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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.


The work on Indian Memory Project takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But it is necessary work and parallel views on our histories matter – now more than ever. If everyone who reads or refers to the project – likes it, admires it and benefits from it, please do help fund it and it will make the future of this project much more robust and reassured. You can support Indian Memory Project for as little as Rs. 100 or more if you prefer – AT THIS LINK


187 – My grandmother, the landowner

My paternal grandmother, Damyanti Thakur. Nitther, Kullu district, Himachal Pradesh. Circa 1978

Image and narrative points contributed by Mehak Thakur, Mumbai

This photograph is of my grandmother Damyanti dancing on the occasion of her youngest brother’s marriage on the porch of our ancestral house designed in traditional Himalayan Kath Kuni architecture in Nitther, a small village in Kullu District, Himachal Pradesh.

My grandmother says she was dancing the Pahadi Nati, a folk Pahari Dance. The traditional dress of Kullu is Reesta, an attire that was inspired by the British gown, a combination of a long kameez (shirt) tucked inside a long heavily pleated skirt accompanied with a Sluka (Jacket). Alternately, it is also made in a tunic form with woolen fabric to be worn over in winters, which my grandmother wears in this picture.

Ancestrally, my family were Zamindars (land owners) and like many land owners of the time cultivated Opium up until the early 20th century for the British until its prohibition and drop in trade. Opium consumption in the subcontinent was common and was (in some places still is) also fed in small quantities to babies, mixed in milk, and while they slept their mothers do the house chores and work in the farms. After Opium was dropped, landowners began cultivating other crops and ours grew Basmati Rice and formed Apples and Cherry Orchards.

My grandmother Damyanti Goswami Pandit (later Thakur) was born in 1947. She was the second child to a family of two sisters and three brothers. However as unspoken tradition was within several families in the subcontinent, she was offered for adoption to relatives within the family who had no children of their own. My grandmother was deeply loved and pampered, so much so that she did no house chores. As an adult and after her adopted parents passed, regional hereditary laws favoured my grandmother, because unlike much of the subcontinent at the time, daughters in our custom could inherit property and assets of their parents. Right after high school, my grandmother got married at the age of 16. I wonder about the generational irony though – she had enough sources to have gone abroad and continue her education, yet she chose a life of a wife and delivered her first child at a young age, my dad, at the age of 17. She was still a young girl herself, and there were stories of how she would be off to play with her friends while her mother took care of her grandchild, her daughter’s first born. In a following years my grandparents had four children, two sons and two daughters.

My grandfather came from a Rajput family in the same village. He was educated and the only one in the entire village to have graduated and work with government services. Interestingly unlike most women, my grandmother didn’t adapt to traditional roles of motherhood, and their four children were mostly taken care of by my grandfather while he was posted in Simla, because good education was only available in bigger towns. My grandmother, on the other hand, chose to live in the village and actively take care of her lands and farming businesses with frequent visits to Simla. The children grew up to be in the Armed Forces, Farming land and in Government services.

This photograph literally symbolizes my grandmother. I remember her dressing up like a bride whenever she got a chance and dance. My father inherited the same love for dressing well and would spend his entire pocket money on having the latest fashion copied for himself. Needless to say, their love and quest for dressing up well has been passed on to me.

Both my grandparents now stay on and off between Simla and the farm land. My grandmother is now 71, she is still immensely loved and adored by everyone in the village. She continues to actively looks after her lands and she still loves to dress up and dance like she is 16.


The work on Indian Memory Project takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce. But it is necessary work and parallel views on our histories matter – now more than ever. If everyone who reads or refers to the project – likes it, admires it and benefits from it, please do help fund it and it will make the future of this project much more robust and reassured. You can support Indian Memory Project for as little as Rs. 100 or more if you prefer – AT THIS LINK


182 – The German garden designer of the Indian Subcontinent

My great-grandfather, Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel and great-grandmother Klara, with their family at home. Bangalore, Mysore Presidency (now Karnataka). Circa 1935

 

Image and Text contributed by Alyia Phelps-Gardiner, UK

This is a photography of my great grandfather Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel with his family, also known as GHK, taken at their residence, Granite Castle, in Bangalore.

My great grandfather Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel or GHK as we call him, was born on December 18, 1865 in Lohmen, Germany. He studied horticulture and garden design at Pilnitz, Germany and after graduating, wrote several letters for an opportunity to work with The Royal Parks in London, until finally, he was offered a job to design the flower beds for Hyde Park, the largest Royal Park in London, UK. After his contract at Hyde Park ended, he became an employee and a lecturer at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew (London district) and in his spare time studied Architecture design at Kensington University.

The beautiful gardens of London were a usual visit for most of the Indian Subcontinent’s Royalty and thus an impressed Maharaja of Baroda, Sayajirao Gaekwad III, asked for a horticulturist for his gardens. When GHK was presented with the offer to be his horticulturist for the Baroda State, and considering a radically different climate of the Tropics, I have no doubt that my great grandfather would have thought of it as the most interesting opportunity, and accepted the offer. GHK moved to India in 1893, at the age of 26 was soon joined by his wife, my English great grandmother Katie Clara who arrived at the shores of Bombay at the age of 18. My Grandmother Hilda, Great Aunts Frieda and Vera were all born in Baroda (now in Gujarat).

Over the course of time, GHK was hired by several Princely states across the subcontinent all of whom who had begun to compete with each other over gardens and talent. He designed his way across northern India with over 50 gardens, tea and coffee plantation estates of Ooty, several palaces and towns in Kerala and down south to the rocky terrain of Bangalore (now Bengaluru) when he was introduced to Maharaja Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, the King of Mysore. In 1908, GHK was offered the job as the superintendent to redesign the Lalbagh layout and was gifted a home, a bunglow known as Granite Castle. The family embraced Bangalore with their hearts and decided to make it their home.

During World War II, when the Dewan of Mysore, Mirza Ismail, appointed GHK as an architectural consultant to Mysore, Jaipur & Hyderabad, the British Residents in Mysore staged a huge protest. All Germans in India were declared enemies. Moreover, his letters show that he was quite vocal about his support for India’s independence. My English grandmother too, was labeled a traitor, because she had married a German. Twice it happened that the British Army imprisoned GHK in prisoner-of-war camps to be deported back to Germany. My great grandmother and her daughters were placed under house arrest, but both times the Maharajah of Mysore who had come to become a good friend, came to their rescue. The Maharajah later commissioned a painting and a bust of GHK, which currently resides at the Royal Palace of Mysore. Other visiting kings would gift GHK Tiger cubs and Elephants calves, until my great grandmother banned them from the house, as they would chew and ruin the furniture. A royal gift, a Gandaberunda bracelet, to my grandmother Hilda on her 18th birthday in 1915, is one that I wear often.

As a superintendent for Lalbaug, GHK got to work creating the best Botanical Garden of the country, and began obtaining seeds from other countries and in return introduced the west to collections of bamboo, varieties of rice, and mango from India. He planted hundreds of new ornamental plants and flowering trees in Bangalore that would be covered in bloom through the year, including over 50% of the nearly 9,000 trees from 800 genera in Lalbagh. GHK designed the ornamental structures in Lalbagh such as balustrades, arches, staircases, bridges, pedestals, vases and fountains and with the honour of picking the site for Vidhana Soudha (State Legislature), he began influencing several urban planning decisions within the city. He introduced Art deco architectural styles and used local materials that have significantly formed the urban aesthetic of Bangalore. Within a few years, GHK had Bangalore earn the title ‘Garden City of India’ and ‘Green City’. However, had he seen Bangalore today, I know he would have been severely disappointed with its upkeep.

My grandmother Hilda recollects that the great grandmother Klara was a master baker and all the staff at the botanical gardens would have cake with their lunch. On Sundays, both GHK and Klara would cycle around Lalbagh giving out plants to people and school children for free. He even began teaching prisoners to grow crops as he believed it would give offer them a renewed purpose. GHK envisioned a grand and healthy future in India through horticulture and inspired several other states in the Indian subcontinent to create a history of horticultural legacy.

After he retired from his post in 1932, GHK continued to live in Bangalore, working as consulting architect and advisor in town planning and horticulture. His very last assignment at the age of 90, was for the Indian Government to landscape the Raj Ghat Memorial Gardens in memory of Mahatma Gandhi.

My great grandfather Gustav Hermann Krumbiegel passed away in February of 1956 and was buried at the Methodist cemetery on Hosur Road, Bangalore. His epitaph reads, “Whatever he touched, he adorned”, and even though I never met my great grandfather, whenever my feet touch the Indian soil, I know, I’m home. The road adjoining the Lalbagh Botanical Garden is named after him as Krumbiegel Road.