Exhibitions of photographs are generally quite gender-centric though I do not feel this to be a conscious thing It is a tradition we have inherited. This thought arises from my experience of having witnessed just a single exhibition of photographs taken by a woman in all these years. Yet, today, we have quite an array of versatile and gifted photographers in India who are women. Most known photographers among women are professionals.

WOMAN WITH A CAMERA is an apt title for a photographic exhibition of one of the first woman amateur photographers in India. Her name, like her, is a poem. It is an irony that her son Joy and daughter Aparajita and also Yashodhara who prefers to remain in the background have organized an exhibition of some of her photographic works on her 100th birth anniversary. But she is not around to witness this tribute and celebration of her creativity acquired at a time when girls were hardly permitted to go to school, specially in a conventional and classical city like Benares where she was brought up.

When she was 12, Manobina, who was as beautiful as her name suggests and her twin Debaleena were gifted with a Brownie camera each by their father, Binode Behari Sen Roy, which ignited in the two young girls, an infinite passion for capturing and freezing moments in time for the forever. Sen Roy was tutor to the Crown Prince, and Headmaster of Meston High School, that belonged to the Maharaja, which was an all-boys school. He was an extremely progressive man who was conscious of the importance of a good education. He took the services of a home tutor, Monindra Nath who came from Calcutta to tutor the two girls. Sen Roy was himself was a member of The Royal Photographic Society of Britain. He wanted to pass on this legacy to his beloved daughters.

Sen Roy was an exceptionally progressive man and he brought up his daughters to believe they were second to no man. As a result, they grew up to be independent thinkers with great strength of mind and conviction. He even created a dark room in their home so that the girls not only clicked photographs but also learnt to develop their work themselves. Says son Joy, “At a time when women in Ramnagar were in purdah he proudly took his daughters with him everywhere, including all-male preserves like the Maharaja's Durbar, and once even a mujra performance. One could say that he gave them a well-rounded education!”

But becoming a professional photographer did not occur to them. So, the two girls grew up as two independent and dignified young women who could not or did not turn professional most possibly because Manobina got married at 17 soon after her matriculation and turned into a full-time housewife and mother. Though her love for photography continued, she found herself pouring into the vessel of family duties and responsibilities and assuming the shape of the vessel. Her husband was none other than Bimal Roy, one of the most outstanding filmmakers Indian cinema has ever produced.

Over time, the couple had four children – Nilanjana (Rinki), Yashodhara (Thathu), Aparajita (Bubuni) and Joy. A year after her marriage, the two sisters’ photographs were officially published for the first time, in a magazine called Shochitro Bharat. In 1940, the Roy sisters had their photographs exhibited at the Allahabad Salon. The two sisters, before they were married, became members of the United Provinces Postal Portfolio Circle. This was a group created by the Photographic Society of India where members would exchange photographs by post, and these would then be exhibited in salons in other cities.

The family shifted from Calcutta to Bombay where the younger two children were born. The family first lived in a rented flat in Bombay’s Malad and later shifted to Mount Mary Road (now Bimal Roy Path) in Bandra where they lived for many years. But Manobina continued with her passion for photography and though portraits were her talent, she had a God-gifted talent to photograph in natural light and her landscapes were tinged as if with a magic wand as some of the works at the exhibition illustrate. Among portraits, she has photographed her husband, Jawaharlal Nehru and one of her best works that adorned the wall of the Roy’s large living room was that of Rabindranath Tagore. In 1951, a photograph of Tagore taken by Manobina Roy was published in a series titled Twenty-Five Portraits of Rabindranath Tagore in the The Illustrated Weekly of India. She also photographed other celebrities like V.K. Krishna Menon and Vijaylakshmi Pandit.

Says Joy wistfully, “Initially, Ma used a Rollieflex camera, and then went on to use an Asahi Pentax. She had always wanted a Nikon, and I managed to gift her one quite late in her life, making sure to get a manual camera, because she disliked the concept of automatic photography.” She effectively graduated from Black-and-White to colour but the former remained a favourite. But she had lost vision in one eye and was gradually trapped in her struggle to save the house they had lived in for decades and wanted it to become a memorial to her husband Bimal Roy. “I want it to be recognized as heritage property” she once said to this writer. But this was not to happen. That was the last time I met her on my way back from an interview close to their home.

“Ma had a very steady hand so she got some remarkable results with very long exposure in low light in perfect focus, a notable example being the ones she clicked inside the Folies Bergere in Paris. No cameras were allowed in the auditorium but she managed to smuggle her camera inside!” Joy remembers.

Her perfection as a homemaker is underscored by the fact that she had a faithful retinue of servants, maids and driver, who stayed on for years, was a great cook and kept her house open for sudden visits for lunch or dinner because Bimal Roy being a filmmaker, members of his crew would often drop in and stayed on for lunch or dinner. When her husband did not come home for lunch, I saw her personally filling up his small tiffin carrier and handing it to the driver. She also kept a beautiful home, decent, aesthetic and not at all ostentatious. The film fraternity in those days did not appoint interior decorators to do up their homes.

Bimal Roy and Aparajit in Bombay. 1950

As a growing girl, I would often read her articles on her travels abroad in The Illustrated Weekly of India and they were always illustrated with photographs taken by Manobina Roy. She had a good flair for writing both in Bengali and English and had even written a novelette entirely in Bengali which was published in the form of a book. The strangest thing about her is that though I knew her closely for around two decades and also lived with the Roys once for a fortnight, she never ever discussed her photographs or her long journey with a camera. I never saw her showing us her work and when we pointed out to a wonderful portrait of Bimal Roy hanging on the wall and appreciated it, she softly would say, “I clicked that one.” I still do not know whether she deliberately avoided discussing her gift and her photographs or whether she was naturally low-profile or, whether like most married women, she chose to give preference to her image as a dutiful wife and mother over her image as one of the first amateur women photographers in India.

A selection of 67 photographs by Manobina Roy will be displayed at an exhibition titled “A Woman and Her Camera”. It will be held in Shrishti Art Gallery in Hyderabad from November 16 to November 20 and in Artisans Art Gallery in Mumbai from November 27 to November 30. She passed away on September 1, 2001, on Anant Chaturdashi, the last day of the Ganesha immersion.