Every click of his tells a story
Ambu Rao proudly displaying his works.
The dawn of August 15 1947, is special to every Indian and for those fortunate few who had experienced it, is a memorable one. The rising sun of that day not only announced the beginning of a new era but also rejuvenated the infant, free India.
So was the case with one 14 year old who spent the whole of the night before with his friends on the seashore of this city rejoicing and celebrating the new found Independence. But as the first streaks of the new orange sun coloured the vast expanse of the Bay of Bengal conveying the new hopes, this boy was held spellbound by the beauty that unfolded before his eyes minute by minute. He captured the beauty unassumingly and unconsciously in the borrowed small box camera that he was carrying and that was his tryst with his own destiny. The boy was to become one of the ace photographers Andhra Pradesh can be proud of. He is none other than Dangeti Surya Ambu Rao.
Born on Aril 22 1933, in Visakhapatnam, he derived his early inspiration on photography from his brother-in-law Neelaya, who maintained a small studio by the name Mini-Max, in the Old Town area, near Kurupam market. His brother D.S. Ratna Rao, a very creative man himself, also encouraged Ambu. But the turning point was when he could not manage to get an engineering seat in Andhra University and opted for the Diploma in Cinematography and Sound Engineering course at the Central Polytechnic in Madras.
The art of visual photography fascinated him and that made him join the Vauhini Studios under the tutelage of none other than Marcus Bartley, the man he adored and tried to emulate. " To me calling Bartley as my guru is causing disrespect to him, the word `guru' is too small to address that man. He has a towering influence over me and what I am today is merely because of him. He is the one who put me on my mettle" says Ambu.
He assisted Bartley in some of the greatest puranic films like `Maya Bazaar', `Lava Kusha', `Sri Venkateswara Mahatyam' and many others. In total he worked for 14 Telugu and Tamil films that had got his credit title, one English film by the name `Rhythm of India' and one Indo-Soviet film `Pardesi'.
In those days his young mind was brimming with creative ideas and Bartley allowed Ambu to experiment with a free hand. "I used to work for almost 20 hours a day, without any absenteeism, there was a zeal that was deep-rooted and always motivated to give my best. Bartley skillfully kindled this enthusiasm, though he was harsh at times. It was an experience that I would cherish till my end."
Bartley not only taught Ambu the finer points of photography but also played a very important role in shaping his individuality.
"One day as I was standing near the dollies during the shoot of a very important scene of `Maya Bazaar', the director K. V. Reddy pointed at me and asked Bartley: `who is this novice, tell him to go, this is a very important scene'. Bartley replied: `he is my assistant and it's my look-out'. He later scolded me and gave me a through dressing down on body language."
From the next day onwards Ambu was a different man. Narrating this, the eyes of this veteran lensman was moist but the respect for the profession and for the man who shaped his creative instincts was writ large all over his personality. It was here in Vauhini Studio's he horned his skill for still photography under the guidance of R. Nagaraja Rao, the renowned cine still photographer.
Though his creative sojourn with cinematography was cut short by the lopsided decision of the Union Government to cut all imports on film materials it was not the end for him. Dejected and unwillingly he had to accept a job as a scientific photographer with HAL in Bangalore.
As the creative fire was burning high within him at that time he quit the job after a brief stay of 89 days and came back to his native soil, Visakhapatnam.
On the New Year Day in 1964, enlightened by A.S. Edwin a painter and photographer of repute, he set up his studio "D'Light", encompassing the universality of light and hope. Still photography that was his hobby became his passion and profession. Over the years he has patiently built a library of 20,000 negatives, which also consist of a few priceless photographs of vintage Vizag.
Though in the early part of his career he was engaged in industrial photography, his love for portraits and tabletops lives with him even now. Ambu's photography is not just `aim and shoot', highlighting the glitz and glamour. His photographs have depth, certainly in true photographic sense, but also in terms of emotion and sentiment that are attached to his subjects. His photographs are a combination of fine techniques and aesthetic sense of perception. Like any creative greats he perceives his subjects patiently for hours together and then captures them in his lens and the final product always reveals the story behind.
Ambu could capture the glint of hope in the eyes of an old beggar amidst his wrinkled and weather beaten face, the blooming blossom of a beautiful lass in contrast to the fading radiance of an old fragile woman and the moments of ecstasy in a mother and infant relationship - all with precision.
He has practically redefined the saying that `A photograph speaks a thousand words', by `A photograph narrates a full-length story'.
His photographs were published in various journals and magazines and one outstanding photograph that was published in Illustrated Weekly of India in 1957, titled the `Camel Tree', was highly appreciated by A.S. Raman, the then editor of the magazine.
Ambu's best works were done at a time when there were not many lenses, filter and other modern accessories. Even the photo corrections were done in the negatives at the time of production unlike today's computer graphics. "The manual corrections were difficult, took a lot of time and required a great deal of skill, but the reproduction was great, if the job was properly done. That is why I am still a fan of black and white photography."
The patience, zeal and the hunger for improvement still rage in him like a juvenile fire, even at the age of 70. He still works at odd hours, braving the chronic asthma, climbs hills and treks long distances only to get a better view of the landscape to satiate his passion.
Photo: C.V. Subrahmanyam
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