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Matrimonial Portraits

188 – The identical twins were two of the earliest women photographers of India

My mother Manobina and aunt Debalina. Calcutta (now Kolkata), West Bengal. Circa 1940

Image and Narrative points contributed by Joy Bimal Roy, Mumbai

This is an photograph of my mother Manobina Roy (left) and her identical twin sister Debalina Mazumdar (right) (nee SenRoy) taken in the c.1940 in Calcutta (now Kolkata). It is most likely that the image was photographed by my father, the acclaimed film-maker, Bimal Roy. My mother and her twin sister were born in 1919, merely 15/20 minutes apart. However, Debalina, came first, a few minutes before midnight on November 26, and my mother a few minutes after, on November 27. Hence, while they were twins they had two dates of births. At home they were fondly called Lina di and Bina di.

In mid 18th century, my maternal family, the Sen-Roys, migrated on boat up the Ganges, from Banda, Jessore district (now in Bangladesh) to the princely state of Benaras (now Varanasi). Our family is unsure why they moved to the north; perhaps the elders, like millions of others, wished to spend their last days at the pilgrimage in Benaras; nonetheless the region became their home for four generations. At the time, Benaras was under the rule of Kashi Naresh [King of Kashi (Ancient name of Beneras)] whose capital fort was situated in a beautiful city, right across the river, in Ramnagar. For generations, the royal family had been patrons of knowledge – later donating land for several educational institutions including the Benaras Hindu University.

Fortunately for our family, in addition to ensuring good education for his six sons, my maternal great-grandfather also became the tutor to the king’s son, the young prince of Benaras, Yuvraj Prabhu Narayan Singh. By the time the prince became the next king, the kingdom was absorbed into the British Empire’s United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (U.P.A.O). My grandfather, Binod Behari Sen Roy, one of the six brothers, completed his Masters degree and began teaching at the Nanak Chand Trust (later Nanak Chand Anglo Sanskrit College) in Meerut. He was fluent in Persian, Sanskrit, Urdu, English & Bengali and was deeply interested in culture, arts and photography. He even became a member of the Royal Photographic Society of Britain.

In 1913, on the behest of the king, my grandfather Binod was asked to tutor the King’s son, Yuvraj Aditya Narayan Singh, and help start Meston High School, (named after U.P.A.O’s Lieutenant-Governor, Sir James Meston), in Ramnagar. The school, now a college, has been renamed Prabhu Narayan Government Inter College, and is one of the oldest colleges of Northern India. My grandfather served as the head master of the school- he was paid a good salary and was given a large home surrounded with nature – with hundreds of trees, plants, flowering gardens, and domestic animals.

After their marriage, my grandparents had three daughters, Anusuya, the eldest, and then in 1919, Debalina and Manobina the identical twins. My grandfather was a progressive man and wished for his daughters to be well educated, however Anusuya got married at the age 13, to a science student training under C.V Raman, so my grandfather focused his attention on the twins. He would take them to attend durbars, cultural programs, encouraged them to be curious and engage with nature, music, as well as academics. Once he even once took them to see a Mujra (courtesan performance) and I am told my grandmother was seriously upset. The king’s children also became friends and every Ramlila (Ramnagar’s original and most famous event of the year) the girls were sent the royal elephant for a ride. On another occasion the king gifted them a tiger cub, that eventually had to be returned. The life they led as children, my mother would tell us, was indeed nothing short of a fairy tale. It was a very happy childhood.

On their 12th birthday, my grandfather gifted the twins a Brownie (camera) each, on the condition that they learn to process film and make prints – and built them a makeshift dark room. So began a fascinating life-long zeal with photography that both sisters engaged with for the rest of their lives. They photographed nature, landscapes, people and even each other. As young adults, they became members of the United Provinces Postal Portfolio Circle, a group created by the Photographic Society of India where members would exchange photographic prints through post that would get exhibited in a salon in another city.

In 1936, after my mother (Ma), Manobina, got married to my father, Bimal Roy, and they moved to Calcutta. She was 17 and he was 27. My father at the time was working as a photographer, soon as a cinematographer and eventually as history notes, went on to become one of the most well-known film makers of the subcontinent. My aunt, Debalina pursued a Master’s degree in Calcutta and like my mother, she too continued to practice photography. Seven years later, she too got married and had children.

The first photographs under both sisters’ names were published in a 1937 journal, Shochitro Bharat. In 1940, of the 81 photographs displayed at the Allahabad Salon (now Prayagraj), Debalina and Manobina’s photographs were of most interest. They sent competition entries and won prizes. While they engaged with photography, many a times in each other’s company, they knew that even photographing the same subject would have different results with two different point of views.

Through the course of the sisters’ lives, photography was not a professional engagement, yet it was a serious discourse. While my father was out working on films, my mother held the domestic fort, had four children, ensured we were all well cared for, and continued photographing, but mostly within the extended family – documenting our childhood, travels, events and family members. Known as the ‘lucky’ photographer, a matrimonial photograph of a girl taken by her would supposedly and immediately get marriage offers. She loved photographing people more than anything else. Nonetheless there were some opportunities that I am sure cheered her privately. While my father, I personally feel, did not encourage my mother’s craft enough, but acknowledging their serious interest, would now and then offer both the sisters information and material to read on camera, lenses, and film rolls. Debalina’s husband on the other hand was not that interested in photography, but she too found herself often composing pictures with enthusiastic members of her family-in-law.

In 1951, a series in the The Illustrated Weekly of IndiaTwenty-five Portraits of Rabindranath Tagore” included a portrait of him photographed by Ma at Jagannath Puri. The same year our family moved to Bombay and Ma would photograph portraits and lives of friends, family, streets of international cities, our own country’s rural and tribal lives. She even photographed portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit and V. K. Krishna Menon among others. Nehru, I am told, considered it to be one of his favourite portraits.

In 1959, Ma found an opportunity to publish her work again with The Illustrated Weekly of India when she traveled to Moscow with my father, who was on a film jury for the 1st Moscow International Film Festival. She was asked to take photographs and write about her visit. After that she began writing a column for Femina on her musings about the world. She wrote well and would write often, if not for someone else, then for herself, or for us. Now when I think back everything my mother ever told us was always a wonderful story told with great relish. Her beautiful stories about her life or others, her sensitive approach to life still resonates with us. Debalina too received opportunities to publish her work in some journals including the The Illustrated Weekly of India. Many a times, the sisters would meet in different cities, and with children in tow, photographed street after street with great gusto. In London, they even photographed the suffragettes. Debalina eventually went on to serve the Photography Association of Bengal as Chairperson for three years.

The twin sisters are considered to be two of the earliest and pioneering women photographers of the Indian Subcontinent, even if neither of them became professionals. In interviews, they both individually mused that they had led very happy and exciting lives, yet in another time they could been professional photojournalists.

My mother, Manobina, continued photographing well into her late 70s until her health began to give way and she passed away in 2001 after a prolonged illness at the age of 82. At home in Mumbai, she spent the last few weeks with her sister with whom she had shared considerable time, in the womb, in life and in creative expression. Ma has left us a legacy in form of an incredible body of photographic works, as well as written literature. My aunt Debalina, who passed away ten years later in 2012 at 92, has also left behind her own legacy, an amazing body of work that now lies as an estate with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.


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159 – Announcing the bride’s educational qualifications

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(Left) My grandparents’ photograph taken shortly after their marriage. (Right) The Wedding invitation card. Poona, Maharashtra. 1941

Image and Text contributed by Aparna Pandey, Mumbai

This is a photograph of my grandparents Champa Tai and Vasant Rao taken shortly after they got married. On the right is an invitation to my grandmother’s wedding in 1941. It has been carefully preserved by the family and was handed over to me by my mother recently. I treasure it, not because of the sentimental reasons, but because it tells a story of far greater significance.

This wedding invite is unique because it proudly announces the bride’s educational qualifications, right next to her name. You have to keep in mind, that women’s education at that time in ancient India was almost non-existent.

My grandmother had decided quite early on that she will be educated first and then get married. As a child, she lost both her parents very early and was brought up by her two elder brothers who completely understood and encouraged her dream.

However, there was a problem – There was no school for a young brahmin Maharashtrian girl to study in. The brothers got her to Poona (now Pune) where the well-known social reformer, Maharshi Karve had started a school for girls, as well as an ashram where young widows could live and learn. This concept was alien and completely norm shattering for the brahmins of Poona leading to the resistance to opening such a school to be set up in the main city. Maharshi Karve had no choice but to set up the school on the outskirts of Poona. He braved all odds and went ahead with his mission of educating women. There wasn’t even a road to get there, so the teachers and students made a path through the fields to reach the school.

My grandmother Champa, was amongst the very first ‘Kumarikas’ (young unmarried girls) to actually live in this ashram from the tender age of nine. The family was progressive and agreed that it was indeed important for a girl to be educated. At the end of it, she earned the princely degree of GA that stood for ‘Gruhita Aagamaa‘ a Sanskrit title which could loosely translate to a BA degree today.

Luckily my grandmother got married into an educated family. My grandfather, the groom Vasant Rao was an MSC in Zoology himself and went on to do his Phd. He later taught at Elphinstone College in Bombay (now Mumbai) and his father was a doctor who had educated himself in London. They were very happy to welcome this qualified girl into their family.

Several years and two kids later, while managing a large joint family in Bombay, my grandmother did her Masters and then a one year course, equivalent of a B.Ed. She taught English and Marathi to the ‘metric’ students in Dyaneshwar Vidyalaya in Wadala, Bombay, for 15 years. She was highly revered by her students.

In the 16th year of her career she gave it all up. My grandmother had to visit her son in the USA, that year and considering she would be gone for three months, her integrity could not allow the students suffer because of her absence. She decided to take on extra teaching classes and made sure that she completed the important portion for her students, and then she simply quit. The principal was shocked. If she took leave, then they would have to look for a temporary teacher to take the classes, and temporary teachers were not easily available and neither did they put in their best because they were after all, temporary.
The principal told her that the pay scales were rising that year and that should she stay in the job and benefit from it. The pension would be higher too. But my grandmother would have none of it. She did not want her students to suffer on account of her. He pleaded but to no avail. They did not want to lose their best teacher. But she did not want to be unfair to her students. It needs to be said that my grandparents came from a middle-class Maharashtrian family and money was important. It must have needed a lot of gumption to be able to make this decision.

For years, my grandmother’s students came to share their joys and successes with her. She did not suffer fools and did not hesitate to give people a piece of her mind if she felt that there was reason to. She had the most open mind where no topic was taboo. My grandmother Champa Tai, was a woman ahead of her time. I am proud to have known her. On this woman’s day in 2016, I salute her, for following her dreams and always standing up for what she believed in.


141 – Portrait of a debutante

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My maternal grandmother, Monica Guha (née Roy Chowdhury). Calcutta, West Bengal. 1925

Image and Text contributed by Aparna Datta, Bangalore

This is a picture of my maternal grandmother, Monica Guha, (née Roy Chowdhury). The photograph was recently gifted to me by my aunt, my mother’s first-cousin. My aunt had found this classic studio portrait, complete with potted plants and painted canvas backdrop, amongst a collection of photographs belonging to her late father, Monica’s brother.

On the reverse of the photograph is a rubber stamp with a date ‘3.11.25’, with ink that hasn’t yet faded. The photograph had been taken at Dass Studio, P 21/A Russa Road North, Calcutta. The rubber stamp stated “Copy can be obtain at any time. Please quote the number.” Endearingly, there is also a name “Monu”, her family nick name, hand-written in Bengali.

While looking at the photograph I noticed she wore no bindi and no sindoor – symbols that a married woman would wear. Laden with jewellery, top to bottom, this simply had to be a rite-of-passage ‘portrait of a debutante’, a matrimonial image, intended to be shown to prospective grooms and their families. As a time-honoured ritual in arranged marriages, the significance of such a photograph, as a cultural artefact, was inescapable. 

I call this picture the ‘Barefoot Princess’.

The picture and the date-stamp had a rabbit-hole effect on me, drawing me in, coaxing me to contextualise the image. My mother had passed away, so I dredged the recesses of my mind, trying to recall bits of family history she had shared with me over the years. I spent weeks tracking down near and distant relatives all over India, picking up strands to weave into a narrative.

Monica was born in July of 1912, at Lucknow, United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). Her father, Nirupam Roy Chowdhury, was the son of the Zamindar of Ghalghallia, Taki, located in the North 24 Parganas, a District of West Bengal. Taki is a town on the banks of the Ichhamati River, that borders Bangladesh. The Roy Chowdhurys were descendants of Raja Basanta Roy of Jessore, uncle of Raja Pratapaditya, one of the twelve ‘bhuiyans‘ or enlightened chieftains who ruled the Sultanate of Bengal (1336–1576 C.E.). Raja Pratapaditya had fought against the Mughal imperial army during its attempts to make inroads into Bengal in the early 16th century. By 1574 he had declared his independence from the Mughals and established an independent Hindu state in Bengal.

Nirupam Roy Chowdhury was a civil engineer and served with the Government of the then undivided Bengal. His postings took him all over the province.

 Monica’s mother was Kanak Lata, daughter of Rai Bahadur Dr. Mohendra Nath Ohdedar, the first Indian Civil Surgeon of the United Provinces.

During early 20th century (and for some, even until now), it was customary for women to go to their mamabari (mother’s home) to give birth, and so all Kanak Lata’s ten children – six sons and four daughters, were born in Lucknow, at the home of their maternal grandfather.

As the eldest girl, Monica was destined for an early marriage. Education would have certainly featured in her life, however I am not so sure if they formally attended school or were home schooled, and much of their young lives were spent travelling between their paternal and maternal grandparents’ homes.

Indeed, at the age of 13, in 1926, just months after this photograph sitting, Monica did find a suitable husband, a doctor, Dr. Ajit Kumar Guha. She along with her husband (my grandfather) moved to her husband’s and in-laws’ home at Motihari, Bihar. Soon after, my mother was born in 1929, the eldest of five children, four daughters and one son. Monica and Dr. Ajit and the whole family moved to Patna around 1935 and settled there.

Monica, my grandmother’s life was serene and was spent as an efficient home maker. She passed away peacefully in January 1993, in the same house where she ran her own world, her sansar and where she had lived for 58 years.  The grace and poise I see in the portrait characterised her all her life.


14 – Matrimonial picture of a girl just back from school

My grandmother, Rohini Thejappa Palan (nee Talwar), Bombay, Maharashtra. Circa 1939

Image contributed by Manorath Palan, Grandson of Mrs Rohini Thejappa Palan (above).

My Grandmother Rohini Palan studied at the Raja Ram Mohan High School at Girgaum. This picture was taken at a studio there. It is probably the same picture as the one I hear my Great-grandfather had shown of his daughter (my grandmother), to prospective grooms and fix her alliance, right after she returned from school.

She lived a healthy and active life without any illness or old age related disorder. She passed away peacefully at the age of 88 in 2006.