“Some of these plays have been performed only once or twice. Most people today would not have seen them, others may have forgotten,” says Thyagarajan, who has been shooting for 35 years, of which the last two decades have been as NSD’s Senior Photographer. One of his layered images is that of Sahib Bibi aur Gulam, an Anuradha Kapur production from 2005. The photograph is a sumptuous composition of the decadent zamindari of Bengal, played out in rich colours and warm lighting. Thyagarajan captures also the red haze that had filled the stage when Chhoti Bahu, drunk and desperate, threw sindoor into the air and the floor while trying in vain to seduce her husband. “When I look at the lighting in a play, I immediately feel I should capture this scene. I am always ready. Suppose I wait for something to happen and then pick up the camera, I will lose the moment,” says Thyagarajan, who learnt photography from his uncle before taking a professional course.
The stage challenges all but the most astute photographer. Thyagarajan sits in the dark auditorium while life progresses rapidly towards denouement on a dim stage. “I keep following the action. Sometimes, the actors are jumping and dancing. My main concern is how to frame the shot and, then I concentrate on exposure. Stage lighting is not uniform and there is a risk of overexposing one part and blurring another,” says the photographer. Self-effacing and soft spoken in person, the photographer — in his fifties — is easy to miss in a hall even when he is the only one with a heavy-duty tripod-mounted camera.
His photographs are marked by strong compositions, often with staircases, steps or spirals of smoke forming lead-in lines — lines or curves that direct the eye to the subject of a photograph — and a strong play of light and shade. “A lot of plays use smoke and, sometimes that is a good thing. It creates interesting hues. At other times, the smoke hides the faces of the actors,” he says.
The stage has rewarded him with a gamut of strong expressions as actors depict entire storylines through their bodies.
A powerful image is that of NSD students taking a break during a workshops — their features, even off-stage, eloquent with emotion. “Skill is there but it could be luck also,” says Thyagarajan.
The exhibition is on at NSD, Mandi House, Delhi, till Feb 21. Contact: 23382821