Manobina Roy carried her Rolliflex wherever she went “because wherever I went, I might find something, an incident, or people I might want to remember years later.” Ratnottama Sengupta reflects on some outstanding shots of Manobina, the talented wife of legendary filmmaker Bimal Roy, woven in a heartfelt tribute to her ‘Bina Jethima’.
Is it a painting? A sculpture?? No, it’s a photograph! At the exhibition, ‘A Woman With a Camera’, I was riveted by this image of Manobina Roy. It was taken at Elephanta Caves, Mumbai by her husband, the legendary filmmaker Bimal Roy.
But those who visited the Centenary Tribute first mounted in Hyderabad and Mumbai and then brought to Kolkata by Joy Bimal Roy between January 31 and February 14, 2020, know that this was the first ever exhibition showcasing the photographic art of one of the earliest woman photographers in India – and, to date, one of our foremost photographers.
That Manobina Roy (1919-2001) was not an amateur indulging in what was then an expensive hobby became clear from the 80 frames on view at Harrington Street Art Centre – HSAC. Until this Tribute came along, the pioneer photographer was celebrated only as wife of Bimal Roy. That could be why the exhibition drew filmmakers with keen eye for the visual image like Goutam Ghose and Sandip Ray, Anik Dutta and Aparna Sen, besides photographers Mala Mukerjee and Dilip Banerjee, writers such as Sahitya Akademi awarded Alka Saraogi, artists Biswajit Saha and Sandip Roy, art aficionados Sounak Chacraverti and Mahasweta Sen, besides galleryists…
But once they stood before the images on the wall, all the viewers could wonder at was the magic of the B&W shots: the play of light and shadow, the framing of the moments, the moods captured and the diversity of subjects: from Portraits of Tagore and Gandhi, London streets, Cabaret in Paris, to her children Joy, Bubun, Tatu and Rinki – otherwise Joy Bimal Roy, Aparajita Sinha, Yashodhara Roy and Nilanjana Bhattacharya; her nephews and pets and, yes, her famous husband too!
What did they see within the frames? Faces? Costumes? Time period? I saw social history… Not just Domestic photography, hers is social Documentation of a century. In the age of Selfies and Instagram, it is hard to imagine what a camera was to most households a hundred years ago. More difficult it is to imagine why a woman from the upper crust of society was going around with a Nikon around her neck rather than a ten-tola necklace. was the rarest of rare sights. And that is what Jethima – as I was privileged to call her – did. As did her identical twin Debalina Majumdar who was Maatu to me. And this they did in the 1930s.
Strangely, although digital cameras mobile phones and Android ‘computers’ were not even in our imagination in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, I was never surprised to see Jethima taking photographs. Of the children around her. Of her friends and her legendary husband’s. Of landscape and of lands she travelled to. Of objects that caught her attention. Of moments that became eternal. Of lived life.
“Binadi?! She’s a pioneer in photography!”- My mother Kanaklata would always say. So that was one of the Givens I grew up with. It was much, much later, after I had moved to Kolkata following marriage, that I got a chance to chat with Maatu, to admire the photographs she had taken, of Tagore as of the roadside statues of Englishmen now relegated to museums, that I realised the truth of Maa’s statement.
This lifelong passion was ignited when Binode Behari Sen Roy, the tutor to the Crown Prince of Kashi and head master of the Meston High School in Ramnagar, gifted Brownie cameras to the twins born on the midnight of November 26/27. Being a member of the Royal Photographic Society of Britain he even set up a darkroom for them so that they could thoroughly master the craft of the art which they would exchange by post with members of the United Provinces Postal Portfolio Circle.
In 1937 both the sisters were published in Sachitra Bharat. In 1940 they showed at the Allahabad Salon. The sisters individually won awards and prizes. Manobina later wrote and regularly published in The Illustrated Weekly of India. Even a botched up cataract surgery in 1969 that cost her an eye could not dampen her spirit and she came to be the subject of two PhDs. Stuff that legends are made of? Deservedly!
However, what the other half did, at home or out there under the sky, was overlooked – even ignored – by the ‘First Citizens’ otherwise called Men. That is because both, husbands and wives lived in their times, not ours. Their social conditioning prepared Bimal Roy to be active in the world out there; Manobina to care for home, the children, the guests, the kitchen, the staff… In his spare hours he would read out to the children; in her time away from the kitchen and the puja room – and especially on her outings and travels – she would indulge her passion for the camera that was honed by her father who took them to the Maharaja’s durbar as he did to performances by nautch girls.
Jethima had a passion for portraiture. Her keen observation and empathy with the subjects infuse the remarkable clicks in this genre that include portraits of Nehru (1959), of her twin Debalina (1946), of Krishna Menon, Indira Gandhi and Rabindranath. Always eager to explore the scope of light and the shade created by objects that fall in its way, she took only candid photos and only in natural light. She carried her Rolliflex wherever she went “because wherever I went, I might find something, an incident, or people I might want to remember years later,” she once told Sabina Gadihoke, Professor at Jamia Millia Islamia.
Bimal Roy had grown from photography to cinematography and then direction and production. So surely he recognised the artist in Manobina’s shots. But he had the responsibility of earning, not only for his own family but also so many others who were dependent on Bimal Roy Productions. Naturally he did not have the time to focus on her art or promote her professionally. She, on her part, was like the other wheel of the chariot that was their life: she looked after and managed – even acquired – his property and solved his tax problems too, which was not common in the patriarchal society that obtained then.
Path breakers, truly, these twin sisters were, I recognised since I read Pratham Pratishruti. Through Satyabati and Subarna, the protagonists of the Jnanpith awarded novel, Ashapurna Devi underscored that History even of the Arts must be revised to carve the place due to homemakers like Manobina and Debalina at the high table of honour. I have marveled at the dint of these Ladies who lived mostly in the inner quarters but created history. Or, perhaps, documented social history. Isn’t life lived before our times the stuff of history? And why should the turmoil and turbulence of the wider world outside alone be denoted by that term? The mundane everyday life of the bygone age is captured in the black and white tones of these Mothers and Aunts who lit the lamp of liberation perhaps unbeknownst even to themselves…
Long live Manobina Roy and Debalina Majumdar – long beyond your Centenary. For, through you we have come alive once more to the Documentation value of family albums.
(Pictures are courtesy the author)
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