Late photojournalist's son shares father's journey of capturing Jayalalithaa's life
Subha Sundaram photographed late Tamil Nadu chief minister for over three decades, right from her arangetram or first public Bharatnayam recital in 1960, which was attended by Tamil superstar Sivaji Ganesan
Jayalalithaa (left) with actress Sowcar Janaki at an event organised by regional daily Makkal Kural (People’s Voice). Sundaram was the official photographer of the magazine. Jaya was still a film star then and Sowcar Janaki was MGR’s former co-star. Janaki and Jaya had known each other a long time and the two went on to have a long-standing friendship. This photo was taken at a Chennai hotel, a popular venue for film functions
Tamil Nadu’s first photojournalist Subha A Sundaram’s foray into political photography was courtesy his skills as a Tamil shorthand writer. As that was not too commonly found during the 1960s, Sundaram would be summoned to transcribe political speeches, which is how he began to gain close access to political leaders. Eventually, he went on to record major political milestones in the state, not least of which was J. Jayalalithaa’s transition from a movie star to a political phenomenon.
The AIADMK had always followed a tradition of having their leaders’ photos engraved on things like pens, rings, lockets etc, to be stored as memorabilia. Some party men would design their own mementos. This was taken not long after Jayalalithaa was sworn in as Rajya Sabha MP in 1984, in Chennai. Somebody handed her a picture of MGR. Here, she’s seen signing the photo of her mentor
Sundaram photographed the late Tamil Nadu chief minister for over three decades, right from her arangetram or first public Bharatnayam recital in 1960, which was attended by Tamil superstar Sivaji Ganesan. Sundaram passed away in 2005, having left a legacy in frames — he was the founder of the country’s first news photo archive, Subha News Photo Service, that launched in 1964-65. Speaking of his father’s journey behind the lens, S. Arunkumar, also a photographer, says, “It was my father’s mentor Bhaskar Rao who changed his life — in fact, the ‘bha’ in ‘Subha’ stands for Bhaskar. He inspired my father to take a shot at photographing political leaders, since he had access to them as their transcriber.”
After MGR’s death in 1987, Jayalalithaa along with her political supporters, tried to barge into the AIADMK office claiming it as theirs. After being refused entry, she and her party men staged an agitation which led to their arrest. This is the first time she was arrested. This photo was taken as she was being driven away in a police van
It was while recording the rise of AIADMK, that Sundaram became a close associate of MG Ramachandran (MGR), who went on to become chief minister in 1977. A close friend of Sundaram, an editor of a Tamil weekly, suggested he try still photography in films.
This photograph was taken in 1989, after MGR’s demise. AIADMK got divided into two factions — Janaki AIADMK (after his wife Janaki took over) and JADMK (Jaya Dravida Munetra Kazhagam) led by Jayalalithaa. That year, JADMK won 26 seats at the Assembly Elections and formed the Opposition. The budget session was on and JADMK raised an outcry against the budget presented by DMK, questioning its authenticity. Allegations were hurled, and chairs were flung. DMK leader Durai Murugan allegedly tried to outrage Jaya’s modesty, by pulling her sari. This photo was taken as her loyalists escorted Jayalalithaa out of the Assembly at St George’s Fort, Chennai
“Jayalalithaa was an established movie star then and my father followed her into politics. She knew him well. The fact that MGR favoured him got him closer to her. They shared a close, professional relationship. He spoke of her as a kind-hearted person, who recognised talent. But she could also be very adamant,” Arunkumar says.
Jayalalithaa with her first party JADMK loyalists Nedunchezhian, SD Somasundaram, KKSS Ramachandran, Thirunavukarasu (presently TNCC president) and others at a general body meet
He adds that Sundaram always knew she’d become a political phenomenon, and that she had all the qualities of MGR — mass appeal, political acumen and vision. “She wanted my father to click one flagship shot of hers that she would use for all official purposes.
RM Veerappan had a roundabout journey in his political loyalties. Once a close aide of MGR, he joined Janaki’s party first. Later, after her defeat in the 1989 elections, he joined forces with Jayalalithaa
‘When I become CM, I want Sundaram to click my photo...’ she would say. And he did. There’s a photo of hers that he took in 1991, after she became the CM, where she’s seen in a green coat. That was his last click of her,” Arunkumar says. But she didn’t allow him to keep the film. “She feared it might get lost, so she kept it with her. That’s why we don’t have that photo.”
Subha A Sundaram
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