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Two decades after she passed away, Manobina Roy’s work was the focus of an exhibit curated by her son, Joy Bimal Roy. A heartfelt conversation with him.


''In my early years, I was never conscious of the fact that my mother was a photographer, because her camera was like an extension of her hand. I didn't know it was a camera and was recording our lives! It seemed to be something that was part of Ma's personality. It was only after I went to school that I learnt the object in Ma's hands was a camera. I also realized that all mothers did not wander around carrying a camera with them… My mother was unique: she was not like any of my classmates' mothers…


When my grandfather Binode Behari Sen Roy gifted Brownie cameras to his twin daughters Manobina and Debalina on their twelfth birthday, he ignited a lifelong passion for photography. He also set up a makeshift darkroom in their home so they learnt to develop their own photographs. Dadu himself was interested in photography and a member of 'The Royal Photographic Society of Britain' and he wanted to pass on this legacy to his daughters. I wonder if he realized the true importance of his gifts because Ma and her twin sister Debalina went on to become two of the earliest known women photographers of India and are the subjects of two PhD thesis. I doubt either he, or she, knew at that time she would be known as one of the earliest women photographers in India. She loved photography and strived to excel in it, and the results followed. It is only much later that students of the subject started researching the history of Indian photography and this brought to light: that Ma and her twin were amongst the earliest known women photographers in India — Ma and aunt Debalina were born a hundred years ago in 1919. They lived in Ramnagar, set on the banks of the Ganga. At a time when women in Ramnagar were in purdah my grandfather proudly took his daughters with him everywhere, including all-male preserves like the Maharaja's Durbar, and once even to a mujra performance. One could say that he gave them a well rounded education! Alongside their studies, they continued taking photographs and became members of the United Provinces Postal Portfolio Circle. This was a group created by the Photographic Society of India where members would exchange photographs by post, and these would then be exhibited in salons in other cities.  The twin sisters passed their Matriculation exams with flying colours and almost immediately after that, at the age of seventeen, Ma married a handsome young man Bimal Roy who at the time was a cinematographer at the iconic New Theatres film production company. He went on to become one of the great legends of Indian cinema.


Meanwhile, the two sisters were following their own trajectory. In 1937, photographs taken by both sisters were published for the first time in a journal, Shuchitra Bharat. In 1940 they showed their work at the Allahabad Salon, which created quite an impact. Thereafter they continued to send photographs to different competitions and inevitably won awards and prizes. It was not a career, though. She was a homemaker and indulged her passion despite the demands made on her time by her husband and four children. However, as and when the opportunity arose, she would write for Illustrated Weekly of India and illustrate the article with her photographs. And she had a column in Femina although the magazine did not use her photographs to illustrate it. Her forte was portraiture and she had an unerring knack for capturing the most favourable angle of her subjects. She shot only in natural light and was a master in the play of light and shade. Her portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijaylakshmi Pandit and Krishna Menon are outstanding. And her portrait of Rabindranath Tagore, which she took in Jagannath Puri, was one of the twenty- five best photographs of Tagore published by Illustrated Weekly of India in 1951. The most iconic was the portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru; the story goes that Ma and Jawaharlal Nehru happened to be in Ooty at the same time, so she went to visit him. She took her camera along, and requested permission to take a few photographs. He obliged, but only when she opened her camera to take out the roll of film, she discovered to her horror that in her excitement she had forgotten to load film in her camera. Ultimately she took his portraits in Raj Bhavan when he visited Bombay soon after that!!


Initially she used a Rolleiflex camera. She had always wanted a Nikon and I managed to gift her one quite late in her life, making sure to get a manual camera because she disliked the concept of automatic photography. Ma had a steady hand so she got remarkable results with very long exposure in low light — a notable example being the ones she clicked inside Folies Bergere, Paris. No cameras were allowed in the auditorium but she managed to smuggle it inside! Sadly in 1969 she lost the use of one eye, but that did not deter her from taking photographs, and she went everywhere armed with her camera…


Ma continued to document our lives till the end, and the hundreds of photographs she left behind are our priceless legacy. She passed away eighteen years ago on 1st September 2001.Since then it has been my dream to have an exhibition of her photographs and though so many years have passed I am delighted that it finally happened in the year of her birth centenary. It took several years to make it happen, though. In 2000, we organized an exhibition of my father's photographs. He began life as a cinematographer so photographs were part of his profession. But these photographs had never been exhibited; my sister and I took it upon ourselves to present his work to the public. It was a grand opening covered by the press. I gave bytes, then I thought to myself it was Ma who should be answering questions. But she was nowhere to be seen, so I started looking for her and finally found her seated in a dark corner of the gallery. I panicked. Are you okay Ma, I asked her. She didn't look at me. All she said very quietly was: No one has ever done this for my photographs. I felt an enormous sense of sadness and guilt and in that instant wowed to myself that I would organise an exhibition of Ma's photographs even if it was the last thing I did. Tragically, she died a year later in 2001, but that made my resolve stronger. I have been trying  for the last eighteen years to get this exhibition off the ground and I am delighted that it finally happened in her centenary year. I am deeply indebted to Professor Mohan of NIFT, Hyderabad and his wife Pratima Sagar.Their unflagging enthusiasm and selfless dedication made this exhibition possible. I am sure wherever Ma may be she was with us in spirit on this momentous occasion; she was much more than just a photographer, she was an amazing woman with an indomitable spirit and a lot of compassion. I would like her to be remembered just as she was: one in a million…''

A Portrait Of Jawaharlal Nehru By Manobina Roy.
A Portrait Of Bimal Roy By Manobina Roy
Ma with her Rolleiflex camera
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