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Twinning with cameras

While other little girls played with dolls, twins Debalina and Manobina held cameras and chased butterflies and birds to capture their beauty on film. Born around midnight on the 26-27 of November 1919 in Dacca, they grew up in Ramnagar where their father was the headmaster of Meston High School. Living in a sprawling bungalow on the eastern banks of the Ganga, opposite Benaras, theirs was a charmed childhood.

Benode Bihari Sen Roy was an unusual father. He had an avid interest in photography and he inculcated this passion in his little daughters, introducing them to the magic of the darkroom when they were still tots. Decades later, Debalina would share memories of her wonderful childhood with her daughter Kamalini: “Totally enthralled, we would watch the images appearing, magically, on blank sheets of paper.” When they were 12 years old, their father gifted them Kodak’s Brownie cameras, to take pictures of nature’s marvels in their garden.

Watching the sprouting of tender green shoots and the blossoming of colourful flowers sharpened the twins’ power of observation and taught them how to capture nature’s beauty in natural light. But all Roy’s lessons came to nought when the little girls first tried to implement them in the darkroom! “In all the excitement, they didn’t wait for the film to develop completely before exposing it to light! The disastrous outcome taught them the importance of patience in the darkroom,” laughs Kamalini.

The twins were quick learners and soon learned to take photographs that made their father proud, and he rewarded them with Rolleicord cameras. With their new cameras, the girls clicked a greater variety of photographs and their ever-supportive father urged them to send these for exhibitions and competitions. Next, since his daughters could not travel to other cities, Roy enrolled them as members of the United Provinces’ Amateur Photography Association which facilitated sharing and discussions of members’ work through a Postal Portfolio.

Exhilarating as all this was, more excitement entered Manobina’s life when she fell in love, married Bimal Roy, cameraman and cinematographer with New Theatres Film Studio in Calcutta, and shifted to this metropolis with him. Debalina, in the meanwhile, due to her mother’s death, took on the mantle of running her father’s home but continued experimenting with the camera, expanding her range of subjects when they moved to Benaras. 

In a few years, Debalina, too, got married and shifted to her husband’s home in Calcutta. Her husband, Nitish Chandra Mazumdar, though not a photographer, was a very encouraging husband. Every time he went abroad on work, he returned with the latest camera for his wife. Both sisters got immersed in domestic life after getting married. But their cameras would be taken out regularly to focus on family members who happily posed for them. Brides-to-be, newlyweds, and elders found facing Debalina’s lens thrilling. It was a challenge for her to capture moods and expressions without her ‘models’ appearing self-conscious. Manobina became known as the lucky photographer as her discerning eye captured the beauty of young girls from the most flattering angles, making them very eligible for marriage.

When her husband turned director and moved to Bombay, Manobina’s children became captive props for her compositions dictated by the sun’s rays. The verandah of their home in Bandra worked as an outdoor studio with the sunbeams dancing on it in different ways, at different times of the day. Every time the muse came upon her, Manobina would place one of her four, often reluctant children in a spot where the light fell most dramatically and click away. The sisters went beyond domestic compositions when they travelled abroad with their husbands. Pictures shot during this time have great archival value as the faces of the men and women on the streets of post-war Europe say so much about the times. 

An ongoing travelling exhibition, ‘Twin Sisters With Cameras’ ,at Bangalore International Centre between Oct 18 and Oct 25 showcases their artistic oeuvre in beautiful locations.

(Published 14 October 2023, 23:01 IST)

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