The Creative Distractions of Manobina Roy
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Bimal Roy was one of the most significant filmmakers in Bombay during a period known as the “golden fifties.” A casual portrait, the picture in figure 1 was taken on a family holiday in 1966 by his partner, Manobina, who casts a shadow on his body. The photograph now hangs prominently in the family home in Bandra, Bombay, flanked by Bimal Roy’s numerous awards. This article explores the less visible but significant contribution of Manobina Roy. Her embodied presence in this image reminds us of the existence of the non professional photographer in India who has yet to emerge from the shadows. I will also suggest that amateur photography — a phenomenon that has often been dismissed as without merit — needs more serious and rigorous inquiry. In exploring some of these questions, this essay is informed by and indebted to a lineage of writing on the affective and material turn in the study of photography.
In figure 2, we see Manobina, along with her sister Debalina Sen Roy (later Mazumdar), in a photo taken in Calcutta in 1940. The picture may have been the work of Bimal Roy, who was also a photographer and a cinematographer. The sisters wear similar earrings and short-sleeved blouses, but they shared a lot more than a resemblance in their attire. Manobina and Debalina were identical twins, born a few minutes apart in 1919. They were both very gifted photographers. I first met and interviewed the pair almost two decades ago while working on a study of women photographers. This article, which revisits the transcripts of my conversations with Manobina Roy, has been made possible because of the recent access to one part of the family and the opportunity to view more pictures in her collection as a result of digital scanning.
Born in Dhaka (now Bangladesh), Manobina and Debalina and their older sister, Anusuya, grew up in the principality of Ramnagar, Benaras. Their father, Benode Behari Sen Roy was a highly respected educator who taught Math and English at Meston High School and was tutor to the king’s son. Benode Behari believed in exposing his daughters to a range of experiences. Anusuya married young, but the twins travelled with their father to public events such as festivals and fairs. They were once even taken to see a courtesan perform — much to the consternation of their mother.
A photographer himself, Benode Behari Sen Roy bought each of his daughters, when they were twelve, a Brownie camera, on the condition that they would learn to process their own pictures in the darkroom he made for them. In her unpublished autobiography, Manobina described this as the happiest and most carefree time of her life. Her recollection of the sound of the military band playing in the distance and her descriptions of the light filtering through trees, the patterns of water created by puddles during the monsoon, and the birds, insects, and animals they loved reflects a vivid aural and visual memory. All these powers of observation, particularly of natural light, were formative for Manobina’s journey as a home-trained photographer.
The sisters grew up photographing their surroundings and they often shot the same subjects. As a member of an educated middle-class Bengali family, Manobina moved in circles that enabled her later to take portraits of well-known public figures, among them the first Prime Minister, Nehru; his sister Vijayluxmi Bose; and the renowned poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore.
Not everyone had access to a camera at the time. India did not have a “Kodak moment” such as that which popularized photography in North America in the 1950s. In India, this hobby was restricted to the upper classes and most people still went to the studio to sit for posed pictures. In the 1940s and 1950s, even outdoor photographs had a self-conscious, staged sensibility as we see in the next picture, taken by Debalina of Manobina and their cousin Arati framed against a gate, reading Bengali newspapers (figure 3). The sisters were keen amateurs and Debalina later became chair of the Photographic Association of Bengal (PAB).
After her marriage, in 1937, Manobina moved to Calcutta, where Bimal Roy worked in a production house called New Theatres. Bimal Roy’s family also operated a photo business called Studio Ruse. Young women visited this studio for portraits that could be circulated for a match with a suitable groom. It may have begun with taking a casual portrait for a cousin who successfully found a husband but the news somehow spread that the two sisters had a magical touch. It seems that the portraits they took proved lucky and were inevitably followed up by marriage. Young women, mostly acquaintances, preferred to come to them at home (chaperoned by their fathers, of course). Manobina decided how they would pose and she never used artificial lights, which made the ordeal of being photographed infinitely more tolerable.
But perhaps the desire to be photographed by the twins went beyond avoiding the travails of putting up with harsh lighting. Debalina Mazumdar articulated this in an interview where she described her own discomfort with being on display. It could be possible that the female photographer was less judgmental and had more empathy with her subjects because of the common experience they all needed to go through. A few years later, Manobina’s “magical touch” worked for Debalina as well. We are not certain if either of these beautiful studies of Debalina (figures 4, 5a, and 5b) were indeed the pictures that was shown to her future husband, Nitish Chandra Mazumdar, but Manobina wrote ENGAGED on the reverse of one of them. These informal photographs could be seen to have a resonance with other practices of image making in spaces where women dressed up and took pictures. Years later, Manobina made similar studies with other young women in Bombay, including her daughter’s friend Noorel Meklai, who wanted to be a performer.
In 1951, Manobina and Bimal Roy moved to Bombay, where their younger two children were born. Devika Rani, one of the top stars of Bombay cinema and a cofounder of the film studio Bombay Talkies, once asked Manobina how she passed her time. It was a question from a working professional, but when she heard a run-down of Manobina’s day — looking after the children, attending to the many guests who stayed with the family, helping Bimal Roy with his work, and keeping up with her own commitments and hobbies — the actress understood the contribution of the often unacknowledged “homemaker.” Devika Rani is reported to have said, “Now I know how Bimal Roy is so successful.”
Bombay marked a different phase of Manobina’s photography. This is where she created endless posed studies of babies and, family pets and documented the growing years of her children, photographing them as they reached adulthood and began to have children of their own (figures 6, 7, and 8). As is evident in so many of her pictures, Manobina’s primary interest was to explore and experiment with light (figures 9 and 10). For example, she appears to be preoccupied with the reflections and patterns of water in an image of her son Joy swimming (figure 11). At times, subjects seem less important than her desire to stage them against a larger mise-en-scène she wanted to capture (figures 12 and 13). The children were willing (but at times reluctant) props in these frames where they were arranged, draped, and assembled so she could capture the texture and mood created by light.
Manobina’s obsession with light was not unusual — in fact, it was common to most amateur photography at the time. We see examples in the popular magazine Illustrated Weekly of India, in which photographers (including Manobina) published romanticized images of the land and people (see figures 14, 15a, and 15b). The magazine also held photo competitions and had an entire page, titled “ Lenslight,” that carried tutorials on photographic techniques and the manipulation of natural light. The culture of photography showcased in the Weekly was an important reference for amateur photographers in the region.
During the 1950s, Bimal Roy was established in Bombay with many hit films and awards. He often travelled with his family to scout for locations or to work on his scripts, and it was then that Manobina seized the opportunity to hone her own craft in different ways: She photographed scenic views. Landscape photography has often been dismissed as being simply picturesque, but this genre was popular among amateur photographers. Pictorialism — an attempt to make photographs that resemble certain kinds of paintings — was the template for most amateur photography.
Some pictorialists were also drawing from the aesthetics of modernism, and the next set of images show Manobina’s extraordinary mastery over graphic design. With a closer look, however, the photographs are striking for other reasons. These are not sunny and bright pictures of childhood. On the contrary, many of these solitary and dramatic studies of her daughter Aparajita at different ages are strangely enigmatic. In figures 16 and 17, for example, the shadows on the little girl shroud her in mystery. Aparajita models a striped dress against a background with horizontal lines in figure 18. Framed by a square of light, the photograph has a dark and brooding quality because of her solemn expression and the prominent shadow behind her body. In figure 19, we see the younger Aparajita standing alone among imposing columns; in figure 20, Manobina captures her daughter, older now, against a highway that stretches to eternity. With a dreamlike quality, these cinematic frames have the sensibility of fiction. In this sense, Manobina was no less accomplished than her famous filmmaker husband, creating pensive and at times haunting images as she staged her children like actors on her own “sets.”
Many pictures were taken on holidays that the Roy family undertook in their station wagon. As a middle-class woman, it was difficult for Manobina to photograph in public spaces in Bombay, particularly as she was the wife of a famous Indian. This changed when she and Bimal Roy travelled abroad. It was easier to walk the streets in relative anonymity in London or Moscow, and Manobina made the most of that opportunity. It is in these cities that she could capture the minute details of everyday life — such as the streets, and suffragettes giving speeches in Hyde Park. And she was fascinated with the sensational “penny,” or tabloid, press.
As a woman, she was drawn to certain kinds of experiences, such as the predicament of lonely homemakers with time on their hands, the orphaned mannequin in the store before it was dressed up, the isolation of the elderly who read books in the park. Some of her images were published as photo stories back home in the Illustrated Weekly in features titled “A Sunday Afternoon in Hyde Park,” for example, and “London as I Saw It.” She also wrote a column for the women’s magazine Femina, called “A Woman’s Point of View.”
So far our discussion of Manobina Roy’s work has centered on content, but the sisters were also trained to process and print their pictures. After she moved to Calcutta, Debalina Mazumdar sent her pictures for processing to James Pereira, the chief photographer at a local branch of the Belgian-German-owned company Agfa, which produced film and cameras. When the Second World War broke out, it was rumoured that the owner of the branch had links with the Nazis. According to Debalina, he had to disappear or he would have been put in an internment camp. This Agfa store became “enemy property” overnight. The materials of the branch were auctioned off and James Pereira bought up some of the equipment to set up his own studio.
Despite the presence of Agfa, the company that targeted the domestic consumer the most was Kodak. In the decades after independence, Kodak advertisements in India depicted men taking photographs of the family. But the margins of these advertisements always carried a sketch of a woman in a striped sari. This was the “Indian” version of the Kodak girl, the face of the company worldwide. The presence of technically savvy women like Manobina and Debalina suggests that the Kodak woman resonated with a hidden constituency of women who were both “taking” as well as archiving pictures of the family.
As a keen amateur, Manobina captioned her pictures and painstakingly described the technical process — the F-stop, the shutter speed, the camera, the film, the filter. In figure 25a, we see a photograph of her nephew. In figure 25b, the reverse of the print has been captioned “Straps don’t taste as good,” but Manobina writes, “Please suggest a humorous caption for the photograph.” Whom was she asking for another caption? Did she send the photograph to her sister? Or, to another member of the child’s family?
In figure 25c we see a tiny clue in the form of an inked stamp of the Postal Portfolio of the United Provinces Amateur Photographic Association (UPAPA) Lucknow. Manobina and Debalina had no audience for their pictures except their families, but the prints and portfolios of amateur photographers found their way to photographic clubs and salons in undivided India in a unique way: through the postal services. Started by Syed Haider Husaain Razavi in 1940, the idea of the Postal Portfolio was taken up enthusiastically by salons and clubs all over the country. In late 1942, they organized a Portfolio Alliance, and in time this evolved into a transnational “Exchange of Exhibits” that stretched from Afghanistan, in the West, to Burma in the East.  In an interview, Debalina Mazumdar mentioned that the works of some twenty photographers travelled at a time to different cities. At each stop, an appreciation of the images was written, with suggestions. This interactive quality may explain Manobina’s request for an alternative caption for the photo of her nephew.
As the Joint Honorary Secretary of the PAB, Debalina Mazumdar was in charge of the collection and the redistribution of the photographs after a “round” of the postal portfolio was completed. Debalina’s daughter Kamalini said her mother kept a meticulous record of the places the portfolio travelled to. At times, the photographs were evaluated in Debalina’s own home in Calcutta. She was also a member of the “Ladies Forum” of the Federation of Indian Photography (FIP), which bought out a magazine called the Viewfinder. Debalina even tried to organize a salon ‘by women for women’ with the twenty or so who had signed up for the “Ladies” section of the FIP, but it didn’t come to anything. In the meantime, the sisters’ works were prominently displayed among eighty-one prints at the Allahabad Salon in January 1940. The Postal Portfolio was probably discontinued in the mid-1940s. In the absence of any further details, one might speculate that in a pre-Internet era, this kind of a network offered the amateur photographer — particularly women — the opportunity to share and circulate work without the need for physical travel. It is imperative to uncover these histories and the role of other organizations, like the FIP, the PAB and the All India Salon in giving visibility to those who were not professionals.
Things would still have been difficult for women, of course, who were primarily homemakers with pressing responsibilities. For example, Debalina says her family would not want her to travel alone. Men, on the other hand, were able to make the transition to professional practice. In the 1950s, Agfa ran a campaign that featured the works of pictorialists, among them A. L. Syed, who were also members of the Postal Portfolio. I have been unable to locate the work of any woman in this campaign. This is not surprising, and the sisters understood this only too well. In an interview, Manobina pointed out that their male colleagues, such as Syed, G. Thomas, Ralph Gregory, and Stanley Jepson, the editor of the Weekly, went on to become famous in photography circles while the sisters remained unrecognized.
By now, Manobina had moved beyond the stage of the Brownie, which was the equivalent of the instant box camera. She used all professional cameras — the Rolleiflex and Rolleicord, Leica, Pentax, Nikon, and even a Bolex to shoot 16 mm film. The Rolleiflex used 120 film, just twelve exposures to a roll. In the pre-digital era, this meant that every picture had to be carefully composed. The viewing lens and the actual picture-taking lens are different in a twin-lens camera. The photographer had to look down into the viewfinder to take the picture. At times one had to walk closer or farther away from the subject in order to focus manually. All these factors made for a slower and more deliberate form of photography. Manobina once spoke about the impatience of her children when the family went out: “They would say, ‘The camera will slow Ma (mother) down.’” Her daughter Aparajita Sinha writes,
My mother rarely got us to pose but she would get really annoyed if we moved or protested. It’s a bit like if one were to walk into the room and start to talk loudly or play music when someone is writing a creative piece or a letter. Ma was totally focussed when taking photos.
I suggest that Manobina’s distracted air when she “slowed down” to take a picture is the “focus” that Aparajita refers to. We see this in figure 26, where she is engrossed in looking at her viewfinder in one of the busiest public spaces — the railway station. At a time when the options open to women were limited, Manobina Roy’s interest in photography was a form of agency, her camera offering her escape into a world of imagination. I would like to signpost the critical “focus” and absorption of Manobina and other women as we recover more feminist histories of accomplished “homemakers” who had creative diversions of their own.
Manobina’s practice continued even when she grew older. Despite the loss of vision in one eye, in 1969, she still carried her camera everywhere, as she feared that she might miss something. Her camera was like an extension of her body. When I met Manobina Roy in 2000, she was very frail. She had faced many legal battles after the premature death of her husband, and her memories were cloudy. She was writing her memoir, and often spoke about arrested or blocked memories — sudden flashes among her childhood, her life as a young married woman, and the present. But photographs had become even more important to her than ever: to help her remember. Manobina now wanted to hold on to things that might disappear.
In one of our interviews, Manobina Roy spoke about misplacing a trunk filled with her pictures. Scratches, tears, degeneration, and deterioration mark the material lives of her pictures today as they travel and continue to be touched by the many hands that placed them in and now extricate them from albums, shoeboxes, and trunks. As in all personal collections, very few are annotated. As the photographs start to emerge from places where they had rested for years, other questions arise. Does access to her archive offer us all the answers? The questions are driven by contestation and speculation that is amplified because of the mirroring of the twins. I have often witnessed confusion among Manobina and Debalina’s children about whether a portrait was that of “Ma” or “Mashi” (mother’s sister) because they looked so similar. Slippages occur, too, with photographs taken by them, especially of the same subjects. Were they taken by either? (See figures 27 and 28.)
Yashodhara pointed out that they grew up in a home in which both parents took photographs. It was not rare to wake up to find her mother taking pictures on the veranda and her father, Bimal Roy, in the garden. Uncertainty marks the authorship of some pictures that either of the couple may have taken. The only way to nail down this issue is when one or the other was the subject of the picture, as in the picture of Bimal Roy (see again figure 14). Instead of seeing the “confusion” about photographer, dates, or location as a problem, I would rather view this elusive and fluid quality as intrinsic to the complex nature of personal photography.
Bimal Roy’s legacy is secure today through its many afterlives in the form of DVDs, festival screenings, music awards, and star biographies. Manobina Roy’s work has recently started to travel as a small exhibition organized by her family. As we are discovering with many newly emerging collections, it is difficult to pin down her work to one kind of photography. She was clearly not photographing only the home, though the most intimate and engaged parts of her oeuvre may have emerged from the space of the domestic. I suggest that Manobina was a documentarist with the sensibility of a fictional storyteller. Even as she experimented with light and technique, her pictures are imbued with an affective charge. Despite many responsibilities, the camera offered her a space for creative immersion. Like her sister’s and perhaps that of many others, Manobina’s work represents the unacknowledged presence of amateur and domestic photography. For this reason, although there will be many gaps, as photographers of the era have passed away, their archives will continue to raise important questions.
This article is dedicated to the memory of Yashodhara Bimal Roy (1944–2020).
Sabeena Gadihoke is Professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi where she teaches Digital Media Arts. She writes on Indian photo history, cinema and popular visual culture and has curated several photo shows. The most recent of these was Light Works, a retrospective of photographer Jitendra Arya at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai and Bangalore. Gadihoke has also written a book on India’s first woman press photographer - Homai Vyarawalla - titled Camera Chronicles (2006).
Siddharth Ghosh’s Chhobi Tola (Taking Pictures): Bangalir Photography Charcha. Calcutta: Ananda Publishers, 1988. This was one of the first books to have a substantial chapter on the contribution of women photographers in Bengal. A translation of the chapter into English by Debjani Sengupta was published in TAP Review, vol. 4, No. 2. URL: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/t/tap/7977573.0004.202/—zenana-studio-early-women-photographers-of-bengal?rgn=main;view=fulltext (Last accessed March 12 2020)
The publication of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida marked a significant shift away from a rational and intellectual approach to the study of the image in Burgin’s famous collection of essays, Thinking Photography. See Victor Burgin, ed. Thinking Photography. London: Macmillan: 1982. Long and Noble have described the subjective turn in the writing of Barthes as a struggle for the “soul of photography.” See Photography: Theoretical Snapshots. J. J Long, Andrea Noble, and Edward Welch, ed. Oxon: Routledge, 2003. Thy Phu and Elsbeth Brown have more recently referred to this as “feeling” photography. See Feeling Photography. Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu, eds. Durham and London: Duke University Press¨2014. See also the large body of work on the lives of photographs as objects, such as Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, eds. Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images. Routledge and Geoffery Batchen: 2004, and Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance. Van Gogh Museum: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.
See Sabeena Gadihoke. “The Home and Beyond: Domestic and Amateur Photography by Women in India (1930–1960),” in Sarai Reader: Shaping Technologies, 2003, CSDS/Waag Society for Old and New Media: 2003. Interviews with Manobina Roy and Debalina Mazumdar were conducted during 1999–2001.
See Sabeena Gadihoke. “The Collector of Memories,” in Nony Singh: The Archivist. Dreamvilla Productions: 2003. See also Mallika Leuzinger, “‘Ummijaan’s Pictures Were Nice’: Thinking about Haleema Hashmi’s Photography,” in Trans Asia Photography Review, vol 10, issue 1, “Writing Photo Histories,” fall 2019. URL https://quod.lib.umich.edu/t/tap/7977573.0010.106/—ummijaan-s-pictures-were-nice-thinking-about-haleema-hashims?rgn=main;view=fulltext. Accessed February 23, 2020. Nishtha Jain’s documentaries City of Photos (Raintree Films, 2004) and Family Album (Raintree Films, 2011) have sequences that draw attention to these practices.
G. Thomas. (1981) History of Photography India 1840–1980. Pondicherry: Andhra Pradesh State Academy of Photography. I am also indebted to Kamalini Mazumdar for offering additional information about her mother’s role in the Postal Portfolio.
Ghosh, 1988. URL: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/t/tap/7977573.0004.202/—zenana-studio-early-women-photographers-of-bengal?rgn=main;view=fulltext (Last accessed March 12 2020)