Dalai Lama’s flight from Tibet

Photo-journalist  T S Satyan’s  work for Life magazine  included  numerous  assignments of events of historic importance.  On his recent demise I looked for something I wrote on Satyan on the occasion of the release of his memoir – Alive n Clicking – in Mysore.
Excerpts from  Zine 5  column :

Among the more exciting assignments Satyan covered for Life was the Dalai Lama’s escape from Tibet in 1959. The Dalai Lama, then 24 years old, disguised as one of his bodyguards, escaped out of Tibet.  After three bitter weeks on the run crossing snow capped passes, he reached the last village in Tibet before entering Assam.  Satyan was among those who took position at a place near Tezpur  to capture the drama for Life.

An American newsman,  in his book,  gives an amusing account of  world media  coverage of the Dalai Lama escape by two other photographers. The Associated Press (AP) and the United Press International (UPI) were fierce competitors,  who went to great lengths in their bid to reach their news pictures faster than the other,  to newspapers around the world.

Dennis Lee Royale of AP and the UPI man chartered planes,  set up motorcycle relays for a frenzied race from the point where Dalai Lama crossed into India to the nearest photo-transmitting point. UPI was the first with the pictures.

A dejected AP man,  Royale,  got a cable from his office in New York,  saying  “opposition’s  Dalai Lama has long shaggy hair. Yours, bald.  How please?’.

Royale cabled back,  ‘because my Dalai,  right Dalai’.

As it happened,  the UPI photographer in haste  had mistaken the interpreter for Dalai Lama. Which was how AP won the day.

You will find this account in a book by the then  AP Bureau Chief in Paris,  Mort Rosenblum.  Its title: Coups and Earthquakes : Reporting the World for America

Satyan, T S, no more

Heard about Satyan’s  demise from  his  neighbourhood  friend Mr Bapu Satyanarayana ;  shared an auto-ride with  Satyam’s long-time media colleague  Mr Krishna Vattam to his Saraswathipuram residence, Mysore , for the last glimpse of Satyan. His  mortal remains were placed for public homage on his frontyard.  Within  half hour after our arrival  he was carried away to the crematerium.

A graduate from the Maharaja’s,  of 1944  vintage,  Mr Satyan took to photography at a time when most others in his profession were not even schooled  enough to write a photo caption in grammatical English. Satyan  rose to represent Life magazine,  an odd sized and picture-filled weekly founded by Henry Luce in 1936.  As someone accredited to Life , Satyan enjoyed the status of an aristocrat among the Delhi press corps those days.  But this  photo-man from Mysore retained his common touch.

To quote him ,  “My people are not the rich and the famous; they are simple ordinary folk…..(who) were there when I picked up the camera six decades ago, and they have been there every time I have gone back to capture the interesting moments in their lives” So wrote Satyan in 2002, when his In Love with Life –  a photo journey through life –  was released.

Among numerous historic events he covered for Life,  if I remember right , was the flight of Dalai Lama from Tibet in 1959.  Among the chapters in his subsequent work – Alive and Clicking – that still sticks in my mind is  Satyan’s  account of a meeting with  Satyajit Ray  for a photo assignment ,  when Ray,  a coffee house regular, took Satyan along for meeting friends at the Calcutta Coffee House.

My association with Satyan dated back to early 60s when I was a sarkari journalist with the Press Information Bureau (PIB) in New Delhi. Despite  our gap in the pecking order in the media, Satyan always found time for a chat whenever he dropped in at my office to collect photographs of government functions and other official events handed out by the PIB photo publicity unit. He had an affinity with reporters and writers in the media.  Being a photographer with a flair for writing  Satyan practised  photo-journalism at a time when they had not invented the term – photo-journalist.
Earlier this evening as I lingered for a while  in front of his residence,  after he was gone, memories of my Satyan connection flashed through  mind.  This photo of his deserted residence may well symbolize  the end of the  Satyan chapter in the book of my life.