One of the few female photographers of twentieth-century India, twin sisters Manobina Roy and Debalina Mazumdar, were born into a middle-class Bengali family residing in Benares in 1919. Their gateway to photography was on their twelfth birthday when their father Binod Behari Sen Roy, a headmaster, employed by the Maharaja of Benares and a member of the Royal Photographic Society, gifted them an Agfa Brownie box camera on the condition that they would process their films and make their own prints.
Dedicated to the education of his daughters, Sen Roy built a makeshift dark room for his little girls and encouraged them to develop their own styles and also exhibit their work as the amateur photography culture flourished in India around them. The twins photographed everything — from their surroundings to family and friends, including each other; they would often photograph the same subject from different perspectives.
As the sisters stepped into adulthood, they joined the Photographic Society of India’s United Provinces Postal Portfolio Circle, to exchange photographs with other members to be exhibited in other cities. Their first photographs together got published in the journal Shochitro Bharat in 1937, and three years after that, their photographs were displayed at the Allahabad Salon.Manobina went on to photograph dignitaries such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Vijay Lakshmi Pandit, and VK Krishna Menon, and more. Her portrait of Rabindranath Tagore was included in the series Twenty-five Portraits of Rabindranath Tagore published in The Illustrated Weekly of India.
Even after moving to different households and cities after marriage, with Manobina marrying filmmaker Bimal Roy in 1937, then cinematographer at the iconic New Theatres film production company, and Debalina marrying industrialist Nitish Chandra Mazumder in 1946 after obtaining a BA and her master’s degree, the duo's photographic adventures continued. Whenever the two sisters happened to be in the same city, no matter in which part of the world, they would photograph the streets together. In London, the sisters documented the Suffragette movement.
Manobina in a column for Femina spoke of her travels and pointed out the racism and sexism in the industry. She once stated that their male colleagues went on to become respected faces in photography circles, while women like her were always only considered amateur female photographers and were comparatively unrecognised.
Archivists by nature, the twins documented not just their subjects but also their photography process — selecting, cataloguing, captioning, and preserving their photographs. Their photographic endeavors overlapped with their domestic responsibilities in Calcutta and Bombay and often revolved around their families, travels and daily affairs. Their cameras never left their side and the sisters never travelled anywhere without them. In an era of staged and posed photographs, Debalina and Manobina, with their subject matter and perspective, changed the norm.
They were not only among the first few Indian women to pick up the camera but were also among the pioneers of candid photography. Their archive is an intimate peek into women's lives, especially during the early and mid-20th century. It stands as testimony to their multifaceted use of cameras for documentation, aesthetics and everything in between.
Manobina Roy, at an exhibition of her husband Bimal Roy’s work once pointed out to her son how no one has ever exhibited her work like this. Years later after the death of Debalina and Manobina, the exhibition Twin Sisters with Cameras aims to explore the photographic lives of two women who were way ahead of their times.
Prof. Tapati Guha-Thakurta, in an interview with the Hindu
Twin Sisters with Cameras
Exhibition Opening: October 18, 2023 6:30 pm onwards
On view till: October 25, 2023
Time: 10:00 am to 8:00 pm
Venue: Bangalore International Centre
Find out more about Bangalore International Centre here.