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Meerut

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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160 – The Purana Qila Incident

Standing in the middle, my grandfather George O'Brien. Delhi. Circa 1947

Standing in the middle, my grandfather George O’Brien. Delhi. Circa 1947

Image and text contributed by Simon Digby, UK

My grandfather, George O’Brien, was born in Meerut in 1900. His grandparents had fled Ireland in 1847 to escape the Great Potato Famine. My great great grandfather then joined the British army and the family moved to India. In India, they became part of the Irish diaspora, but they were alive and being fed by their old enemy, the British.

During the Second World War, my grandfather volunteered to be the Indian Home Guard. He had his own platoon of part timers whose role was to keep the peace and defend India against her enemies. At the end of the war, the platoon was retained to maintain order as Indian Pakistan Partition was tearing the country apart. 

In September of 1947, thousands of displaced Muslims were taking refuge in the Purana Qila in Delhi and were extremely agitated as they feared attacks on their journey to Pakistan. Mahatma Gandhi heard of their terror and drove to the fort to allay their fears. The crowd listened to their leader, but a more agitated group worked themselves into a frenzy and started to attack Gandhi’s car. My grandfather’s platoon had been called to the incident and arrived to see the mob smashing the car windows and shouting violent threats. I am told my grandfather, George climbed on top of the roof of Gandhi’s vehicle and shouted in Hindi, “This is the only man that can save you!” and managed to placate the crowd long enough to get the car out. 

Unfortunately, Gandhi was assassinated the following January. A great global leader was lost, but my grandfather George O’Brien had played his small part in history. My grandfather told me that a reporter called Ralph Izzard (a famous Daily Mail hack) wrote an article which appeared in The Times titled, ‘Mad Irishman saves Gandhi‘. Unfortunately, I have not been able to track the article down because he never told which ‘Times’ it was; The Times of India or The London Times or another Times!), and my Grandfather was too modest to keep a copy for himself. But his story concurs with Gandi’s visit to the Purana Qila on September 22, 1947. 

My Grandfather spent his whole life in India living in Delhi & Meerut. He was born in 1900 and died in 1986. He married Sheila Gately, my grandmother who was of Irish lineage too. Sheila’s brother Michael Gately won a gold medal at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics playing field hockey for India with Dhyan Chand, the legendary player, on the team

After leaving his job as a home guard, he worked for the rest of his life with the British Motor Corporation and referred to it as ‘Bugger My Car’ company, although this was down to a great sense of humour rather than a derogatory comment about his employers. My grandfather also loved fishing and at one time had the record for the largest Rainbow Trout ever caught in Asia. His daughter, my mother got a scholarship to study in Dublin when she was 17, she met my father (an Irish doctor) and then stayed in Ireland. They had a family of five; me being the middle one.

 I was lucky enough to stay with my grandfather for a month in 1983, at Church Street, Meerut. It was the only time I met him and I was filled up with so many questions I had about my heritage. I am very proud of my Indian heritage and have visited India with my own family to give them a taste of their past. We now live all around the world, but Ireland is home.


93 – He designed motorbikes, served the British Army and worked in a circus with his wife.

My grandfather, Captain Glyndon Ralph O’Leary, fondly known as Mike. Location – probably Sibi, Balochistan Province (Now Pakistan). 1941

 

Image and Text contributed by Shaun Waller & Oonagh Waller, United Kingdom

These are the memories of my mother, Oonagh who was born in India to my grandparents, Glyndon Ralph O’Leary (Mike) and Sheilagh Anges Mary Maguire. – Shaun

“My father, Glyndon Ralph O’Leary was fondly known as Mike. He was born in 1902 in Toronto, Canada to Winifred and Ralph O’Leary, who were of Irish descent.

At the age of Twelve, he left Canada and began his military career in the Boys service, Indian Subcontinent from 1914 – 1919 and continued in various regiments serving the British Empire on and off until 1946.

Mike was also a Practical Motor Engineer: his brothers and he owned and worked in a motorcycle workshop and showroom called the O’Leary Brothers in Dehradun, Uttar Pradesh. They also designed and built a motorcycle called the White Streak. However, it never made it to production. At one point, they bought an old motorcycle, a Brough Superior from T. E. Lawrence (The very original Lawrence of Arabia) and exhibited it in their showroom.

While in the army in Lahore, Mike manufactured scale models for Forest Research, Rural upliftment, P.W.D. and Irrigation departments and also tactical models for training of mechanised fighting vehicles. 12 such gold medal standard models manufactured by him were on display in the Forestry Department of Lahore Central Museum. I wonder if they are still there.

Mike married Sheilagh Anges Mary Maguire in October 1928 in Lahore and subsequently had three children – Michael, Oonagh and Larry. Later the children went to boarding school in Mussoorie: Wynberg Girls High School and Allen Memorial Boys School.

In between postings, and to earn more money, Mike and Sheilagh also joined a circus, I don’t remember the name of the circus anymore, but it was in Lahore and managed by a Captain.Edwards. Mike trained would ride the Drome (‘Wall of Death’ or ‘Maut ka Kuan’) on his motorbike and also climbed a high ladder (in costume): he would douse himself with Petrol, set himself on fire and dive into a tank below full of water. Sheilagh, my mother, play her part too: she stood on stage with a cigarette between her lips while Captain Edwards, trained as an ace shooter in the military, would fire a pistol at the cigarette.

In Sibi, (a Balochistan province of now Pakistan) Mike and family represented the only military presence there, amid railway workers and their families. For leisure, Mike would hire ‘beaters’ and go on a wild boar shoot – the beaters would make as much noise as they could with sticks, tins etc. to flush out the boar then Mike would shoot down a couple. Back home the meat would be shared with neighbours.

On other occasions, the family went ‘fishing’, travelling on a trolley (a bench like structure on a platform with four wheels which fitted on the railway lines). Hired help would run along the lines, bare foot and push the trolley along and when the lake was reached, a halt was called. Mike would unsportingly throw a couple of sticks of dynamite into the water and the stunned fish would rise to the surface: all the men and boys would jump in the shallow end and retrieved the fish which, again, was shared with local families. His last posting was probably in Quetta (also a Balochistan province of now Pakistan).

Mike (Capt. Glyndon Ralph O’Leary) died in September 1945 during a Diabetic Coma. My mother Sheilagh and us children then moved to Meerut, Uttar Pradesh to stay with our maternal grandparents. A year later and a few months before Partition, in September 1946 we emigrated to England.”

On the ship, a whole trunk of personal belongings was apparently lost overboard and it included most of the family photos: very few images survive today. This is one of them.