One of the earliest women photographers of twentieth-century India, Manobina Roy, like her twin Debalina Mazumdar, was born in 1919 to a middle class Bengali family residing in Benares (now Varanasi). Their father, Binod Behari Sen Roy was a college lecturer, and later, a school headmaster and a member of the Royal Photographic Society of Britain. He was a progressive man who was dedicated to the education of his daughters. The twins would accompany him to attend royal durbars, cultural programmes and mujras. On their twelfth birthday, he gifted them a Brownie (No. 2) box camera, hoping they’ll learn how to process film and make prints in a makeshift darkroom.
At the time, professional women photographers such Mrs. E. Mayer and Mrs. Wince were gaining popularity with the success of zenana studios. The reformist Brahmo Samaj movement, which was concerned with the education and upliftment of women, promoted photography as an enobling art. In 1916 a Brahmo Samaj-run institute called Women’s Art Institute was established to introduce photography to Bengali women. Additionally, with the introduction of the Brownie camera, a cheaper and simpler single-push camera better suited for amateur lens work, photography practices proliferated.
The twins photographed their surroundings — nature, cityscapes, landscapes and people, including their family, friends and each other. They were also members of the UP Postal Portfolio Circle, which was a group created by the Photographic Society of India. As members, they exchanged their photographs via mail, which would sometimes get exhibited at salons in other cities. In 1936, at 17, Manobina married Bimal Roy, a then-photographer who would go on to become one of India’s best-known filmmakers.
The twins published their first photographs together in the journal Shochitro Bharat in 1937. In 1940, their photographs were displayed at the Allahabad Salon. Several hundreds of loose prints with stickers and stamps reveal that their photographs were circulated at the UP Amateur Photographic Association, Lucknow, in 1939; an exhibition organised by the Lens Club Calcutta in 1940, under the patronage of the Governor of Bengal; the third Benares All-India Salon organised by Photographic Society of Bangalore in 1940; the 1965 All India Photographic Association hosted by the Vishakha Camera Club; and the 1966 Andhra Pradesh Salon of Photography hosted by the Mahbubnagar Camera Club.
In 1951, Manobina’s portrait of Rabindranath Tagore was included in the series “Twenty-five Portraits of Rabindranath Tagore” published in The Illustrated Weekly of India. She went on to photograph luminaries such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, and VK Krishna Menon, among others. In 1959, she got an opportunity to work with the Weekly again, to publish photographs of and write about her trip to Moscow with her husband. Later, she became a columnist for Femina and wrote a novel in Bengali called So Far, That Near.
She used a Rolleiflex camera initially, then moved on to an Asahi Pentax and much later, a Nikon, which was a gift from her son, Joy Bimal Roy. Her images are recognised for their Naturalism, control and modulation of light, and long exposures. She photographed extensively, capturing scenes as varied as streets in London, cabarets in Paris and the Indian countryside. She passed away in 2001, at the age of 82. Her son was instrumental in organising a commemorative retrospective of her career, which spanned well into the 1970s. The exhibition, A Woman and Her Camera (2019), was curated by MC Mohan and Pratima Sagar and was on view at Shrishti Art Gallery, Hyderabad and Artisans Art Gallery, Mumbai.
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