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Cinematographer

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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156 – The force behind my grandfather’s success

My grandparents, Bani and Radhika Karmakar . Bombay (now Mumbai). Maharashtra. 1972

My grandparents, Bani and Radhu Karmakar. Bombay. Maharashtra. December 1979

Image & Text contributed by Anuradha Karmakar, Mumbai

My Dida (grandmother in Bengali) Bani Karmakar (née Roy) was born on October 5, 1926 in Shologhor, Dacca District in erstwhile East Bengal. She had a rather impoverished childhood as the eldest child of a large family with three sisters, two brothers and a host of extended family members. She witnessed, at close quarters, the horrors of the Great Bengal Famine of 1943, where three million people perished.

Dida did not have much of a formal education as she was married off in 1944, at the age of 17 to Radhika Jiban Karmakar, a soft-spoken 28-year-old man from Gramwari, Dacca (now Dhaka). Radhika Jiban left home at the age of 16, worked in the Calcutta Film Industry as a lab technician and also learnt photography from Jatin Das, a well-known photographer in Calcutta (now Kolkata). He then migrated with Das to Bombay in 1940, leaving behind a young wife in East Bengal with his family, where their first daughter, Sudevi was born in October 1947. The horrors of the communal massacres during 1946-1947 were witnessed by Bani, as also during one harsh monsoon, the swollen river Padma, changed course and devoured houses and paddy fields, the only source of sustenance for many. These two unfortunate events forced the mass exodus of many Bengalis seeking refuge and the Karmakars were among the millions who were forced to leave everything behind in 1948, many of whom migrated to West Bengal.

After a short stay in West Bengal, Bani found herself joining her cinematographer husband in the hustle and bustle of Bombay, which was to be their new home in 1949. They stayed in modest houses in Andheri and Sion where their four younger children; Radha, Krishna Gopal, Meera and Brojo Gopal, were born. From a small village to living in Bombay, without much support and a growing family with a host of relatives, was a tough task for the young mother, which she handled to the best of her abilities.

Radhika Jiban (whose name was shortened to Radhu, on Mr. Raj Kapoor’s insistence) worked as a cameraman and subsequently as cinematographer with RK Studios (now R.K. Films). His work involved erratic work schedules and travel within and outside India and hence primarily Bani was responsible for bringing up five children. They lived a frugal life together as much of her husband’s meager salary was spent on their children and extended family. Her home was the first stop for a horde of relatives and others who would arrive to make it big in Bombay. There were times when there was no food left for her at the end of the day due to unexpected guests and she would have one roti with sugar to keep her going. The matriarch complained to no one.

She found the time to educate herself in English and pick up skills in handicrafts. She never attended the flashy movie premieres, filmy parties or social gatherings while her husband rubbed shoulders with the who’s who of Indian and International Cinema. She preferred staying at home and taking care of her family. Together, the couple witnessed many important milestones in life- graduations, heartbreaks, first jobs, marriages, promotions and the births of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

My grandfather, Radhu Karmakar came to be known as one of the ’10 best Cinematographers in the World’ and much of his professional achievements and laurels can be attributed to the sage and timely advice of his wife and my grandmother. He had won many awards during his lifetime which we proudly display in our family home, but what my grandmother was able to achieve was intangible; besides being a great cook, she managed a warm home, raised self-reliant and educated children, and was a role model for all those who came in contact with her. Radhu Karmakar  passed away on October 5, 1993 at the age of 77, in a car accident while returning from shooting the movie ‘Param Vir Chakra’. He was on his way back to Bombay (now Mumbai) to be with his wife on her birthday. Bani immersed herself in religion and spirituality, household work and doting on her grandchildren, to deal with the grief of her husband’s sudden demise.

My grandmother Bani Karmakar, passed away on May 14, 2015, at the age of 87, due to a prolonged illness. She had suffered a stroke, was battling Dementia and was just a shadow of her former energetic self. She loved being surrounded by us even when she could not recall our names. Sometimes she would revert to her childhood days in East Bengal, calling out names of friends and family who were long gone. Yet, that isn’t how I choose to remember my Dida. To me, she will always remain my strong-willed, stubborn, strict and very loving grandmother, a little rough around the edges, but a gem of a human being. During her last days, when asked what her last wishes were, Dida said that she would love to see me get married and then she could die in peace. She won’t witness my wedding ceremony, but the day I get married, I know she will be there to bless me, watching and smiling her cheeky smile.