Over the past 60 years, K Natarajan has photographed the leaders who built modern India — everyone from Mahatma Gandhi to Manmohan Singh. Here’s a rare glimpse into a body of work few know of or have seen, reports Varghese K. George.See picturesdelhi Updated: Mar 15, 2009 00:27 IST
At 88, K Natarajan has only one regret in life — that he never became an MP. But he makes up for it by turning up regularly at Parliament House. It’s a habit Natarajan has grown old with; after all he has been witness to all 14 Lok Sabhas of independent India and before that, the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly. “But I missed the freedom at midnight speech. I could not get a pass,” Natarajan says with some regret.
Natarajan, a politician-turned-photographer, was conferred the honorary title, ‘official photographer of Lok Sabha’, by PA Sangma when he was speaker. Quite a long way to come for someone who never started out wanting to be a photographer. Natarajan only took up the camera after he realised that it brought him closer to the world of politics that he had romanced as a student but had had to abandon because of harassment by the colonial government. In 1945, when Gandhi rode a rickshaw to the viceroy’s lodge in Shimla for talks, Natarajan was strategically perched atop a hill, armed with a second-hand Roli Flex camera of German make. The picture — his first — was published in Kalki, a Tamil magazine. Soon, Natarajan was earning Rs 1,000 a month from his photography, enough to resign from the government job that paid him only Rs 300.
The editor of Kalki asked Natarajan to rush to Noakhali in 1946 to cover Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to East Bengal. For the first time in his life, Natarajan took a flight, to Calcutta, then continued by train and later a steamer to reach Gandhi’s camp. “Gandhiji did not want to move around with a crowd and it took a while before he let me in,” Natarajan recalls.
Over the years, Lok Sabhas changed and prime ministers were sworn in and died, but Natarajan remained a permanent presence in Parliament House and Rashtrapati Bhawan, witness to the unfolding of the history of modern India — for instance, Lord Mountbatten stepping down and Jawaharlal Nehru taking oath as the first prime minister. Every prime minister knew him by name. Nehru could not make it for the first birthday of his son Deepak and asked Indira to go instead. (Deepak Natarajan is now a cardiologist to the president of India.) Indira Gandhi invited him to photograph the marriage of Rajiv and Sonia.
Natarajan remembers how owning a car in the early days after independence helped him get to know the leaders better. “I have ferried Lal Bahadur Shastri, Zail Singh, Sanjeeva Reddy and R. Venkatraman, among others,” he recalls. The first went on to become prime minister and the other three, presidents of India.
How he came to own his Morris Minor in 1949 is itself a story. Natarajan sought the help of P. Subbaraiyan, a member of the Constituent Assembly, to get an installment facility. Subbaraiyan turned to Indian Express founder Ram Nath Goenka who was sitting beside him, and asked him to buy a car for Natarajan. Goenka drove him to a showroom in Connaught Place and asked him to choose any model he wanted. “I chose the cheapest,” says Natarajan.
Things have changed a lot since the days Natarajan rode a tonga to Parliament the first time. “Delhi was little more than a village,” he remembers. Parliament too has changed. “When Nehru spoke, there was invariably pin-drop silence. At least that’s how it was in the beginning. Then [Ram Manohar] Lohia began to ask embarrassing questions of Nehru.” It’s a tradition of dissent that has continued over the Lok Sabhas — only, it has degenerated into the slanging matches and free-for-alls we see today.