Twin Sisters With Cameras: An Exhibition Review

By Shubha Bhatt

On their 12th birth anniversary, twin sisters Debalina and Manobina received an agfa camera as a present from their father Benod Behari Sen Roy. Upon their mother’s ill health, Roy, an ardent educationist and a member of the Royal Photographic Society in London, assumed charge of his daughters’ upbringing. The dark room built in the process soon turned into a memory keeper; a site where Lina-Bina, as the twins were known, would bring their explorations of the self and the surroundings into light. With a camera in hand in their teens, the twins captured the land and lives of their hometown, Ramnagar, in ways that surpassed the lens of professional photojournalists of the time. 

Both Debalina and Manobina started out by capturing women from their immediate and extended family. The process helped them develop their own styles. Their approach, quite different from that of the traditional studios of the days, was acclaimed remarkably by the subjects of their photographs.

Personally, I don’t like being on photoshoots; the idea gets increasingly intrusive with every click. In contrast, the black and white stills from the 1930s and 1940s captured by both Debalina and Manobina seemed authentic; just as the natural daylight where they were shot in. These attempts that now seem to be acts of breaking out of the ordinary were simply their ways of life. “Debalina’s own portrait for marriage was taken by her sister… critiquing a certain kind of representation of women in older studio traditions. These were images that she rebelled against and it reflected in her portraits of women.” (Sabeena Gadihoke, Home & Beyond)

Both Manobina and Debalina moved to Calcutta after marrying in 1937 and 1946 respectively. What stayed along was their bond with photography. In the years that followed, they documented their daily lives, and social gatherings while taking on new roles as wives and mothers. Manobina, who eventually moved to Bombay around 1950, accompanied her husband on trips abroad. Such trips would offer her ways to venture out photography while exploring the cities such as that of Athens and Moscow.

On a joint trip to London in 1959, the sisters could finally come together for “more spirited photography”, an opportunity to document lives beyond their own. For the next six months, both Manobina and Debalina adopted street photography, a style that was experimental but allowed them to stick with their approach at the same time. In capturing movements in and around the Speakers’ Corner and Hyde Park, the sisters acknowledged whatever the subjects (who included a number of women) had to offer, be it eagerness or solitude. 

I believe the titles often hold the reflections and after-thoughts of a photographer. The same stands valid in case of Manobina and Debalina. So many of their thoughts could be comprehended by how they chose to name their photographs. The picture beside ‘Joy in the bus’ noted “A Bus Ride: London in a bus. I was struck by this mother and child and took his photograph.” It’s clear that it was more than a bus ride that Manobina found herself on for it was London, its essence in minuscule, that she rather experienced. In London, Debalina could catch ‘Temptations’; in Hyde Park, she found ‘Solitude’. She even photographed people’s participation in rallies against the Soviet presence in Hungary. 

Throughout the lives that lay ahead, the sisters held on to photography, and often submitted to journals to have their works published. With the camera, they were in charge of writing their story and of others, as they saw it. 

The exhibition at the India International Centre was a walkthrough of the photographic lives of the twin sisters. And yet, somehow, somewhere, it served to be more. Interacting with their family members and engaging with works from the family collection made for an experience so profound and heartfelt. There was a sense of familiarity that I could feel brimming right through the room as love and belongingness seemed to prosper very similarly to what I’ve seen and heard in my family.

Over time, I keep coming back to a particular image from 1930, shot on a self-timer and titled “The twins with friends, Benaras.” The photograph reflects what owning up to spaces (of leisure in this case) seemed like then, a yearning that women across families like mine share even today.