Among the first female Indian photographers of the twentieth century, Mira Choudhuri was born in a well-known Brahmo family. Her father, Dwijendralal Maitra, was a doctor at Kolkata’s Mayo Hospital, a photographer and a close associate of Rabindranath Tagore apart from being a part of the Bengali literary circles. At the time, Brahmo families were keen on educating their daughters, and photography was seen as an ennobling art for women. Around the age of 12–13, Choudhuri’s father gifted her a Brownie (No. 2) box camera and encouraged her and her younger sister Indira (Debi) to pick up photography. Besides making photographs, she also assisted her father in developing and printing his own images in their darkroom. Choudhuri continued practising photography through her school years in Darjeeling, and also edited Sreemoti, a women’s journal, wrote articles, ran an embroidery centre and was part of clubs and charitable organisations.
Choudhuri travelled widely throughout her life with her husband, Prabhat Choudhuri, and with his encouragement and gift of a Contessa Nettel camera, she kept photographing extensively. She meticulously documented her family life and trips to Benares (now Varanasi), Amarnath and Europe. Her travel photographs, hence, also stand to legitimise women’s occupation of public spaces — which were largely dominated by men in the early twentieth century.
In an accident in 1978, Choudhuri fractured her femur and was bed-ridden; it was then that she began to archive her photographs. She arranged the photos in 12 autobiographical albums which were bound, duplicated and sent to members of her family. Her method of narrativising the photos in a meticulous documentary manner was unique and resembled a stream-of-consciousness process as the photos followed a non-chronological order and were accompanied by handwritten notes.
Choudhuri’s photographs also captured a world beyond her family. The albums contained depictions and records of her meetings with Gandhi and Wali Mohammed Khan, her first photographs of Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore, and her first meeting with Madeleine Slade. These images were a testament to the changing role of women in the society where women such as her were being encouraged to participate in the struggle against British rule.
When she received a Kodak movie camera in 1933–34, she also began to make films. Notable among these films was a documentary she made on Rabindranath Tagore, a part of which is included in Satyajit Ray’s film Rabindranath Tagore (1961). Choudhuri died in 1994 at the age of 89.
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