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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.


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148 – Picnic at Juhu Beach

Our family and friends at the Juhu Beach. Bombay. 1941

Our family and friends at the Juhu Beach. Bombay. 1941

Image & Text contributed by Rumi Taraporevala/ Sooni Taraporevala

This photograph of our family was taken by my youngest kaka (uncle) Shapoor at Juhu Beach. We had all gone out to Juhu beach for a picnic, outside the Palm Grove hotel (now Ramada Plaza Palm Grove). It was a regular haunt for picnics and we used to look forward to our day out for weeks. The beach was totally un-spoilt and had only a few small shacks around. Now I wouldn’t go even if someone paid me for it.

I remember, we would take the train from Grant Road to Santa Cruz and then take a bus to Juhu beach. At that time the Bombay trains were not called Western or Central railways. The Western line was called BB & CI – Bombay Baroda and Central India Railways and the Central line was called GIP – Great Indian Peninsula Railway. I don’t remember what we would do though, I think mainly chatter, run around, eat and some of us swam. Picnic lunches were fun, sometimes they were large tiffins full of Pork Vindaloo. It was very tasty.

In the middle wearing a white dress is Freny, now my beautiful wife, and on her left is me. Freny and I are also first cousins, our fathers were real brothers. Like some other communities in India, in Parsis too, marriage between cousins is allowed. Though we weren’t an arranged match, we just fell in love with each other. She was beautiful. I think even at this picnic I was eyeing her. Our parents must have noticed and declared that we must be made into a match. There was no ‘dating’ at the time, so the way I would get to meet her was – when she would be attending the girl guides meeting, I would go and fetch her back. We would walk through Azad Maidan and at Churchgate take the train to Grant road. At the time she used to live at Sleater Road. A lot of boys were after her, she was a beautiful girl you know, but I got her.

At that time there was not much entertainment for us in Bombay. In school, we were big on Hollywood movies. It was our only past time. On Thursdays and Sundays, we’d be standing in the queue at the Metro Cinema (now Metro Big Cinema) and buy tickets for Four Annas (one Anna was 1/16 of a Rupee).

In this picture, I would have been 11 years old and Freny was six months older to me. I studied at St. Xavier’s School and then St. Xavier’s college. My daddy was a foreign currency exchange broker, and would earn around Rs. 3000 a month, which was a lot of money and would take care of the entire family. After I left college, I joined the same business in 1951. At that time we didn’t question the expectations of our parents and teachers. My father was a tough disciplinarian but that was the general case with our parents anyway. My mom however, was full of mischief, and was a very jovial and fun person.

Daddy used to pay me Rs.100 and when Freny and I got married my salary was Rs. 400. It was a lot of money for us. We used to go to the movies, for the office dances, and then there was Ideal restaurant where Freny and I would eat Chicken salad for 12 Annas.

In the picture there were also my cousins from Canton, Hong Kong – Veera, Perin and Baji. My uncle and aunt were visiting India to show their children what India was like. But then Japan declared occupation in Hong Kong and they couldn’t go back. So they stayed here in Bombay for four years, until they could return. Veera was a beautiful girl. She was dark with one of the most beautiful faces one had seen. She was a great athlete, swimmer and diver -and all the boys used to run after her. My mom and she used to get along like a house on fire. They loved each other, and were in touch all the time. The ladies of my mum’s generation would correspond with each other in Gujarati and the men would write each other in English. Maybe it was because many of the orthodox families didn’t educate the girls for too long. When Freny’s elder sister was studying at Sophia’s college, one of the Parsi girls converted to Christianity. Right then my grandmother wrote to my uncle/father-in-law saying “immediately remove her from school”. Her fears were that maybe they will brainwash her into becoming a Christian.

On the top right are Jehangir Tarapore and his wife Khorshed. Jehangir was a very well known studio photographer in the Gujarati and Parsi community. His images are simply beautiful, very radical for the time. The superb quality of his prints still baffles me. Many of his photographs are now stored by a museum in London, with my daughter Sooni as the guardian.

Sorab Kaka is on the top left. He was a professor of French and he used to teach French at the Elphinstone college. Shapoor, my youngest uncle who took this picture, was very fond of photography. As children we started off with cameras such as the Brownie and Agfa. It had only six exposures. Then they increased it to eight and we were ultra excited about that. I remember we had an old gramophone too, and had to change the needle after each record revolution. Then they started making bronze needles, each lasted three records, then came the gold needle which lasted eight records. We had to change it else it would spoil the record. Can you imagine that?

This area where we live, the Gowalia tank was so beautiful at the time, it was an absolutely quiet locality. The trams used to end at the maidan (playground), and the only sound at night was the bell announcing the tram changing tracks. In 1942, the Quit India Movement Speech was issued by Gandhi right here at the maidan. I remember, I was at my boy scouts meeting and there was a rally going on. Then my father fetched me, because there was a lot of rioting and shooting going on and many people were killed.

After Indo/Pak partition Bombay changed. I remember that in December of 1942, Japan dropped a few bombs on Calcutta, and so all the Gujarati traders fearing that Bombay will be next, fled back to their native places. Several apartments were available with “To be let” signs. Or as my Gujarati colleague used to pronounce it- “Toblet”. By the late 1940s, a lot of people immigrated into Bombay from Karachi and different places – the prices started rising, houses became difficult to get, and what really changed for the worse that suddenly the builders had the bright idea of ‘ownership apartments’. Till then all Bombay flats were only on rent and we didn’t have any ownership. Of course, a lot of the Parsis were pro-brits. You will find many of them still keep pictures of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth and call them “Aapnee Rani” (Our queen). When Sooni did her photo book on the Parsis, I ensured that we get the book to the Queen in England. At first it got rejected, because of the letter bombs going around, then a British colleague helped me re-send the book to her.

I have had a wonderful life with a very warm close knit family of cousins & friends and now grandchildren. Together we have had a lot of fun. There was always some outdoor activity or the other – trekking to Nepal or scooter tours to the south of India- the sites of our subcontinent are amazing. But Bombay, I tell you, was the most beautiful and interesting city.