Debalina Mazumdar

Debalina Mazumdaricon female small Debalina Mazumdar icon tree small Debalina MazumdarBorn:
Father: Binod Behari Sen RayMother: Chiranmayi Sen Ray
Children: Kamalini Mazumdar, Tilak Shankar Mazumdar, Ranjini Sen, Sunayani Sengupta, Priyadarshini Dutt
Siblings: Manobina Roy, Anusya Dasgupta

I used to dream that I am going to London or somewhere, and then after going to the airport, on the plane, I discover I haven’t got my camera. I begin to cry. What will I do without my camera? I had that sort of an attachment with it. Somebody once told me that the eye is better than the camera. I said, that is all fine, but I would like to go over memories. Things as I saw them then.”  (Debalina Mazumdar, July 2000)

Debalina Mazumdar was a multi talented woman whose foremost claim to fame, perhaps is that she, along with her identical twin sister, Manobina Roy, were pioneering photographers and among the first women photographers in India.

She was a lifelong member of the Photography Association of Bengal, and served as its President for three years.

Photography

Debalina and Manobina learnt photography in 1935 from their father, Binod Behari Sen Roy, 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.

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 had 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”.

Meanwhile, Debalina, who had stayed back to look after her father, married late, 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 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.

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.

Debalina photographed a range subjects from portraits to landscapes to events. She viewed photography as an art – truly painting with light. A great admirer of Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson, she was just as inspired by painters as by photographers.  At one point, Satyajit Ray asked her to come and shoot the still for one of his films, which she happily obliged.

People fascinated her the most. She loved taking portraits and photographing scenes of everyday life.  Debalina’s photographs emphasized a brilliant use of light and composition in very natural settings.  Debalina was the very antithesis of the modern digital photographer who discard hundreds of shots to find just the right one.  Photography was extremely expensive and she was a perfectionist.  She would plan the shots, almost see them in her mind before shooting and agonize over them.  She once confided that if one or two out 36 shots came out unsatisfactorily, she’d be disappointed in herself.

Among the standard family album pictures of their children growing up are some striking portraits of their daughters. In speaking about her photographs she loved to recount a story that best encapsulated which ones were her favorites and why.

Debalina and her sister the Manobina were members of U.P Photographic Association and would mail a portfolio with photographs by various photographers from around the world. Each photographer would comment on the photographs by others then add one of their own for review. Anyway, on one occasion her sister, Manobina Roy, added a photograph of her daughter which was very obviously posed. The reviews were scathing. In response, one of the members had rebuked all the critics by saying that photographs of family would warm the cockles of the heart long after the other photographs had yellowed and been forgotten.

She had beautiful pictures of Hyde park and famous historical events, yet, as she  loved to recount, photographs are ultimately about immortalizing a moment, about capturing a glimpse into how the photographer saw the world and freezing memories so that one may revisit those times again, and the photographs of her family, were just as precious if not more preious for that very reason.

Debalina’s works were primarily in black and white and she refrained from letting technological advancements becoming a clutch. She felt the fascination with gadgets detracted from a focus on the art.

Her photographs, 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. 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.

Examples of some of her photographs.

Cooking

Debalina Mazumdar was an extraordinary cook. She would go to a restaurant, eat something she liked and then reverse engineer the dish nearly exactly with no recipe to guide her.

While a lot of what she cooked reflected tradition and the opulent luxury of her background, she had an extraordinary ability to turn even the most humble ingredients into mouthwatering delicacies. She once confided that much of this she learned the hard way during partition of India. Their house was located by the railway tracks. The side they lived on were mostly Hindu, and across the tracks were mostly Muslim. Every night, with bloodcurdling yells people would race across the tracks to murder each other. Her husband sat by the window with his rifle every night, expecting the worst. At this time, there was virtually no food. The US peacekeeping troops would distribute aid, some egg powder and some starches. Apart from that, the larder was nearly bare. With nothing left, suddenly the stems and peels of vegetables that used to be thrown away had to be served up. What she did with those peels was so extraordinarily delicious that later, when normalcy returned, many of the recipes she mastered in harsher times remained popular and much sought after.

Leave a Reply