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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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57 – India’s foremost philosopher with his friend, the future president of India

S Radhakrishnan, the future president of India with his friend, my great great grandfather, and well known philosopher Prof. M. Hiriyanna. Mysore, Karnataka. Circa 1925

Image and Text contributed by Arati Rao, Mumbai

My great great grandfather – Prof. M. Hiriyanna (seated right) was an exceedingly well known philosopher in Mysore state (then a large part of Karnataka). In this image he is photographed with his friend and colleague, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who went on to become the second President of India in 1962. My great great grandfather M. Hiriyanna, was a Professor of Sanskrit and S. Radhakrishnana was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Mysore.Our family seems to have had very humble antecedents in a small village called Bargehalli in Karnataka. In 1910, Hiriyanna moved to Mysore and set up house. He was an inspiration to several generations and I really wish I had known him. Legends about him are abound and I hang on every reminisced word, for he seems a larger-than-life man. A principled man. And a 100% self-made Stalwart. We still inhabit the house that he built: 962, Lakshmipuram, Mysore, known simply to our family and friends as “962.”

According to N. Sivarama Sastry, “Prof. Hiriyanna lived a perfectly ordered and disciplined life. He often reminded me of Kant and the Philosopher’s Walk. He was simple to the verge of austerity. He dressed simply and everything about him was scrupulously neat and clean, he was correct and punctual, he promptly answered communications, kept all his engagements, and never made a promise which he could not fulfill. He was fastidious to a degree and a perfect artist in everything he did – from mending a pencil to writing a work. Though he did not spare himself, he was tolerant of those who could not come up to his exacting standards. He was in fact noted for his kindness and consideration and unfailing courtesy. He never denied help to any student or scholar. He was equally well known for his honesty and uprightness. He was exceedingly modest and his learning did not sit heavily on him. And beneath his modesty and humility he was keenly sensitive.”

Hiriyanna, by all accounts, was a philosopher par excellence. A glowing tribute to him by President S. Radhakrishnan left no room for doubt as to his regard in those circles. “When Plato said that philosophers should be Kings, he did not mean that the main task of philosophy was to make laws and solve political problems. For him the philosophical temper of mind, the exalted, calm, noble, dispassionate attitude unmoved by motives of personal gain, ambition or power is the only temper of mind which can solve these problems.
In these days of increasing specialization and party strife, when we are unable to see the wood for the trees, when the effort of genuine thinking has yielded to the acceptance of slogans, the need for philosophic reflection on life’s problems is most urgent. … It is this spirit of philosophy that Hiriyanna illustrates in his reflection and life.”

My aunt, Malathi Jaya Rao grew up around him and says – “He always emphasized physical courage; an unbending spirit; self esteem without pride; not taking things that are not ours, and created in us an enduring value: what a man is, far outweighs his wealth or intellectual attainments. An immaculately dresser, in a spotless white dhoti, cream colored close collared coat, a laceless  turban, an uttariyam and pump shoes, he used to get up very early, collect flowers from the garden, have a bath and then do puja (worship the gods). He was very particular that the family joined him for the Mahamangalarathi at 6 a.m.”
It seems he would sharpen pencils exactly the same amount and use them until they wore down up to a pre-determined length. Short worn pencils were then passed on to the kids in the family. He has left us a priceless legacy in his writings on Indian philosophy – many of which are now textbooks and staples.

Some of the family still lives in the house Hiriyanna built – 962, and the descendants visit several times a year. We are now scattered across the world, seven generations and several nationalities incorporated into the gene pool. The house ‘962’ he built has not changed since 1910. Its hundred year-old stones are the ones that know him well and when I run my hand along the walls or sit on the cool red oxide floors, or enter “his room,” and read his wisdom in his own beautiful hand, I stand a little taller knowing there is a bit of this great man, somewhere in me.


32 – A Telugu family

The group photo at my father’s elder brother, Gadepally Suryaprakasam's wedding, Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh. 1913

Image and text contribution by Lt Col (Retd) Dr. G.Kameswararao, Secundarabad

This photograph is a wedding group photo of my  father’s elder  brother, Gadepally Suryaprakasam (also known as Surya Prakasarao). It was photographed at  Kakinada, then known as Coconada, in the East Godavari District of Madras Presidency. He served the Nizam government  in the Education Department. My  grandmother, my father’s siblings, his paternal, maternal uncles and their children are a part of this group. The  famous Telugu poet, Devulapalli Krishna Sastry is seated last on the right (on the chair). He was married  to the daughter of my  father’s paternal uncle. My paternal grandfather, Gadepally Venkata Sastry was in the service of Pithapuram Raja. He was a Sanskrit Scholar and a Trustee of the famous Sri Kukkuteswara Swami temple in Pithapuram, in which lies an incarnation of the lord Shiva, in form of a Kukkutam, a ‘Cock fowl’. He wrote in Sanskrit a Stotram , in praise of Kukkutam, which my mother got published in 1990. My grandfather passed away by the time this photo was taken and my grandmother is seen herein (middle, standing) as a widow, wearing the traditional white dress covering her hairless head.

– The Contributor is a financial patron of Indian Memory Project


24 – He was a Ph.d. in Sanskrit and Philosophy

My maternal grandfather Dr Vasudev Sukhtankar (center, with garland & white turban) Director of Education, Indore State. 1926

Image and text Contributed by Ashok Bhandarkar, Mumbai

In this photograph, my grandfather, the Director of Education was on an inspection tour of a school in Tarana (Indore State) on February 6, 1926 with group of boy scouts (probably the entire population of the school!)

‘Ajoba’ as we called him, was a PhD in Sanskrit and Philosophy from Germany and also a staunch Brahmo Samaji.