Manobina Roy

Manobina Royicon female small Manobina Roy icon tree small Manobina RoyBorn:
Father: Binod Behari Sen RayMother: Chiranmayi Sen Ray
Children: Joy Roy, Aparajita Sinha, Yashodhara Roy, Rinki Bhattacharya
Siblings: Debalina Mazumdar, Anusya Dasgupta

Manobina Roy and her twin sister, Debalina Mazumdar, were pioneering photographers and among the first women photographers in India. They learnt photography from their father in 1935, who was a member of the Royal Photographic Society of Britain.

Her father, a great educator, wanted his daughters to be proficient in many things, Apart from teaching them multiple languages, including Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali and Persian, he encouraged them to learn photography. In the 1930s, when women’s education was relatively rare in India, he armed them with a small Brownie camera and a makeshift dark room to develop films and process them.

Manobina reportedly cried out in horror when she her heard her Babuji explain the process of making negatives and positives. She jokes that she had exclaimed, ‘I don’t want to learn babuji. I cannot stand negatives and positives. I cannot do algebra.’ To which, Babuji laughed and explained photography has nothing to do with algebra.

While vacations and holidays often provided the legitimacy for the presence of women outside the home, however, the camera itself may also have contributed to providing legitimacy. In their youth, Debalina and Manobina lived in Ramnagar, Benaras where their father was the principal of the local High School patronised by the ruler of Benaras and their mother had to observe purdah in Ramnagar. The camera, however, allowed the twins to travel around the city, in the thirties, where they would photograph nature or practice their photography by taking pictures of each other.

Manobina married early to Bimal Roy, then a young cameraperson employed by New Theatres in Calcutta. Being married to Roy was both an advantage as well as a disadvantage for her. Her husband was a still photographer and was associated with a studio in Calcutta. However after his move to Bombay in 1951, Bimal Roy was also becoming famous in the film industry.

His home had a constant stream of guests and there was a lot of entertaining to be done. The actress Devika Rani once asked her how she passed her time. When Manobina described her day that consisted of looking after her children, running a house which always had Bimal da’s guests staying over and helping him with his work, besides her photography, Devika became thoughtful and said, “Now I can see why Bimal is so successful”.

Her sister Debalina married into a family in Calcutta where her husband did not really care about photography. However, among those delighted with this skill were her in-laws, and soon she found herself shooting all the old people at home, the “jethus, kakimas and mashimas”. Some of them would probably never have been photographed had it not been for the fact that a family member was a photographer. Debalina enjoyed taking portraits but there were some unpleasant tasks too. Each time there was a death in the family, she was called to take pictures for the shraddho. In spite of this both sisters were known as ‘auspicious’ photographers. It probably began as a joke, but the cousin whose portrait they took actually did get married and many young women wanted the same. Debalina’s own portrait for marriage was taken by her sister.

What was interesting in their narratives is that they were prompted to take these portraits because of their own subjective experiences as women and the humiliating terms upon which traditional marriages were arranged.

Debalina, who married relatively late, talked about her early and disastrous experience of being shot in a studio. She also recalled an anecdote where she refused to go with her husband to the studio after their marriage because she didn’t want to be photographed like a “jatra rani with her legs swinging from the chair”. In recalling this image, Debalina was critiquing a certain kind of representation of women in older studio traditions. These were images that she rebelled against and it reflected in her portraits of women.

Photography’s greatest advantage was that it could be adjusted to one’s individual schedule. It also served as a temporary escape from a situation that left women with no time for themselves or for a fantasy world.

Among the standard family album pictures of their children growing up were also some striking portraits of their daughters. These highly stylised photographs are taken with deliberate emphasis on light and composition.

In 1959, Debalina and Manobina were in London where they also photographed British women and documented the isolation of the elderly in Hyde Park. Manobina described how older women would dress up just to buy a loaf of bread or to exchange a few words with strangers. Some of these insights were captured in her images of women window shopping, sitting in the park and on the streets. Both shot street corners and hospitals, the tabloid press and the suffragettes in Britain. Debalina also photographed rallies against the Soviet presence in Hungary. In doing so they were able to engage with the street and with experiences not limited to their own lives. Both sisters expressed a strong desire to document their experiences outside the home. While some of these were written and published, it was photography more than anything else that allowed them this space for self-expression. They both said that perhaps in another time they would have chosen to be photojournalists.

Manobina photographed a range subjects from portraits to landscapes to events. People fascinated her the most. She enjoyed taking portraits – be it of personalities like Rabindranath Tagore, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Jawaharlal Nehru or of facets of tribal life.

Manobina’s works were primarily in black and white and she refrained from letting technological advancements becoming a clutch. She writes in her memoirs: “I now cannot do without an exposure meter. The more we depend on machines, our own power of deduction, analysis and decision making become non-existent or weak.”

Stylistically, Manobina’s photographs are reminiscent of international films in the 50s and 60s, speak volumes of the life and times back then. Photographs taken during her travel in London and Egypt captures myriad hues of the places and the people. So do the pictures of Doga tribe in Ooty. Both Manobina and Debalina didn’t let their limited access to equipment and mobility, as was the case with most women then, hamper their hobby. Sabeena writes: “They were members of the U.P Photographic Association and won prizes when their photographs travelled to competitions. Problems of mobility were solved by the “postal portfolio,” which was like a travelling exhibition.”

Pandit Nehru appreciated her work stating that it was one of his best portraits. Sabeena writes that Manobina felt photographs are an important means of telling stories about everyday life and family histories. Manobina recounted in an interview in July 1988: “I like taking family photographs because I see that nobody bothers with them now. I recently took a photograph of Girish Karnad’s family. It was the first time that the family got together for a picture. They were delighted.”

A sample of some of her photos is posted here.

 Photographs of Manobina Roy

Leave a Reply