SUKUMAR SIR IN RUSSIA

SEEING THE WORLD THROUGH THE LENS OF A SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHER

 
 
 
I’ve been a regular at Daria madam’s Russian classes at the Russian Centre of Science and Culture. A reticent building behind the iconic “Welcome Hotel”, it doesn’t have the in-your-face gravitas of the American consulate down the road, under the Gemini flyover. Nor does it try to camouflage itself with the surrounding buildings in Poes garden. Something which the Swedish consulate does an immaculate job of, just a 5 minutes walk down the street to the west.
 
 
 
The RCSC, is the Russian government’s cultural centre in Tamil Nadu with the objective of promoting Russian language and Russian culture. It is similar to a cultural club. And as my new level A 1.2 instructor Valentina madam describes,  a клуб ( cultural club) in a small Russian town is where the townspeople meet to do fun things like celebrating the passing of winter (Масленица, Maslenitsa), hold cultural and social meetings which celebrate the work of great artists and acts as the epicentre for the social sphere in the average Russian’s life. 
 
 

Maslenitsa celebration at the Russian Centre of Science and Culture

 
 
 
 
 
And the Russian expat community in Chennai really do appreciate the RCSC. It has been doing exactly that since ’72. So when I saw that there was going to be a photo exhibition on the FIFA world cup, I was over the moon. Finally, the world cup is coming “home”. I have been going for Russian classes so that I could remain in that bubble. I still wanted that world cup hangover to keep my mind sedated, remembering the most amazing month of my life. 
 
Sobriety is the curse upon the living which the well rounded man carries.
 
I don’t want to be that man.
 
 
Wall of fame 
 
Braving the heat wave and the arid winds which sweep through Chennai post 9 am these days, I enter the exhibition hall. The air-conditioning feels like the final whistle in extra time when your team wins and you collapse in jubilation. I can’t collapse, just let out a sigh of relief. 
 
 
Then the nostalgia trip. There were too many moments across that hall which took me back to a particular memories from Russia. Photos, well framed and captioned, hung on all 4 walls of that well-lit room. There was a line of school kids making their way through the room. I eavesdrop on some girls saying – “That is Messi, no that is Di Maria” The football fan amongst them knew exactly who it was. “It is Messi vs Nigeria where he scored the first goal”. She says with an air of authority. My proud smile makes contact with her eyes. She was right.

 

Too many memories on that wall.

 

 

Kids at the exhibition

 
 
 
I watched that game on the television inside a metro car in Moscow. I was in transit. Argentina vs France games takes me to the memory of me getting on a flight with Argentina leading 2-1 and landing with the score as 4-3 France. The final and the memory of the rain which turned the party on its head in the fan zone. Each and every image had something which took me back in time, to Russia. It was an amazing feeling.
 
 
Then there was this illuminated placard about the photographer who took the images. And that was the first time I heard the name. Seshadri Nathan Sukumar. And the first thing which surprised me about him was obviously his age. He looked as old as my grandfather looked when I was like 6. The second and more pertinent thing which surprised me was the events he has covered. Get ready to have your mind blown. His CV includes – The Olympics, Asian games, ICC cricket world cup, 3 FIFA world cups, US Open, Wimbledon, Moto GP among others. 
 
 
I am sure everyone one of us has seen at least one of his images. From the context of the Indian sub-continent, the cover picture for Sachin Tendulkar’s autobiography, “Playing it my way” was shot by Sukumaran Sir. That book is reserved a place alongside the holy books for cricket fans, may it be in the bookshelf or the prayer hall. 
 
 

Iconic image with an iconic sportsman

 
 
It just dawned upon me that I have the privilege of meeting a person who is a trailblazer in his industry and shares something which I have, #fortheloveofthegame. I needed to capitalise on this opportunity to tell you his story. I made up my mind then that I am going to do a podcast on him.
 
 
 
An entourage of legends 
 
 
I see Sir enter. Smartly dressed in khaki pants and a blue shirt. He has an entourage of who seem like really important people, but I have no clue who any of them are. The only other person I recognise is Mr Gennady Rogalev, Vice-Consul and Director of RCSC Chennai.
 

A lineup of legends

 
They give a tribute to him for the media gathered there. That is when it started to dawn upon me just how rich the sporting legacy I had around me then, and how much they respect Sukumar Sir and his work. There was the former captain of the Indian hockey team which won the gold in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. A former athlete who has represented India in 4 Olympics and also became the first women to carry the national flag during the opening ceremony of an Olympics tournament. President of the Tamil Nadu athletes association as well as a former striker who played for East Bengal in his heyday and the current coach of the Chennaiyan FC U-23 team. This was a serious ensemble of sporting pedigree.
 
 
There was also a respected IAS officer, Shri Chandra Sekhar Sakhamuri; member secretary of the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu, who was the talisman in this group of dignitaries. And Retired IPS officer W.I Davaram; President TN athletes association.  

Showing how its done

 
 
 
 
Now the crowd in the exhibition hall permeates into the auditorium. The dignitaries take the dais. Everyone rains down praise on a career which spans 40 years, which has covered almost every major sporting event and has taken some iconic photographs which all of us take for granted. Best part is, this career is still going strong.

After the book launch and the felicitation function, I go and say “Vanakaam” (Hello in Tamil). I tell him about my Russia trip and also propose to him the prospect of interviewing him for the blog. He was very gracious and accepted it. He gave me his number and was kind enough to give me his card too.

Throughout the day, he was the epitome of humility and class. Taking every eulogy and compliment with a mature sense of acceptance and grace. Something a lot of young people including myself can learn from. 

 
 
I emailed him that night and we scheduled a meeting the next day at 11 am. 
 
These are the excerpts from the podcast I did with him. I am attaching the full audio file below and you can have a listen to get to know the whole story of this amazing person. 
 
 

 
 
 
 
THIS IS HIS STORY.
 
 
Beckoning the seagull 
 
 
What do you do in a gap year? 
Most youngsters these days don’t have to even ponder this as they are already admitted in the nearest coaching institute and they are busy preparing for their next educational or vocational venture. But in 1977 a young boy from Madras asked himself the same question and decided that it was time to learn something new and add a bit of value to himself. 
 
 
He fancied photography and thought a camera would be essential if he wants to follow this pursuit. He quickly gave the word out that he was on the hunt for a camera as you did in the days before quikr and olx. Soon enough, he got an offer from a journalist in a Tamil newspaper.  
 
Rs 1200. (Current price Rs 24,415. Converted for inflation) was the offer made.
 
Which is quite a substantial sum for any college student who was not working. 
So this boy thought he got something more than what he bargained for and said he is willing to pay just 50% of the price, hoping the offer will be retracted. But as fate would have it, the offer was accepted. The father of this young boy made it a point that once an offer is made and accepted, an honourable man shouldn’t fall back on his word. 
 
Commerce and trade functioned for centuries on the strong foundations laid by honourable men’s word. And this father’s honour got the boy his first camera. A Seagull 120 mm.
Moreover a lesson for life which the boy carries with him and reminisces with pride. 
 

The Seagull Camera

 
 
 
Senescence is inevitable. And while his beard has turned white like an alpine winter canopy, his eyes radiate this sharp, ephemeral energy which draws you in. I think that hasn’t changed since the day he got his first camera. 

The boy grew up to be Sukumar Sir and that moment set in motion a career which has lasted 4 decades and is still going strong. The Seagull is an iconic camera brand which still produces the old fashioned cameras. I don’t have a really good technical base on photography, but I can say the image quality is absolutely sensational for a camera which still uses film.  Check out these amazing photos by this Chinese photographer from a slightly modern variant of the camera

 
 
 
 
#fortheloveofthegame 
 
I asked him if he was a sports fan as a kid and to my surprise, he answered in negative. It was something which he integrated himself into. He wouldn’t even call himself a supporter. He uses the word “observer”. I think that level of stoic detachment from the subject of his craft is required to really capture the most tense and iconic moments. If you are engrossed in the atmosphere of the event, then I believe you become part of that and can’t see things from an objective reality. Something which he reiterates in his interview with Doordarshan. 
 
 
 
 
In the ’70s, a sports photographer needed to carry 3 cameras at one time. One for black and white, one for transparency and one for colour. All of which can be accommodated into one single piece of hardware today.
 
He states, gone are the days when professional cricket used to get a meagre sum of Rs 500 per series and struggle to have to make ends meet. Today the professional cricketer figuratively makes one lakh rupees per ball. 
 
 
The sports media field has also grown into this mammoth industry where TV rights deals can make billions and entire clubs use it as their main source of revenue. A SKY sport Premier league package in England costs around 40 pounds a month. Which translates to almost 32 k rupees a season. That is the price it takes to watch the premier league football at home in England. We get to watch it for Rs 300 in Hotstar for an entire year. How fortunate are we !
 
 
He explains that back in the day a photograph would take a lot of time to end up on a media print. It had to be processed and in the days before the internet, they had to use something called a teleprinter to send pictures over to cities which are far. 
 
Nowadays, the camera can instantly transfer over the file to the computer and before you know it, the photo you took is the cover picture for The Guardian’s post-match report. 
 
 
 
Autonomy over money 
 
In any creative craft, there will come a point where you can either sell your skills for a price or decide to do things your own way. I believe one of the reasons art and culture flourished in the Renaissance period Europe was because painters and sculptors never had to compromise their creative processes for money. They had patrons who saw value in their work and financially supported them till they achieved a certain level of fortune. An example of this would be the Medici dynasty in Florence who supported the works of immortals like Da Vinci and Machiavelli. 
 
But city-states of medieval Italy don’t mint coins anymore and as Marx said in his theory of alienation – The worker loses himself in his labour process and doesn’t derive the value from the goods or services he produces or provides. That is capitalism and that is the reality we are living in right now. 
 
 
But the true greats have always maintained their autonomy. Stephen Spielberg with Amblin entertainment produces most of his own movies. A company he founded by himself. Darwin’s journey into the Galapagos aboard the H.M.S Beagle was funded in part by his father. He didn’t have to answer to a boss.
 
 
The point I am trying to make is that in any creative endeavour. Autonomy and freedom are paramount. And Sukumar Sir realised that early on. He has never affiliated himself with any big media house. Even though that would have provided him with more material wealth in the short run, remaining autonomous helped him decide which competitions he wanted to cover, which matches he wanted to shoot and gave him the space to experiment with his work. 
 
 
Sometimes when he needed to affiliate himself for some competition like the IPL (Indian Premier League), he says with gratitude that many newspapers offer help to him.
 
 
That is what I respect the most about him, he did it for the love of the craft and not for the adulation or the money. It took him 40 years, but now he gets the respect and credit he deserves. He made a collage for the Prime Minister of India and he had the honour of having an audience with the Prime minister while presenting his work to him. Regardless of what your opinion is about the person who holds the office of the Prime minister, the position as the highest representative of the people of India holds immense value.
 

Sukumar Sir with Prime Minister Narendra Modi

 
 
Sukumar Sir has reached a point where he holds the frame. The Indian Olympic Committee contacted him to go to Tokyo to cover the Olympic Games. Imagine being in a situation where you have so much value that people come to you. I am pretty sure that at the start of his career it would not have been the situation, but when you become an expert in whatever you are doing, opportunities come to you. You don’t have to go after them. That is why I find the idea of campus placements stupid. You are trying to convince someone that you are good enough to work for them. If that is your frame in that interaction, then trust me, you don’t get to decide the terms, you will have to accept whatever they are willing to give. Never be the seller in a buyers market. 
 

Dipa Karmakar Rio 2016

 

 

Saina Nehwal Rio 2016

 

Chinese couple proposing at Rio 2016

 

Carolina Marin Rio 2016

 

PV Sindhu Rio 2016 Silver medal

 
 
YOU CAN SEE WHY THE INDIAN OLYMPICS COMMITTEE WANTS HIM 
 
 
The beautiful game and its beautiful moments 
 

England Vs Columbia FIFA world cup 2018

 

Paul Pogba with FIFA world cup

 
 

Igor Akinfeev after saving penality vs Spain

 

England after losing to Croatia FIFA world cup 2018

 

 

Ronaldo Vs Iran FIFA world Cup 2018

 

 

Messi at FIFA world cup 2018

 

Vladimir Putin with FIFA world cup

 

Best player and Best young player of the tournament FIFA world cup 2018

 

 

Hugo Loris with FIFA world cup

 
 
 
 
 
The most iconic picture of the World Cup 
 

Iconic Iran Fan crying Vs Portugal FIFA world cup Russia 2018

 
 
 
I am sure if you had followed this world cup, then you would have remembered this picture. It became this iconic image for what the love for the game means to the fans who made the trip to Russia and also of how Iran would have qualified if they had won the game, to which they came so close in the dying embers of the game.  
 
 
Just a handful of photographers got that iconic picture and chances are, the version that you saw was taken by Sukumar Sir. When I was browsing in the exhibition, this image was what caught my eye.
 
 
But it was not an easy click. There is a story behind that. 
 
Sukumar Sir had to make his way to Saransk from Moscow. There were no trains available and no buses too. Flights were overbooked. This meant he had to make his way there somehow with the clock against him to watch the last match of the group where Portugal play Iran. The group was so tight that the proposition of Iran qualifying at Portugal or Spain’s expense was a reality. Group B was hot. 
 
So he went to the taxi stand and found a cab which would take him over to the game. He got there just as the match began and struggled to find the media entrance. The media team sent out volunteers to escort him into the stadium. He had to set up his equipment and he wasn’t allowed onto the pitch until the second half. And that is when it happened. All this effort and stress and what came out the other end was what the single most powerful image of this world cup. It was something else. 
 
 

I can imagine myself doing all this. And I have had similar episodes of races against time in Russia with a 11 Kg cycle on my shoulder. But what makes things different is I was 21. He is 64. 

I can’t imagine someone taking so much effort and going through so much stress to do something like this unless he absolutely loves it. That passion keeps him young. No matter how old he might look. That photo is a testament to passion. Both of the man in front of, and behind the lens

A well deserved rest with the tool of the trade

 

 

Every photograph is a gift 
 
 
When you are immersed in a skill for years and also creatively engaged in it. It changes the way you see everything. A music producer won’t listen to a composition the same way we do. He will be able to hear notes and frequencies which most people won’t be able to perceive. He had to train his ears for that through years of practice. 
 
 
So I framed a question, if he had developed this ability to predict into the future. At least a few milliseconds into the future. I have been watching football for 10 years now and most of the times when a player produces a moment of magic, I am caught off guard. So how does a photographer know where to place that focus at that most crucial of times, when a player like Messi does something extraterrestrial and shows that he is not human.
 

Finding the exact moment (Rohit Sharma)

 

Rafael Nadal ( Rio 2016 Olympics)

 

Faf du Plessis in the air

 
 
Sir acknowledges that he has developed this ability to predict. He says that he has to be aware of the game that is happening and pan the pitch for the next pass. Then focus on the player while he receives the ball. His pictures are predominantly the phase after a player receives a pass on the ground or in the air and right before the opposition defence starts to press him. 
 
But much more important than that, he attributes all his best work to a divine touch. He says he prays before every click and he attributes that to the way how his images turn out. He is quite a spiritual person he admits. Spending time with his 3 grandchildren and inside the sanctum of a temple, are parts of his life outside photography which he likes to talk about. 
 
I wondered if he had any pre-match ritual or mental exercises which he did to get into the groove of a game. He didn’t feel so. He says it’s an automatic form of self-expression which just comes when he is in the zone. I agree. When a person is immersed in his or her creative endeavour, the conscious and the sub-conscious overlaps and that releases the connection with the something extra which produces great work.
 
 
 
 
Leaving a trail to follow 
 
Naive me always has this agenda on the back of my head. It is that India should qualify for the FIFA world cup within the next couple of decades. So any discussion I have about football, I inadvertently ask the person, when does he or she think India is going to qualify. 
 
Sir politely refused to comment on that since directly, it is not his sphere of influence. But, he did make it a point to show that the opportunities in the sports field, both on and off the field have grown exponentially and that the ecosystem right now supports players as well as the auxiliary verticals like coaching, journalism and event management related to sports. He uses the IPL to reiterate his point. 
 
He says that once you identify what you are passionate about, then 18 to 20 is when you should start grafting. He says by the time you are in your mid-twenties, you would be mature enough and your skill well honed. Then he says by the time you are 35ish, you will be well established and people will come to you to ask you to work with them. Remember the frame I was talking about. This is exactly what he is saying too. It takes a long time to reach that point, but once you get there, you hold all the cards. 
 
I come from a caste in Kerala who traditionally were involved in the toddy tapping industry. So our proverbs usually centre around a coconut tree, funnily enough. There is one adage which goes something like this. 
 
“It takes a coconut tree 10 years to flower. But once it flowers, it will give coconuts for a whole generation.”
 
But does that mean the first 10 years are insignificant? 
 
No, it is when it is at its most crucial. If it is watered enough, given enough fertiliser and protected from fungal infections, your returns will last a generation. 
 
That is why the grafting period is the most crucial period. You might not seem like you are getting anything back, but you are investing in yourself and your future.
 
We are celebrating Sir’s inflorescence and the years after that. But we shouldn’t forget the graft years behind every single photograph. The struggle. Usually, it gets understated. I don’t want to make that mistake. 
 
 
But this exhibition was more than a celebration of the works of a pioneer in his field. Sukumar Sir says that seeing his pictures, kids will be inspired to take up photography and he is more hopeful that seeing his pictures, kids would want to be like Ronaldo and Messi. A professional footballer. 
 
 
That is the instant when our thoughts vibrated in resonance at the highest frequency. That is exactly what I hope I can do with my writing. Make kids dream that it is possible to be a footballer in this country. My generation was robbed of that hope. It took highly exceptional individuals, a lot of struggle against a system which makes it systemically as hard as it can be possible, to be a footballer in this country. I have seen my friends who were supremely talented in football give up on that after a point. They surrendered to “growing up.” That is the moment they gave up on their dreams. They struggle to find a reason to get out of bed these days. 
 
 
But stories like these fill us with hope. They inspire. They make us believe. 
 
 

Remember the line of school kids I saw on the first day. A particular institution called Jeppiars was there. A gentleman who represented them talked about how that institution is a conveyor belt of talent for the Tamil Nadu junior categories as well as I- league clubs. The current I-league champions, Chennai City FC has their protege within their ranks. I thought it was a really important gesture by the institute that these kids were brought here, to see the word of opportunities football has to offer to them. 

And maybe one day, I hope that the petit girl who reaffirmed her friends that it was indeed Lionel Messi, would captain the Indian Women’s football team and would attribute her career to that one day, when her school took her to Russian Centre of Science and Culture. The day she saw the world from the lens of a sports photographer.

A living legend that all of us can learn a lot from

 
конец ( THE END)
 
TESTIMONIALS 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
PHOTO GALLERY FROM THE DAYS EVENTS 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
LISTEN TO THE PODCAST TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE AMAZING MAN
 

 
 
If you want to see more of Sir’s work check out 
 
 
 
 
 
Russian Class Alert !!!!!
 
 

Russian Classes will start Soon. Enrol to have fun on weekends learning Ruski. 😀

 
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