A Woman In 19th Century Bengal Paved The Way For The First Female Photographers In India

A Woman In 19th Century Bengal Paved The Way For The First Female Photographers In India
(L) Photograph of bride dressing for her wedding by Debalina Majumdar , Self Portrait of Annapurna Dutta (R)

Most new beginnings occur due to some need of the hour. The incidence of women venturing into photography in India can be attributed to such a need.

During the 19th century, women of upper caste households in Bengal used to live behind the ‘purdah’ or the veil. They would even travel in palanquins covered on all sides so that their faces could not be seen by any male member outside.

Rassundari Debi, a self-taught Bengali writer in her autobiography, Amar Jibon (My Life) narrated how she was supposed to remain absolutely silent and engaged in her housework from early morning to midnight as directed by the mother-in-law, all the while keeping her face hidden under a long veil. Women were also restricted from attaining a formal education, and were instead confined within the four walls of the house. Formal education was mainly imparted to boys, while girls were trained in the conventionally feminine skills of cooking, knitting and other household activities.

It was uncommon for women to accept employment outside their home. The customary objections to women’s employment involved considerations of family status, concepts of inappropriateness of certain roles for the woman because of innate inequalities and disabilities attributed to them, fear of neglect of home and children and the fear of being unconventional. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was in orthodox Indian society a fairly common prejudice that education is sinful for women and that educated women were more likely to be widowed. This persistent superstition was, however, disregarded by some enlightened members of the upper classes, who tried to educate their womenfolk even before 1819 when the first regular girl’s school in Bengal was set up at Gouri Bari (Ultadanga), a suburb of Calcutta.

During the period 1807-1847, the Christian missionaries were the only ones who ran formal schools for the Bengali girls. It was only in 1847 that some enlightened Bengalis took the initiative to set up schools. In 1849 Drinkwater Bethune started a secular school for girls in Bengal. This marked the beginning of the modern system of women’s education in Bengal.

It was a little after this, in the year 1857, that we see the instance of women in Bengal venturing into photography professionally for the first time. There was a reason for this unlikely phenomenon. Since the women behind the purdah could not let their faces be shown to any other male member of the society apart from their husbands, women photographers were required to click their photographs.

Before women photographers came into being, the entire process was very laborious and cumbersome. Clicking the portrait of an aristocratic lady entailed the services of palanquin bearers who would carry the lady to the photographer’s studio. Her companions would then usher her in, and show her the chair she was to sit on. The camera would be ready, as the photographer would give instructions to either his wife or young daughter to open the lens. After taking the picture, she would move her hand and close it. The lady’s companions would raise the curtain to hide her from the photographer who would then rush in, change the plate, and leave hurriedly. Another photograph would be taken by his lady assistant. In order to avoid such a clumsy procedure, it was inevitable that women be allowed to learn photography and be in control of the camera so that ladies in ‘purdah’ would feel comfortable.

Mrs E. Mayer, one of the female members of the Photographic Society of Bengal, holds the honour of being the first professional woman photographer in India.

The other female members included Mrs T. Thompson and Mrs C. B. Young. Mrs Mayer opened a studio at 7, Old Court House Street corner to let Indian women from noble families be photographed without fear or concern. In 1864, Mrs Mayer’s studio was shifted to 5, Waterloo Street, Calcutta. According to the society’s journal, Mrs D. Garrick opened a ladies only studio on Waterloo Street in 1877, but it closed within a year. In 1892, Lala Dean Dayal started the Zenana Photographic Studio in Hyderabad in order to photograph native ladies only. The studio was surrounded by high walls in order to protect the dignity of the ladies. Mrs Kenny-Levick, aided by native female assistants, clicked photographs of the high-born native ladies.

Mrs Bibi Wince was the next female photographer to appear on the scene. The reformist Brahmo Samaj movement that encouraged women’s education, inspired her to teach Bengali women how to take photographs themselves. The first Indian woman who mastered the art of photography was Maharani Monmohini, wife of Tripura’s Maharaja, Birchandra Manikya. Jnanadanandini Devi, wife of Rabindranath Tagore’s elder brother, Satyendranath Tagore, was an enthusiastic photographer and is claimed to have taken pictures of the senior ladies of the Tagore family. Sarojini Ghosh was the first 19th-century professional lady Bengali photographer who opened her own studio called The Mahila Art Studio and Photographic Store, at 32 Cornwallis Street, Calcutta. Annapurna Goswami, another Bengali woman, was not a professional photographer. Her claim to fame lies in the realistic pictures of post-Partition Bengal that she captured. She took pictures of the urban poor, the refugees who had flocked to Calcutta after the Partition and those who built shantytowns beside railway lines. Between 1937 and 1940, two sisters, Debalina and Monobina Sen Roy became known as photographers and their work was regularly published in the Illustrated Weekly. In 1951, the series Twenty-five Portraits of Rabindranath Tagore included the work of a lone woman photographer, Monobina. The first photograph under both sisters’ names came out in 1937 in the journal, Shochitro Bharat.

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