Some decades ago, Joy, the son of film director Bimal Roy, would get mildly annoyed at his mother: She would always want to take photographs of him. But he took it for granted, thinking most mothers troubled their children with such affection. It was only years later that he realised his mother, Manobina, was not merely expressing her love for him or other members of her family, she was also experimenting with light, reflections, silhouettes and angles in a frame.
This anecdote, displayed at the ongoing Twin Sisters With Cameras exhibit at the India International Centre in Delhi, captures the essence of the show. “This exhibition is a tribute to the spirit of amateurism and the love of photography that (Manobina and her twin Debalina) embodied,” write curators Sabeena Gadihoke, Mallika Leuzinger and Tapati Guha Thakurta in the introductory panel.
At a time when access to cameras is commonplace, revisiting the idea of the amateur photographer, what it entailed (and still does), and the practice of shooting itself, becomes an important intervention. For this, the twins’ work— first, together as LinaBina, and, later, individually—provides just the right context.
Varanasi-based Manobina and Debalina were barely 13 when their father, Benod Behari Sen Roy, introduced them to photography. This was in the early 1930s, when cameras were accessible only to a privileged section—and within that, very few women. Sen Roy bought them the Kodak Brownie camera.
Studiousness and joy
It was not about only taking photographs on their shared Brownie camera,” says Leuzinger. “He had also organised a sort of photography curriculum for them.” In a piece about Manobina’s practice, published in Trans Asia Photography in 2020, Gadihoke notes that Sen Roy even built a darkroom at home for them.
Currently, most serious photographers complain that while digital processes have given them more efficient and exciting ways to experiment, they have also made it easy for “amateur photographers” to click without much thought. In contrast, Debalina waited long minutes to shoot even one seemingly simple, striking image of a lone bench in an open park. She titled it Solitude. Leuzinger shares an anecdote from Gadihoke’s conversation with Debalina: “People had wondered why she didn’t just shoot a couple sitting on the bench together…but for (the twins) it’s really about sinking into a moment.”
Manobina, in turn, had an eye for geometries in everyday sights, especially caused by light, used to effect in moody portraits of her daughter Aparajita.
The twins displayed a sincere studiousness towards the art of image-making— but, in keeping with the spirit of amateur photography, etched it with a happy and light-hearted passion.
The learnings and meticulous habits they had developed through their education with their father and later involvement with the Portfolio Club of the United Provinces Amateur Photographic Association, which offered “critical peer evaluation”, stayed with them. Flip over any image—there are albums, letters and notes on display—and you will find copious notes: the type of camera and film used, f-stop and exposure numbers, the time of shooting, sometimes even the quality of light. In some shots, possibly given the feedback-heavy nature of their practice, Manobina even leaves requests for better or funnier captions.
Once they got married, the sisters moved to different cities. Debalina, who moved to Kolkata, went on to become the chair of the Photography Association of Bengal and a member of the “Ladies Forum” of the Federation of Indian Photography. Manobina, based in Mumbai, travelled extensively with her husband.
A deep attachment
In their later years, Debalina tried to teach her daughter Kamalini photography. “She had to keep her own journal and do these experiments but she eventually stopped because (the meticulousness) was too much for her,” says Leuzinger.
Witnessing this kind of photographic practice is especially illuminating when remembering Debalina and Manobina’s context as “house-proud” wives and mothers first. “If anything, it seems like there were so many reasons they could have (stopped shooting),” says Leuzinger. As they aged, they had to contend with failing faculties; Manobina even lost vision in one eye. They didn’t stop, however. They were so attached to their cameras that Debalina said she found thoughts of being without her camera unsettling.
“Maybe there is some payoff to paying attention, to slowing down, to share that with others, and to have conversations about the things we see,” Leuzinger says. “It is nice to have an example of people doing that and (to see that photography) brings them into contact with not just their own circle, but also with other people and other types of settings and cities.”
Today, as photography grapples with the issue of power dynamics being skewed in favour of the photographer, a study of the twins’ work becomes even more layered—particularly in view of their class and privilege. “...photography (is) more than just images, (it is) slices of different types of history,” notes Leuzinger. “Whether as object histories of cameras, film rolls and magazines, or as a history of (a class of) women in 20th century in India and what kind of options were open to them.”
Twin Sisters with Cameras, on view until 27 August, 11 am - 7pm, Art Gallery, Kamaladevi Complex, India International Centre.