Posts Tagged ‘Pratham’

T.S. SATYAN: Small, simple, casual, basic, humble

12 December 2012


Tomorrow, December 13, is the third death anniversary of Tamabarahalli Subramanya Satyanarayana Iyer better known as T.S. Satyan, the legendary photojournalist and contributor and well-wisher of churumuri.

Here, a friend pays tribute.



All photographers working with life-forms, more so humans, would at some time or the other have wished they had the power to become invisible.

A power to enable them to take pictures without the subject becoming conscious of being photographed.

The sight of a camera has something hypnotic on the human mind.  It deep freezes expressions and transforms them to look anything but natural. A kind of rigor mortis of the facial muscles sets in. Further damage is caused when the photographer announces his readiness by saying ‘smile please’.

Barring blissfully ignorant children who have  not yet come under the spell of the camera, the effect is universal.

Even veteran actors struggle all their lives to look their natural self in front of a camera.

The incredibly true-to-life human portrait that T.S. Satyan was able to capture in his camera was largely due to his remarkable skills of camouflaging  not only the camera but himself as well.


Satyan’s  presence in a crowd was hardly noticeable. The man was of average height, lean, brown skinned, soft spoken, dressed in a dull bush shirt and pant, wore chappals for foot wear, and seldom established eye contact.

As nondescript  as R.K. Laxman’s ‘Common Man’.

He even spoke the language of the common man.

Unlike most of us who are prone to draw attention or be recognized in an assemblage of people, Satyan worked hard on remaining  unnoticed. He seemed to have perfected the art to the extent he came close to being non-existent. Being physically small made, his movement too was easy and without a rustle. He took small steps when he moved.

Everything about him was casual and unhurried.

Satyan belonged to the age of black and white films and SLR cameras. He refused to be lured by the technological marvels of the digital camera.

He remained a Brahmin in that sense.

The camera he used was basic, compact and each exposure required manual settings.  He carried the equipment in a cloth bag slung over his shoulder which reached down to his hip.  It had a wide opening at the top which enabled him to remove and slip in with ease.

The camera came out of the bag only after he had seen a setting worthy of a picture.

With a basic camera that Satyan carried, there wasn’t too much scope for fiddling with the settings.  He seldom carried more than one lens and therefore no fuss about changing them and drawing attention.  The picture quality was discovered only after the film was processed.

To Satyan’s generation of photographers, the mind, the eye and the body had to be in total sync, before freezing the frame.


Once I spotted Satyan in Devaraja vegetable market; his favorite haunt in Mysore where he has taken some of his best known pictures.

I resisted the temptation of  catching up with him.  Instead,  I walked behind him keeping a distance.

There was a young man selling raw peanuts.  Satyan stopped a distance from the vendor, stood awhile possibly assessing and exploring  the possibility of a picture.  He then went round the subject looking at the surroundings, frequently looking up at the mid day sun and the shadows it cast.

He then went and sat on a folded gunny sack used as a mat not far from the peanut vendor and the heap of his merchandise in front. The young man momentarily noticed the presence of a stranger sitting close by. I soon noticed that Satyan’s disarming smile and the banter that had put the youngster at ease.

After perhaps a few pleasantries, the peanut vendor went about his business unmindful of the stranger.

The time Satyan sat there hunched and cross legged, the world went by including the local populace.  Neither the vendor  nor the many shoppers noticed that the man sitting there was a celebrated photo journalist whose photographs had appeared in the  prestigious Time and Life magazines.

A recipient of the coveted Padmashri award and a internationally acclaimed  photographer.

Contrary to my expectation, Satyan did not take a picture of the young man. When he got up to leave, the peanut vendor picked up a fistful of peanuts and offered it to Satyan. The gesture was gratefully accepted and Satyan put the offering into his camera bag.

Later when I caught up with Satyan,  I found him feasting on the nuts that he had received.

Curiosity got the better of me when I asked Satyan why he had not taken a picture of the peanut vendor.  It was when he told me that the young man was too conscious of his presence.  With this acquaintance established with the peanut vendor,  he would come back at a later date to shoot him.



Satyan once volunteered to take pictures of children of  the Pratham Mysore Balavadi schools.

When we arrived at Kesare, one of the less developed areas of Mysore, Satyan insisted that we park our car at a distance and walk the last stretch to the school where the children had assembled to make a quiet entry into the school.

He preferred to be by himself with the children and sat on one of the steps outside a class to talk to the children in Urdu as it was predominantly a Muslim locality. The chocolates that he had carried in his camera bag attracted the children like ants to a honey pot.

Of the hour that we spent at the school, Satyan played with the children for a good part of our stay.  They were all over him playing and tugging at his clothing and his bag.  All the  pictures that he finally captured were taken in less than ten minutes.

The children continued to play paying little or no heed either Satyan’s  camera or his work. Needless to say, the man had given thought of all possible situations that he was likely to encounter before venturing out on the assignment.


I met Satyan through his son Nagendra. I was drawn to Satyan from our first meeting both because of my interest in his  profession,  his inimitable sense of humor and his unique story telling abilities.

During our meetings, Rathnamma, his wife, would sit through the evening unmindful of the number of times she had heard the stories.  Except for the occasional reminder not to exceed the quantities of his favorite cashew nuts,  she remained the quiet dutiful wife.

On the 13 December 2009,  I was away in Bangalore when I received a call from his son Nagendra informing me that Satyan was no more.  By the time I reached Mysore that evening,  the house was nearly empty with only members of the grieving family.

True to his persona, Satyan had made quick and quiet exit.

This time to remain truly invisible and  forever.

Also read: Once upon a time, early in the morning

The R.K. Narayan only I knew

Once upon a time during the Quit India movement

Mysore’s shortest man was only in height

The Raja said, ‘Why don’t you go with Mohini?’

The cop who stopped the maharaja

The genius of the Indian villager

Hurgaalu and Black Dog on the way to Vaikuntapura

T.S. SATYAN: Once upon a time with Sir C.V. Raman

‘Simplicity and grace born out of true greatness’

50% can’t read, 75% can’t be hired, 100% bull

9 April 2011

Every third lie is a statistic, and the provisional figures of the 2011 census brings home the truth. In the decadal account book, literacy is up by 9.21% in India that is Bharat over the previous ten years, to stand at 74.04%. Time to bring out the sherbet?

Not quite, writes Geeta Anand in The Wall Street Journal:

“India projects an image of a nation churning out hundreds of thousands of students every year who are well educated, a looming threat to the better-paid middle-class workers of the West…. But as India liberalized its economy starting in 1991 after decades of socialism, it failed to reform its heavily regulated education system.

“Business executives say schools are hampered by overbearing bureaucracy and a focus on rote learning rather than critical thinking and comprehension. Government keeps tuition low, which makes schools accessible to more students, but also keeps teacher salaries and budgets low. What’s more, say educators and business leaders, the curriculum in most places is outdated and disconnected from the real world.

“Muddying the picture is that on the surface, India appears to have met the demand for more educated workers with a quantum leap in graduates. Engineering colleges in India now have seats for 1.5 million students, nearly four times the 390,000 available in 2000, according to the National Association of Software and Services Companies, a trade group.

“But 75% of technical graduates and more than 85% of general graduates are unemployable by India’s high-growth global industries, including information technology and call centers, according to results from assessment tests administered by the group.

“Another survey, conducted annually by Pratham, a nongovernmental organization that aims to improve education for the poor, looked at grade-school performance at 13,000 schools across India. It found that about half of the country’s fifth graders can’t read at a second-grade level.

“At stake is India’s ability to sustain growth—its economy is projected to expand 9% this year—while maintaining its advantages as a low-cost place to do business.”

Read the full article: India graduates millions, but too few are fit to hire

Also read: Yella not OK, guru. Nanna makkalu is not learning

Don’t gift them fish. Teach them how to fish

Can Azim Premji do what the government can’t/ won’t?

Do our netas, parties really care about education?

When will our kids start questioning? Don’t ask

11 reasons Right to Education is not what it seems

When will our kids start questioning? Don’t ask.

5 May 2009

BHAMY V. SHENOY writes: If one looks at the newspaper headlines on SSLC pass percentage and stratospheric marks of the toppers, one may conclude that our education system is alive, well, and thriving.

But is this a true reflection of the reality?

Ask any good teacher or prospective employer on how our students are performing. The response will be uniformly negative. Why are we then exposed to this farce every year when SSLC and PUC public examination results are published?

Soon after the publication of SSLC and PUC publication examination results, both newspapers and school managements are keen to publish the list of rank-holders and highest scores though the government stopped announcing ranks few years back.

Just about every educationist knows that our testing methodology is not capable of judging students purely based on marks and that too scored in one examination. The public examination system instituted from the times of Macaulay is criticized by one and all.

Still why do we continue to give such importance to marks?

Is there any significant difference between a person scoring say 620 versus 610 in terms of academic excellence, or his ability to create and innovate, or her ability in terms of contributing to society, or their knowledge of the society’s problems and their ability to solve them?

What do marks in any examination the way they are conducted today show? At best they show that the student has taken the trouble to study the subjects and has some understanding. At worst they show that they are good at attending coaching classes and learning by heart to answer questions.

No doubt, marks an “objective” way of assessing the students though it is not clear what that assessment amounts to.


In recent years, even the much-admired Joint Entrance Examination system for selecting students to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) have come under fierce attack from some concerned IIT professors, IIT alumni and even from Industrialists.

S. Muthuraman, managing director of Tata Steel and an IITM alumnus, had questioned the capabilities of IIT students selected based on such a JEE system.

It is high time we stopped giving importance to the test results of one public examination and start debating the need for the replacement of such an inhuman and unproductive system of assessing our students and also the education system.

How many more students have to commit suicide, dejected by these examinations before we change the system?


Pratham has been assessing the educational standards of children in rural areas since four years and has brought out the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER).

The following table for Karnataka compares the recent glowing SSLC results against the dismal performance of rural students based on their ability to do subtraction by those in standards 3 to 5.


# In Mandya district where SSLC test results show that 83.78 have been able to clear the public examinations, only 41.2% of the children in standards 3 to 5 are able to perform simple subtraction problems.

# In Bidar only 28.5% of the children in standards are able to perform these simple subtraction sums.

# In Mysore, it is only 32.5%.

What do these statistics tell about the kind of education we are imparting to our future generation?

A few years back, Mysore’s indefatigable educationist Dr. H. A. B. Parpia had organized a quiz to assess the general knowledge of students in several schools of Mysore and what he found was shocking. Most students could not answer simple questions.

His conclusion was that because of the compulsion by parents and teachers to score high marks, students are forced to take recourse to learning by heart. These are the very schools now boasting of 100% results and having graduated toppers from their schools.

I tried to promote a novel experiment ofcalled True Education to ignite the critical thinking of students and motivate them to ask questions. Mysore University Syndicate member R. Guru too has been trying to promote this strategy even offering funds to those who will take this challenge.

But there has not been one school which has showed any interest to take up this offer.

It is a well recognized problem in our schools that students hardly ask any questions. Even worse teachers also do not encourage students to ask questions. One of the objectives of well-rounded education is to make students to think, and motivate them to ask questions.

Why are schools which boast of 100% examination results not interested in igniting the critical thinking capacity in their students? We need a revolution to improve our education system which for all practical purposes has collapsed. Let us not get carried away by high percentage pass in public examination like SSLC.

Also read: Yella not OK, guru. Nanna makkalu is not learning

Don’t gift them fish. Teach them how to fish

Can Azim Premji do what the government can’t/ won’t?

Yedi is fiddling when namma naadu is burning

Do our netas, parties really care about education?

‘Like jehadis, ‘progressives’ love to spew hate’

14 November 2008

BHAMY V. SHENOY writes from Houston, Texas: When Houston’s Non-Resident Indians learnt of the selection of Sonal Shah (in picture, left) to the 15-member transition team set up by US President-elect Barack Obama, we were happy and proud of her achievement.

But we were quickly shell-shocked when we heard of the virulent attack on her choice by self-styled ‘progressive” groups such as Coalition against Genocide, Indian American Coalition for Pluralism, Non-Resident Indians for a Secular and Harmonious India.

These “progressive” groups seem to be intoxicated with their victory in preventing the grant of a US visa to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

Though many of us did not fully agree with such an extreme step, we could appreciate the spirit behind it and even had some appreciation. After all, most of us were shocked and even shamed by Godhra massacre. However, with their latest attempt to discredit a reputed and highly accomplished Sonal Shah, they would have lost what little credibility they might have had with a majority of secularists, including yours truly.

How could they stoop down to connect Sonal with Godhra, or the recent killings of Christians, with Ekal Vidyalaya?

Sonal Shah, who graduated from Houston and whose parents live in Houston, is known to all those NRIs who are involved in contributing to India’s development, along with her brother Anand and sister Roopal. These three have devoted their considerable talents and time to work on various activities to contribute to India’s development.

Just two are illustrative of their dedication.

Exhibit A: Indicorps started by Sonal and Anand recruits young volunteers from the US to work with NGOs in India. Indicorps has accomplished a lot and has been recognized by many organizations. Sonal was honored by India Abroad as “Person of the year” for her contribution in 2003.

Will these “progressive” organizations boycott India Abroad as fundamentalist since their strategy seems to depend upon finding one harmful through guilt-by-association?

Exhibit B: Ekal Vidyalaya, an NGO dedicated to spreading literacy in tribal and remote villages through single teacher schools, is a great success. The Shahs have played a key role in its development.

It is true that it may not be as secular as other equally well known educational NGOs like Pratham or Asha. But the very fact of the association of Abid Hussein, former Indian Ambassador to the US, with Ekal shows that it is not a fundamentalist organization as is being portrayed by these “progressive” groups.

While Sonal’s professional contributions have been outstanding through her work at Anderson Consulting, Goldman Sachs, and the treasury department during the Bill Clinton presidency by working in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Indonesia and currently as Vice President at Google, her NGO work through the George Soros Foundation and the Omidyar Network during the 2004 Tsunami tragedy should be a model for the youth.

Her brother Anand after graduating from Harvard did not attempt to cash his credentials to earn a six figure salary like most of us. He went to India looking for opportunities to serve the poor.

Being a long term resident of Houston, I know Sonal’s family for the last 30 years. Her father is a good friend of mine and I have worked on various projects and organizations with him. I was always surprised by his affiliation with Vishwa Hindu Parishat and had argued about it. I was happy to learn that he was against Modi’s Godhra massacre and he wished that it had not happened.

I never found Ramesh to be a fundamentalist in his views. I have also had discussions with his children about their parent’s affiliation with VHP and was happy to learn that their involvement was marginal at best and they never looked at the problem from a narrow “Hindutva” point of view.

It has become a fad for “progressive” groups to show how they are the only groups who are broadminded and that others who have different opinions are narrow minded bigots.

It is ironical that they quote Mahatma Gandhi’s from his book My Experiment with Truth—“It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow-beings”—while they indulge in such humiliation, as in Sonal’s case.

The three “progressive” groups protesting Sonal’s appointment are not really concerned about the unintended consequences of their stand resulting in further divisiveness and hatred in NRI community.

The Mahatma, even while disagreeing with his opponents, was always humble enough to understand and appreciate them. On the other hand, these progressives have been trying to pour venom by raising unconnected incidents as background to create demonic personality of Sonal.

Obama’s Republican opponents also tried to create such an ugly view of him by giving guilt-by-association examples of his long time priest, Jeremiah Wright.

Perhaps this may be the beginning of the rapid end for this progressive movement when the NRI community consisting of a secular thinking majority sees their real design of sowing hatred and divisiveness like the fundamentalist jihadis.

Photograph: courtesy

Also read: Why the US is right to deny Narendra Modi a visa

CHURUMURI POLL: Ban the VHP and Bajrang Dal?

CHURUMURI POLL: Should US restore Modi visa?

Yella not OK, guru. Nanna makkalu is not learning

21 January 2008

NIKHIL MORO writes from Mount Pleasant, Michigan: Why do our English newspapers and nouveau cool television channels seem to give short shrift to village affairs when nearly three-fourths of Indians live in the villages?

Take, for example, the abysmal media coverage of a national learning study released by the non-profit Pratham on January 17. Conducted across 16,000 villages, Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report for 2007, a unique and comprehensive survey of rural schools, measures the relationship between learning and attending school.

The study, supported by private and high-profile donors like Google and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, represents a trendy partnership between the collective and the corporate. But that’s where the good news ends.

For starters, co-author Wilima Wadhwa, a University of California Irvine-trained economist, makes an intriguing comment: “A survey of learning has never [before] been done in India.”

If true, Dr. Wadhwa’s claim means governments in India have never tried to ascertain if school students were actually learning something–which should numb us, for the unaccounted spending and for the cynicism of welfare politics.

Overall, the study’s finds are damning. In the fifth standard, 4 out of 10 could not read text; and at the second standard level, 7 out of 10 could not subtract.

In particular, the highlights of the survey for Karnataka are depressing, bisi oota notwithstanding:

# Nearly three-fourths of rural eighth standard students could not do basic subtraction, and nearly half could not do basic division.

# Nearly a quarter of eighth standard students could not read simple Kannada text from a second-standard textbook.

# Only 7.4 per cent of students in standards 3 through 5 could read a sentence in English–the proportion compares very unfavorably with that in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, Maharashtra and Goa.

# Among 15-16 year olds, 17.8 per cent of boys and 17.4 per cent of girls were not even enrolled in school. Also 3.5 per cent of children 6-14 years were not enrolled in school. (The last figure suggests we may be way off in eradicating illiteracy.)

# Fewer than half of the schools had all teachers present on the day of the survey. Some 86.5 per cent of appointed teachers were attending on the day of the researchers’ visit compared to 78 per cent in 2005.

# The number of enrolled children actually attending dropped to 75.8 in 2007 from 78.1 in 2005. A little more than two-thirds of the schools had 75 per cent of enrolled students actually attending. The median teacher-student ratio for standards 1 through 8 based on children enrolled and teachers appointed was 32:1.

# Nearly a fifth of the schools had no provision for water. Also 71.8 per cent schools had “usable” water in 2007, down from 74.7 per cent in 2005. Only 73.2 per cent of schools had toilets that were open for use.# Almost all of the schools–98.6 per cent–had a mid-day meal prepared and served on the day of the survey.

# A little more than a tenth of Karnataka’s rural students between 6-14 years are enrolled in private school—a proportion much less than that in neighboring states.

Pratham’s method used sampling by “probability proportionate to size”. One government primary school was sampled in each village visited. Twenty households in 30 villages–in all 600 households–were selected in each of India’s districts. The villages were randomly selected using the village directory of the 2001 census as the sampling frame. In each selected household all children in the age group of 6-14 were tested for reading, comprehension, addition, subtraction, and English reading.

Churumuri readers might want to discuss the study’s findings. In general, politicians might want to scrutinise the Pratham report as they prepare party manifestos for the forthcoming 2008 elections to the Vidhan Sabhas in Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland, as well as, if L.K. Advani’s estimate is legitimate, to the Lok Sabha.

Photograph: courtesy Ruth Fremson/ The New York Times

Also read: Can Azim Premji do that the government can’t/ won’t?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: Education push yields little for India’s poor

Watch the New York Times slideshow here