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 India “Twenty-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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Nov 27, 2018 | Categories: 1800s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, Accolades & Awards, Agra, Architecture, Bangladesh, Bengali, Bengali, Boat, Bollywood, Calcutta, Celebrations, Cinematographer, Clubs, Cotton, Cultural Attire, Director/Producer, Dressed for an Occasion, Education, Elite, English, English Medium, Femina, First of a kind, Founders, Future icons from the Past, Ganges, Glamour, Government Jobs, Hair Styles, Hand-written, Hindi, Hinduism, Hindustani Classical, Holidays, House Wife, Indian Film Industry, Indian Film Industry, Indian Music, Indian Politics, Jewellery, Landscape, Late Marriage, Letters, Literacy, Literary, London, Love & Romance, Masters, Matrimonial Portraits, Medal, Meerut, Meston High School, Migration, Most Popular, Movies, Photo Collection, Photo Studio, Photographer, Photographic Techniques, Photography, Photography, Picnic, Poet/Writer, Politician, Pre-1947 Indian Regions & States, Pre-Independence, Previous, Ramnagar, Regional Cinema, Royality, Sanskrit, Sarees, Scholar, Scientist, Shikar (Game Hunt), Siblings, Soviet Union (USSR), Studio Portraits, Teacher, The Illustated Weekly of India, Theatre, Tigers, Town Fairs, Travel, Twins, Twins, United Kingdom, United Provinces of Agra & Oudh, Urdu, Uttar Pradesh, Varanasi, Weddings, West Bengal, Widow, Women Empowerment, Zamindar | Tags: 1919, 1940s, 1951, 1959, 1st Moscow International Film Festival, 2001, 2012, Allahabad, archive, banaras, Banda, Bangladesh, Benaras, Benaras Hindu University, Bengali, Bimal Roy, Binod Behari Sen Roy, Boat, Bollywood, Bombay, British Empire, Brownie, Brownie camera, C.V. Raman, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Chairperson, Cinema, Courtesan, CV Raman, Dark Room, Debalina Mazumdar, Durbar, Education, English, Exhibition, Femina, Film Maker, Ganges, Gold, Identical Twins, Illustrated Weekly of India, Jagannath Temple, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jessore, Jewellery, Joy Bimal Roy, Jury, Kashi Naresh, Kolkata, Linguist, London, Manobina Roy, Matrimonial Portraits, Meerut, Meston High School, Moscow, Mujra, Mumbai, Nanak Chand Anglo Sanskrit College, Nanak Chand Trust, Persian, Photographic Society of India, Photography, Photography Association of Bengal, photojournalists, pilgrimage, Prabhu Narayan Singh, Puri, Rabindranath Tagore, Ramleela, Ramlila, Ramnagar, Royal Photographic Society of Britain, Salon, Sanskrit, SenRoys, Shochitro Bharat, Sir James Meston, Soviet Union, Suffragettes, Teacher, The Illustated Weekly of India, Tutor, twins, United Province, United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, United Provinces Postal Portfolio Circle, Urdu, USSR, V. K. Krishna Menon, Varanasi, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit | 2 Comments »
Image & Text contributed by Diya Nanawati, Mumbai
My paternal grandfather Nalin Kumar Dhirajlal Nanavati was born in Rangoon, Burma in 1915, during the British Raj. He was the second of three children born to my great grandfather, an Indian civil servant (ICS) from Gujrat. The family belonged to a trading community called Surati Baniyas.
Nalinkumar Dhirajlal Nanavati, my grandfather, was a dashing soldier with the Allied Forces in the 1940’s. He was a soldier in the British Eighth Army and a Major with the 5th Royal Maratha Light Infantry. When the forces were ordered to go and fight the wars of WWII, he left behind a beautiful wife of Bengali and French parentage and a young daughter. But the family back home didn’t hear from him a long time and his beautiful wife assumed that he has passed away in war.
But he did return to India, a battle scarred survivor, victorious from saving peninsular Italy from the German Nazis. Later, he was awarded a military cross for his bravery in the Battle of Monte Cassino. However, he had won the war but lost his family, his wife and daughter, to another man. His daughter later married into a Parsi Baronetcy in Bombay. As time passed my grandfather became Lt. Colonel in the Indian Army, and he met Sharada Ramaiah, the woman who would become my grandmother.
My grandmother Sharada Ramaiah and my grandfather Nalin met over a game of tennis in New Delhi. He was charmed by her intellectual personality. Both my grandparents from my dad’s side of the family came from educated families and had english governesses. Grandma Sharada (born in 1925) was a Brahmin from Karnataka, and even though it was an inter-caste marriage, her mother did not object. My grandfather was so charming and friendly that it really did not matter whose ancestors were traders and whose were priests. As with many families in India, they came from the same class though not the same caste. She took on the role of being the Army wife with utter grace, entertaining diplomats and politicians with great élan. My grandfather was by then the commandant of the Indian Military Academy (IMA) in Dehradun and later the military attaché for India with the Indian embassy in Moscow. He enjoyed huge success and a meteoric rise to the rank of a Major General. In 1959, Sanjeev Nanavati, their only child, my dad, was born.
Tragically, the beautiful life my grandparents and father enjoyed was to be short lived. My grandfather Nalin was sent on a non-family posting in Kashmir where he was killed on the November 22, 1963 at the age of 45 in one of the most tragic helicopter crashes of all times. All six senior officers including my grandfather died. The other officers were –
- Maj. Gen Nalin Kumar Dhirajlal Nanavati (Military Cross, General Officer Commanding 25 Infantry Division)
- Lt. Gen Bikram Singh (General Officer Commanding, 15 Corps)
- Air Vice Marshall Erlic Pinto (Air Officer Commanding, Western Command)
- Lt. Gen Daulet Singh (General Officer Commanding in Chief, Western Command)
- Brigadier SR Oberoi, (Military Cross, Commander 93 Infantry Brigade)
- Flt. Lt. SS Sodhi
Many conjectured that the helicopter was sabotaged because so many senior officers lost their lives at the same time, but the Indian Army ruled out sabotage and stated that it was an accident. Later as cautionary rule, the government banned senior officers of the army to ever travel together. The same rule now applies to several corporations too.
Grandma Sharada Nanavati was widowed at a young age of 34, and my dad Sanjeev, was just four years old. With only 12 rupees in her bank account, it took Sharada many years to get a succession certificate (issued by a civil court to the legal heirs of a deceased person). She never took a paisa from her wealthy relatives and instead chose to live her life with dignity and raise her son alone. Fortunately she was educated with a Masters in History, Politics and Economics and was a journalist too. With recommendations from Field Marshall Sam Maneckshaw, she began working at the WHO and then later with the USIS in New Delhi. This was a great achievement for a woman in her times.
As a single and independent mother, my grandmother educated my dad, and with blood, sweat and tears built a modest home in the ‘War Widows colony’ in Delhi. Daddy and Grandma remain very grateful to the Indian Army. My granddad was a war hero but I believe my grandma who is 89 years old now, is a hero too.
Sep 04, 2014 | Categories: 1940s, 1960s, Aircraft, Brahmin, British Indian Army, British Reign, Certificates, Chiffon, Civil Services, Clubs, Cotton, Defence, Education, English, Fashion Accessories, Future icons from the Past, Goa, Gujarati, Helicopter, House of their dreams, House Wife, Indian Army, Inter Caste, Jain, Jewellery, Kashmir, Kerala, Malyali, Masters, Medal, Men in Uniform, Mixed, Noteworthy Journeys, Parties, Previous, Sarees, Second Marriage, Trader, Uncategorized, War Hero, Wartime Separation, Widow, Women Empowerment, World War II | Tags: 15 Corps, 1940s, Air Officer Commanding, Air Vice Marshall Erlic Pinto, Brigadier SR Oberoi, British Empire, British Reign, Burma, Commander 93 Infantry Brigade, Couple, Dehradun, Delhi, Diya Nanawati, Education, Fashion & Trends, Fashion Accessories, Flt. Lt. SS Sodhi, General Officer Commanding, General Officer Commanding 25 Infantry Division, General Officer Commanding in Chief, German Nazis, Gujrat, Indian civil servant, Indian Military Academy, inter-caste marriage, Italy, Jewellery, Lt. Gen Bikram Singh, Lt. Gen Daulet Singh, Maj. Gen Nalin Kumar Dhirajlal Nanavati, Marriage, Migration, military attaché, Military Cross, Moscow, Nalin Kumar Dhirajlal Nanavati, Rangoon, sabotage, Sam Maneckshaw, Sarees, Sari, Surati Baniyas, USIS, Western Command, WHO, Women Empowerment | 20 Comments »