Reel Life: The ladies of the camera

Debalina and Manobina started learning photography from age of 12 in the early 1930s. Years later, even when they shot the same subjects, they were true to their individual styles and sensibilities

A boy sitting in a country boat looking at a ship, 1940s by Manobina Roy
A boy sitting in a country boat looking at a ship, 1940s by Manobina Roy

Namrata Joshi

After having known Manobina Roy for a while, filmmaker-author Nasreen Munni Kabir found herself getting invited one day to her home in Mount Mary, Bandra, for a photo shoot. It was no ordinary clicking of pictures. She remembers being made to sit at a spot where the light was to Manobina’s satisfaction.

She gave no directions to pose, just made Nasreen feel relaxed and comfortable and let her talk while she kept working with her camera. “The light source was her main concern, how it hit the face,” recalls Nasreen. She doesn’t know how many pictures Manobina took that day but the ones she saw turned out “lovely and charming”.

“She would play with natural light. We would be placed like props in her experiments with it,” remembers Manobina’s son Joy Bimal Roy. Experiments with light and shadows also stand out in the works of Manobina’s twin sister and fellow photographer Debalina Mazumder.

An exhibition that explores the photographic lives of two of India’s earliest, but little known, women camerapersons was inaugurated on August 12 by actor Sharmila Tagore and is showing at the India International Centre in Delhi till August 27. Comprising digital reproductions of their photographs, it has been curated by Sabeena Gadihoke, Mallika Leuzinger and Tapati Guha-Thakurta.

Trafalgar Square, London, c.1959 by Debalina Mazumder
Portrait of daughter Aparajita, Bombay, 1960s by Manobina Roy
Debalina Mazumder and Manobina Roy, by Bimal Roy
Portrait of grandson Rajsaday Dutta, by Debalina Mazumder
Portrait of son Joy, by Manobina Roy
Two ladies meet on the road in London just to say “what a lovely day” - they are so lonely that just to be able to talk to someone is a relief, London, c.1959 by Manobina Roy
Aparajita standing above the Bombay-Poona Highway, mid 1960s, by Manobina Roy

Joy himself remembers organising an exhibition of the photos of his father—renowned filmmaker Bimal Roy who himself started out as a photographer—at Mumbai’s Nehru Centre in 2000 where his mother rued the fact that nobody had done such a thing for her work. “I took a vow that day that I will do a show for her,” he says.

An intimate show was later organised by him in Hyderabad and Mumbai in 2019 to mark her 100th birth anniversary. The current jointly curated exhibition brings together the work of both the sisters and is much more ambitious in scale, detail and research.

The work on display is wide ranging—from portraits of family members and friends in and around their homes in Kolkata and Mumbai to Ramnagar (capital of the princely state of Benaras where they grew) of 1930s, 1960s Europe and from the joint stay in London with their kids in 1959.

Despite being old, the pictures don’t look dated. “They are works of art. When they began photography, staging and posing were the norm. But not even one of them looks posed despite being so,” says Joy.

“The portraits made the personality of the subject come through,” says Nasreen. There is candidness to the compositions. “They are uncluttered and specific. There’s not a whole lot happening in the foreground, and the background is always interesting,” she adds.

Photography to them was about capturing the right moment and having the patience to wait for it. Mallika narrates an incident about how Debalina waited attentively to capture the picture of an empty bench at Hyde Park. “They were lost in photography. Every free minute was about taking pictures,” says Mallika.

Joy recalls never seeing his mother and aunt without their cameras. “I grew up thinking all mothers took photographs,” he says. “They would keep practising photography on each other, like making a cousin pose like a farm hand in a corn field,” says Sabeena. There was playacting and playfulness in many of such pictures.

What made their work stand out? “They were technically sound and exceptionally talented and had a distinctive vision and imagination,” says Sabeena. Much of it owes to the earliest brush with photography thanks to their father, Binod Bihari.

Encouraged by him, the two sisters started learning photography from the age of twelve in the early 1930s. He gave them an Agfa Brownie camera and even set up a dark room for them. Photography didn’t just mean taking shots but also developing the rolls, dealing with the negatives and the positives.

According to the exhibition note, they preferred to dabble with black and white even after the arrival of colour photography and continued using manual controls even after acquiring SLR cameras with automated functions.

Their photographic pursuits also need to be understood in the way they got accommodated within their roles and responsibilities as wives and mothers after marriage, at a time when women had a limited life outside of the home and hearth and didn’t have the privileges and access like men. “Camera became part of family life and the household,” says Mallika.

They were not feminists but were brought up second to none. They held their own in the world out there,” says Joy. Debalina served as Chairperson of the Photography Association of Bengal (PAB) for three years. She was also the Honorary Secretary of the UPAPA, and a member of the Ladies Forum of the Federation of Indian Photography (FIP), which published a magazine called Viewfinder.

Manobina kept her passion for photography alive while accompanying Bimal Roy on shoots and meetings, took pictures of public figures and celebrities they met (part of a slide show, not on display) like Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijaylakshmi Pandit, Indira Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore.

The London stay of the two sisters, along with the families, in 1959 and also the travels to Paris and Moscow, were crucial opportunities to break away from the humdrum of domesticity and led to their experiments with street photography.

“They walked around the city, photographing strangers on the streets, people in Hyde Park and argumentative interlocutors at political meetings. The pictures from their travels to Paris, Geneva and Moscow established that the sisters were accomplished street photographers who, even when they shot the same subjects, were true to their individual styles and sensibilities,” says the exhibition note.

Mallika points out a picture of an old lady in Hyde Park. She reminded Manobina of Ms Marple, an aspect she brought out in her portrait. Debalina, on the other hand, made the lady part of a landscape shot with trees in the distance.

A picture Mallika says she likes immensely is of two old ladies facing each other on a street in London. “It was like they were seeing an image of themselves in the two strangers,” she says.

A favourite picture of Joy’s is the one Manobina surreptitiously took at Folies Bergere, a cabaret hall in Paris. She hid the camera under her long overcoat. It was the last of the 12 exposures she had, and the light was low, but she managed to get a striking shot.

The two sisters didn’t just excel in clicking pictures but also painstakingly catalogued and captioned their photographs with meticulous details about the time of the day when it was shot and exposure, filter, aperture etc. “Each picture had a story. Their work makes for an amazing record, a precious heirloom and legacy of the family. It’s like a pictorial autobiography,” says Joy, who keeps the pictures secure in a trunk in his own room.

A fascinating aspect was the transmission of these pictures to the public. Besides getting published in magazines the images were shared through unique networks like the Postal Portfolio to reach out to fellow photographers, viewers and patrons. “It was like a travelling show done through postal services and travelled to Mumbai, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Surat,” says Sabeena.

Their photographs were published, for the first time, in a magazine called Sachitra Bharat in 1940 and exhibited at the Allahabad Salon the same year. In the early 1940s, Debalina and Manobina became members of the Postal Portfolio Circle of the United Provinces Amateur Photographic Association (UPAPA).

Despite their accomplishments, they never received the recognition they deserved in their own lifetimes. While they were humble and modest about their own accomplishments, being women and amateur photographers (considered not as good enough as professional) came in the way.

“But amateur also means love or passion for the craft, and to be driven by it,” says Sabeena, adding that Debalina believed that had she been a professional, the passion for image-making might have got killed in the pursuit of making money.

No wonder the curatorial note stresses: “This exhibition is a tribute to the spirit of amateurism and the love of photography that the sisters embodied”.

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