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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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167 – The man who compiled the first English to Hindi & Marathi dictionaries

My great grandfather, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari. Ajmer, Rajasthan. Circa 1955

My great grandfather, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari. Ajmer, Rajasthan. Circa 1955

Image & Text contributed by Myra Khanna / Rachana Yadav, Gurgaon

This is the probably the only photograph we have of my maternal great grandfather Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari or as we refer to him Nana Sahib. Born in 1891, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari was the eldest of four brothers. He was brought up in Bhanpura, a district in the Central Provinces of the subcontinent (now Madhya Pradesh, India). I never did get a chance to meet him, but stories my mother and grandmother tell me about him make me feel that would have been an honour to know him.

While there is some documentation that mentions our ancestor Rao Raghunath Singh Bhandari as the acting King of Jodhpur from 1713-1724, I am not sure how it all turned out because in our family’s current memory we had humble beginnings from a village called Jaitaran (Jodhpur District). The family then migrated to their maternal land Bhanpura where Nana Sahib was born. After his birth and as tradition was, his umbilical cord was cut and buried in the soil of our family home’s courtyard and a tree was planted. The house still stands in Bhanpura today, and in it’s courtyard so does a grand tree.

In 1904, at the age of 12, Nana Sahib was married off to 13-year-old, Roop Kavar, my great grandmother. Nana Sahib was not interested in the family business and ran away to Jodhpur to complete his education. He excelled at Marathi, Hindi and English languages and self-published his first works by translating Ralph Waldo Trine’s In tune with the Infinite in Hindi. He then went on to serve as editor to several newspapers & publications in Bombay (now Mumbai), Delhi, Patna, Ajmer and Indore. Through the course of his youth, he befriended and worked with several influential writers, poets, politicians, activists and royal families from all over the subcontinent. Deeply inspired and curious about world revolutions, cultures, literature & affairs he became a well-reputed writer and author. Two of his early books Bharat aur Angrez (India & the British) and Sansar ki krantiyan (World Revolutions) won him huge accolades and appreciation around the country.

Nanasahib was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and a fierce congressman. My mother remembers him always wearing khadi (hand-spun cloth). In the early 1910s as an assistant editor at Sadharm Pracharak, a weekly newspaper in Delhi, his articles featured Gandhi’s civil rights movement in South Africa and his words spread far and wide. Funds to support Gandhi’s cause flowed in and the newspaper was instrumental in raising Rs. 60,000 to be sent to Gandhi. In 1920, he helped establish the Congress party in Indore, Nagpur and Jaipur. Most evenings at home would come alive with debates, discussions and heated arguments between the greatest of minds of that time.

In the 1920s, he was invited to set up and co-edit an independent Hindi Marathi Weekly Malhari Martand by the Royal family of Holkars in Indore. While serving as an editor he wrote two books on the History of Indian States commissioned by Maharaja Tukaji Rao Holkar III that won him appreciation and monetary awards from several Royal Families around the country.

One of Nana Sahib’s several great accomplishments was that he was the first to have translated and compiled two 10 volume dictionaries – English to Hindi and English to Marathi; The dictionaries went on to be used as the blueprint for other regional language dictionaries that are used until today, and was used as a reference by authors such as Rabindra Nath Tagore. The dictionaries are considered to be one of the greatest achievements in Indian Literature. After the dictionaries he embarked on researching, writing and compiling the first Hindi books on around 30 academic subjects, with contributed material from international and national scholars. These books too won huge publicity and accolades around the subcontinent and were even used as reference by UNESCO in their reports.

Indore state is where Nana sahib earned countrywide respect, but also lost his fortune. My mother tells me that Nana Sahib was an extremely honest and liberal man and his views on religion, marriage, education and relationships were very modern for his time. But his honesty and high standards also made him gullible, resulting in huge losses of wealth. Amongst the many stories I’ve heard, the one I’d wish to ask him about is the time he seems to have contradicted his own belief system.

In 1925, the Bawla Murder Case (aka The Malabar Hill murder case) created a massive stir in the country. A love triangle comprising the Maharaja Tukojirao Holkar III of Indore, his most beloved courtesan Mumtaz Begum and a wealthy businessman Abdul Kadir Bawla, ended up in a royal conspiracy to kidnap the courtesan and murder the businessman by men from the Holkar house. Everyone knew that the king had given the orders and it was a great opportunity for the British to take control of Indore state. With pressures of possible dethronement, the King sought the help of Nana Sahib whose word was held in high regard politically & publicly. Knowing well that the king was indeed guilty, Nana Sahib nonetheless mediated the king’s appeal to political parties and the public. Eventually, his word paid off and the only consequence was a voluntary abdication of the throne to the King’s son Yashwant Rao Holkar II.

One would wonder why a man, so self-righteous and honest would help a man who conspired to kill. My mother and I conjecture that perhaps Nana Sahib was obligated to the Holkar family for its patronage, and returned the favour by protecting the King. As a reward, the Holkars opened up their treasury to Nana Sahib. Overnight, my great grandfather became wealthier than he had ever imagined. Ironically, he got carried away with wrong advice and bad investments, and again overnight he was back to his humble beginnings; only now with additional debts.

While Nana Sahib was still extremely popular and respected, losing money and the debt caused him some embarrassment and he decided to leave Indore and move to Ajmer with his family – his wife and five children – two sons and three daughters. Their home was open to anyone who wanted to learn and study and he would spend a lot of time educating children from the neighborhood. His youngest daughter, Mannu Bhandari (my maternal grandmother) went on to become one of the greatest Hindi authors of our times and his other daughter Sushila Bhandari established  India’s first preschool “Bal Nilaya” in the country, in Lake Gardens, Calcutta (now Kolkata).

My Nana Sahib, Sukhsampat Rai Bhandari died of throat cancer at the age of 72 and spare a few copies scattered within the family, and in some libraries around the world, all of his literary works are either lost or were donated and bought by several publications. I am told he had a huge trunk in which he kept all of his works-in-progress and insisted on carrying it with him everywhere, including in his last days to the hospital. It seems that his last works-in-progress was translating the volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica into Hindi.


161 – The Devadasi who became a Maharani

My maternal grandparents, the Maharaja & Maharani of Devas, my mother, uncle and great grandmother. Bombay. Circa 1931

My maternal grandparents, the Maharaja & Maharani of Dewas, my mother, uncle and great grandmother. Bombay. Circa 1931

Image and text contributed by Cory Walia, Mumbai

This picture is of my mother, the little girl in the center, and her immediate family taken around 1931 or 1932 in a British photo studio in south Bombay [maybe Kalbadevi]. There is no stamp on the photograph so I can’t tell which studio it may have been. My grandfather in this picture brought his family to Bombay specifically for having a series of photographs taken in the studio. He was very fond of studio portraiture and would travel to Bombay often to get his pictures taken.

My grandfather, His Highness Malhar Rao Narayan Rao Puar was a King of a small kingdom in now Madhya Pradesh, near Indore called Dewas. Originally his family were Rajputs who like several of the other Rajput nobility embraced the Maratha/Peshwa fold and began adopting the Maratha language and customs in addition to their Rajput heritage. His family claimed to be descendants of Vikramaditya, the legendary emperor in ancient India. I hope it’s true.

Seated on the extreme right is my maternal great grandmother, a lady called Krishna Rao Salgaocar. She was a commoner and belonged to the erstwhile Devadasi tradition from the Devadasi house of Saligao in Goa. In this photograph, she wears black (or navy blue) because she considered herself to be a widow of the father of her children, who while alive was a leading businessman of that time but refused to accept his children as legitimate – as was usual at the time when it came to relationships or children with Devadasis. The social status of the Devadasis had gradually fallen from tradition of respectability and equality over the centuries.

On the extreme left is her daughter, my grandmother, the lady who partially raised me and inculcated in me the love for art, mythology and cooking. She was born a Devadasi and was named Indira Salgaocar. Devadasis couldn’t take the last name of the men they were with, so they took the name of the house that they belonged to. My great grandmother belonged to the Salgaocar house from Saligao – one of the two villages in Goa who produced some of the most beautiful and most famous of Devadasis. The other village was Mulgao.

My grandfather, the King was an early widower with no children, and so someone in court sent to him my grandmother, a young beautiful woman as a diversion and to keep him company. He found my grandmother to be a beautiful, sprightly, lively, ambitious and a highly intelligent woman. She was immensely attractive to him as a companion. Given that she was a Devadasi’s daughter she was skilled in all sorts of arts, crafts, and cooking – a woman of multiple talents. He fell in love with her head over heels and decided that protocol will be damned. He married her in 1915, and made her his queen, his Maharani. As long as he was alive, no one could question him or say anything, but given that my grandmother was a commoner, the British called it a Morganatic marriage – A marriage of unequal social rank that would prevent the passage of the husband’s titles and privileges to the wife and any children born of the marriage.

When Indira married my grandfather she became Her Highness Prabhavati Raje Puar – a new name that was chosen for her based on her horoscope as per Maratha customs. In front of my grandfather are their two children, my mother Princess Shashiprabha Raje Puar, age 10 and her brother, age 12, my uncle, Prince Martan Rao Malhar Rao Puar.

Two years after this photograph was taken, my grandfather, the king suddenly passed away and my grandmother and her kids were banished from the kingdom of Dewas. The marriage to the king no longer had a place in their society and the throne of the Kingdom of Dewas was succeeded by my grandfather’s step-brother.

My grandmother, the banished Maharani along with her two children and some personal assets moved to Bombay – They first lived in Walkeshwar, then in Gamdevi and lastly in Colaba until the 1980s. For a while, they lived off their personal assets of gold, silver, cars and jewels, but in time all the wealth was spent and the world too had changed. My uncle, the Prince in the photograph served with the British Army until his death at the age of 51. He was a really gentle and a very nice man.

My mother Shashi too grew up to be a beautiful and an amazing woman. She met my father Kanwaljeet Singh also known as Cammii, at a ball dance at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in the 1940s. They fell in love, eloped and got married in a temple in 1942. They had two daughters but soon realized that a temple marriage was not recognized by the court of Indian law and my father had to move the Supreme Court of India to get the law changed and make his marriage legally recognised.

After I was born and my parents got divorced, my mother worked in my school as a nursery teacher, then in a passenger liner as a children’s stewardess. Considering the reality checks in her life, my mother was pragmatic enough to handle her past as a royal princess and her humble life after, with utmost grace.

There have been people who have pointed out the scandalous past of my maternal family and I have shown them the door. I think the women in my family were strong, individualistic and beautiful women who made the best of their lives. Many people in India are embarrassed to talk about their Devadasi origins because society and history don’t look very kindly upon it, but it was their reality – and yes, it was highly exploitative state of affairs. Some of our early singers and actresses in Indian Films came from the Devadasi tradition because they couldn’t afford to be ashamed. They were forward and bold women who decided to earn their own keep. I don’t see the frowning upon as justified, but everyone is entitled to their own point of view. I have fashioned my own life upon not caring about society’s opinions, and it has worked out just fine.

Earlier, when I looked at this photograph I used to feel a sense of lost glory, but now I feel great pride in my ancestry. My grandfather was a good man, a spiritual man and he didn’t care that his wife came from the background of a Devadasi. He was proud and happy to have her as his wife and welcomed his mother-in-law, also a Devadasi, in his palace. Not many people would have the gumption to do that, even today.