Down memory lane: Nemai Ghosh, ace photographer remembers his friend, philosopher, guide- Satyajit Ray

Nemai Ghosh talks to Monojit Lahiri about life before, with and after the exit of his guru, mentor and guiding force, Manik-da

Down memory lane: Nemai Ghosh, ace photographer remembers his friend, philosopher, guide- Satyajit Ray
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Monojit Lahiri

Satyajit Ray may have left Nemai Ghosh but the 84-year-old, ace-photographer [who formed a unique partnership with the maestro for 25 long years] can never leave Ray. Even today, 27 years after India’s greatest Film-maker’s exit, Nemai-da’s life – by his own admission – continues to be driven by the legend’s vision and values, graced by moments and memories.

Interestingly, the man who was once famously described by Ray as “Boswell with a Camera instead of a Pen” actually chanced into his life’s passion, photography. It was a total accident, not design. The year was 1967 or 1968. A friend of Ghosh suddenly turned up at his residence in South Kolkata and announced that someone had left behind a fixed-lens Camera in a taxi and he had been offered a sum of six hundred rupees for the camera. Ghosh recalls that “something suddenly clicked in my mind and I told him that since he owed me two hundred and forty rupees, we could call it quits if he handed over the camera to me. Then, after a pause, I asked him to choose between friendship and business!” That’s how the Camera came to him, but he was clueless about how to use it. An Assistant Cameraman friend showed him the basics and arranged for film rolls ... and Nemai Ghosh, the Photographer was born! “It was weird. Suddenly, I started to view the world not through my eyes, but through the lens of my camera.”

Ghosh’s life before the Ray phase was uncomplicated: An office job to pay the bills at home and Theatre to nurture his passion for acting. However, with the Camera entering his life and taking on a life of its own, the other two had to back off. Serendipity – as we know – knocks without warning. A random trip with friends to Burdwan turned out to be life-transforming. “Our host at Burdwan informed us that Satyajit Ray was shooting his latest film Goopi Gayen Bagha Bayen in neighbouring Rampurhat. Since it was close, I thought, why not kill two birds with one stone: Meet Robi-da [my theatre-director and playing one of the main roles in GGBB] as well as shoot some pictures.”Amazingly, it was these very pictures, shot by an amateur, untrained photographer that caught the eye of Ray. So impressed was the maestro that he enquired who the man behind the lens was. A trembling Nemai Ghosh was presented. The great man was reported to have said “You have shot them exactly the way I would have. You have got the same angles.” After this declaration, Ray escorted the dazed Ghosh personally to his set. “That was my initiation. I was totally bowled over! I couldn’t believe my eyes or ears!” While this got him started, his eyes mist over when he remembers the day he was accepted as an insider into Ray’s select charmed circle. “One day, I got to know that Manik-da was leaving for Santiniketan the next day, by an early morning train. I immediately bought myself a third-class ticket and got onto the same train. At one point, I wandered into his first-class compartment. He was totally absorbed in reading a book. I started clicking him and went on & on, sure that he didn’t notice me. I was so wrong! When the train halted at a station, he got off, got two bhanrer-cha [tea in earthen cups] and offered me one. At that exact moment I knew, I had been accepted as a Team-member ...”

From GGBB through the next 25 years, Nemai Ghosh was the official Still Photographer for all Ray’s films with total access, on and off the sets. “Today, I have over one lakh photographs of Ray, candid, rare shots, bringing alive the varying moods of the towering genius.” Since Ray was an early riser, Ghosh often visited him at a time no visitors were there. Later on, of course, he landed up any time. “His doors were always open for me. Boudi & Babu too were always warm, welcoming and hospitable whenever I turned up.” Satyajit Ray’s Film-maker Sandeep Ray totally endorses this view. “My father had great affection for Nemai-da as a person and admiration as a self-taught photographer who grew from strength to strength. Both my mother and I too were equally fond of him. Over time he was like a family member indeed.”

Apart from Ray’s extraordinary command over every department of the film-making process, his eye for detail, the astounding depth of knowledge in the areas of art, books, music and most things artistic, along with his innate curiosity to know & learn new things, Ghosh remained stunned by the maestro’s sense of modesty. “Here was a giant of World Cinema, India’s pride and joy, celebrated by every living hi-profile film-maker, critic and adoring audiences, but seeing the way he conducted his life, with rare dignity, forever grounded, was a lesson to be learnt. Cool, composed, superbly articulate and classy, he stayed away from superficial glamour, media coverage, inane sound bytes and all that drive today’s showbiz junkies. Also, for him, money was a means to an end and he never chased it. Imagine declining offers from Hollywood and even Raj Kapoor because he believed he was most comfortable doing films that appealed to his sensibilities, cultural terrain and language? He was a simple man whose passion, beyond films, were books and music.”

All good things, alas, must come to an end and when Satyajit Ray left us on April 23, 1992, for Ray’s Boswell “it was perhaps the most devastating day of my life! It closed the most joyous phase of my existence. I couldn’t believe Manik-da was no more. I still can’t, even now. I was at his home on that eventful day and embraced the motionless body of a man forever in motion. I looked at him and remembered it was his magic touch, presence & association that made an ordinary middle-class young man into Nemai Ghosh. Suddenly, life lost all meaning; the world zoomed out of focus and it seemed for me too, the final CUT had arrived ...”

After Ray’s departure from the planet, a large part of Nemai Ghosh’s heart and soul departed too. For the next 2 years, the ace-photographer couldn’t overcome his numbness or attempt any work! It was an exciting, novel, out-of-the-box assignment that took him to the Rann of Kutch that marked his return to the world of the living. Shooting various tribes in and around that area gave him the stimulus & motivation to re-start his work & life & once again celebrate his amazing creative impulse. Diversification of themes and subjects stepped in to offer verisimilitude. His passion for Bengali theatre found brilliant expression in a book entitled Dramatic Moments. His visual essays on The Faces of Indian Art: Through the lens of Nemai Ghosh, his collaboration with renowned painter Paresh Maity on a book of photographs & painting entitled The World on a Canvas fetched him much kudos & acclaim and his Coffee Table classic, a photo-essay Nemai Ghosh’s Kolkata, took it to another level. His connect and friendship with legendary French Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson [a Ray favourite], his foreword to a book that selected 70 of his photographs published by a hi-ticket Brussels publisher, his breakfast meeting with the French icon in Paris form another memorable part of his life. Oh, also on his been-there-done-that list, his small stints with Bengali greats, Mrinal Sen, Ritwick Ghatak & Tapan Sinha, M.S. Sathyu and his no-no to – you’re not gonna believe it guys – Dev Anand! Apparently, the flamboyant, evergreen Dev Saab wanted Nemai-da to do the stills for his [1974] lavish, multi-starrer, Nepal-located movie – Ishq Ishq Ishq ... which [as oldies will remember] got zero Ishq from the viewers!

Satyajit Ray’s photographer and close friend Nemai Ghosh
Satyajit Ray’s photographer and close friend Nemai Ghosh

Today, at 84, Nemai Ghosh admits that his memories are his best companions. The 2010 Padma Shri recipient is frank and accepting of today’s public’s lack of knowledge or interest in his life & work. Any regrets? “Two. One, it is sad that art and culture in India is not given a fraction of the importance it receives in Europe, especially France & Paris. We call ourselves a 5000 year old civilisation and chest-thump, culture & heritage – but when it comes to ground realities, it’s a different story. The second – more personal – is my inability to get a dedicated, permanent Exhibition Hall/Studio space in Kolkata, where I can exhibit at least, the best of my 1 lakh plus photographs of Manik-da. It’s a pity that in his very own, beloved city, no government or corporate funding is available for this project. Next year – 2020 – marks the 100th year of Ray. Hopefully my dream will come true.”

Most memorable lessons learnt from his Guru? “Discipline. Honesty. Sincerity. Tenacity.”

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