Article Bengali

Tribute: Nemai Ghosh, chronicler of Satyajit Ray, Bengali theatre and much more

Nemai Ghosh chanced upon photography only accidentally. But when the actor Rabi Ghosh introduced him to master filmmaker Satyajit Ray, he found his raison d'être.

Shoma A Chatterji

Though Nemai Ghosh and his brilliant work as a photographer, mainly in black-and-white, continue to be associated in the public mind with his collection of over 100,000 photographs of Satyajit Ray, he had gone beyond Ray even when the great filmmaker was alive. Ghosh left behind a treasure trove of pictures marking the history of Kolkata, the city where he lived all his life until he died last month, sick, alone and sad. He would have turned 86 next month.

Death when the country is in near-total lockdown is a great tragedy, though, mercifully, the one who has passed on no longer feels the hurt. Ghosh's son, stuck in Mumbai, could not return for his father's last rites because all travel, including air travel, was suspended. Hundreds of his fans in the film industry, from veteran cinematographer Soumendu Roy through filmmaker Aparna Sen, actress Madhabi Mukherjee and others, also could not pay their last respects to the great man because of the lockdown.

Social media sites were flush with tributes from those who knew Ghosh well, across generations. But they also lamented that they could not be with him on his last journey. Ghosh died at his Bhowanipore home in South Kolkata on the morning of 25 March. He had been bedridden for three months and was refusing food for the last couple of weeks.

I visited Ghosh many times over the years after a simple telephone call. The house was big but Nemai-da confined himself mostly to his small room on the ground floor, a treasury of his works spanning around four decades. I lived in Mumbai then, but whenever I visited Kolkata, I would go to meet him and we would talk for an hour or two. He would bring out his albums and his negatives of the photographs he took of Ray and explain in detail the background of the more striking pictures.

The first public meeting of the United Front at the Maidan, Calcutta, in 1967. Photograph: Nemai Ghosh

When I moved to Kolkata, he had already moved ahead in his career without leaving his main subject, inspiration and mentor, Satyajit Ray. Whenever I asked him for some photograph, he would call me at his place and we would have long conversations about Ray or his photography and then he would promise to mail me scanned copies of some of the pictures he had taken. I wanted to use his interview in some of the papers I wrote for but could not because he did not have any photograph of himself and the interviews could not be published without at least one picture.

Basically from group theatre, Ghosh chanced upon photography through a strange twist of fate. “One evening, as I waited to go to the rehearsals for a play and munched peanuts, a friend of mine said someone had forgotten his camera in a cab. He picked it up and was already offered Rs600 for it by another friend. I don’t know what prompted me to buy the camera from him. ‘You already owe me Rs240. If you give me the camera, I shall write off the loan,' I told him.

"He left the camera with me. I turned it around and looked into it, examining it closely. But I could hardly understand how it worked. At this point, a friend of mine who was an assistant cameraman in films offered to teach me the ropes. Actor Rabi Ghosh from theatre took me to a shooting of a Ray film.” The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Ghosh's photographs present Ray in his many moods — at work, in thought, pensive, joyful, probing the frame through outstretched palms joined at the thumbs, talking to a sadhu near the ghats in Varanasi, bending over a chessboard on location, in profile holding his fingers to his chin, ‘looking through’ his rounded-finger-and-thumb lenses at an actor, caught inside a room in banian and trousers with a book in hand, looking through the lens of his still camera, and so on. Name a particular expression you wished to see Ray in and it is there, captured for posterity through the gifted lens of Ghosh’s historic camera.

Ray in a crowd. Photograph: Nemai Ghosh

About being captivated by the towering personality of Ray, he said, “I was in a trance, such was the power of his persona. I was mesmerized by this towering persona, his ability to get sucked into his work so much that he forgot that I was always there, photographing him every minute in time. I did a lot of work to span theatre also during that time as I am originally from theatre. But that was like an off-shoot which became a subject later on. The eye of my camera and my own eyes behind the lens were focused on Manik-da.”

In January 2013, in a tribute to hundred years of Indian cinema, the Delhi Art Gallery organized an exhibition entitled 'Nemai Ghosh: Satyajit Ray and Beyond', launched by another famous Ray aide, cinematographer Soumendu Roy, who remarked, “What I could not achieve with my big camera, Nemai has done with his little camera!"

Later, as I was struggling to establish myself in Kolkata as a journalist, Pinaki De, a wonderful graphic designer who also teaches English literature in a suburban college, took me along to meet Nemai Ghosh. I was a bit hesitant as we had not met for quite some time. The meeting turned out to be very different because, by 2014, Nemai-da had moved on to capture other fields of life through his magical lens — Bengali theatre — which he had done even while he was Ray’s 'shadow', as he proudly claimed he was. He has published coffee-table books on Uttam Kumar, Suchitra Sen, Mrinal Sen and Bengali cinema made by other famed directors like Tarun Majumder and Tapan Sinha.

Nemai Ghosh’s Kolkata is a brilliant aesthetic and creative tribute to the spirit of this city. The images, reproduced in black-and-white, are complemented with text and captions by Shankarlal Bhattacharya and quotes from Ghosh himself.

Under the famous Howrah Bridge. Photograph: Nemai Ghosh

“I hear a lot about this city," said Nemai-da of the motivation to do the book. "Some call it a city of poverty and despair. Some find it to be one of politics and rallies. And there are many who believe in its deep roots in art and culture. Whatever be the case, I find life here, and love. What draws me to Kolkata is the human element and its spontaneous expression. Every moment of the city distils a narrative of epic possibilities and I, as a flâneur, have framed all of that. From the alleys to the highways, my lens has been doing its job. It is not a comprehensive, definitive compendium of Kolkata. Neither is it meant to be one. It is my Kolkata, the way I have seen it evolve through time.”

Ghosh wrote a book which was released at the Calcutta Book Fair in 2000. The book, simply called Manik-da (Manik being Ray’s now-famous nickname), a slim paperback volume of 96 pages, has the pages equally divided between textual matter and reprints of B&W photographs of Ray taken by Ghosh. Ghosh deliberately kept away from a chronological ordering of the photographs. This invests the book with an element of continuous surprise.

Ghosh had two sons of whom one passed away in his youth while the other is a famous still photographer who, unlike his father, prefers to shoot in colour.

The Delhi Art Gallery has digitized Ghosh’s work of more than one lakh negatives and presents around 170 archival prints at the Harrington Street Art Centre in Kolkata. The Delhi Art Gallery also brought out a superbly printed coffee-table book of Ghosh’s photographs of Ray caught candidly in a myriad of moods — reading, writing, concentrating, pensive, working, looking through the lens on location, pointing a finger to direct action, and so on. Pramod Kumar KG, curator of the exhibition, said, “Ghosh’s photographs of Ray at home and on the sets suggest a rare intimacy; with the poignancy of these images of the master at work, during and, in many cases, enacting roles.”

His photographs of Ray are exhibited at the permanent gallery of St Xavier’s College, Kolkata, and at Nord Pas-de-Calais, France. He has documented the making of films such as Jukti Takko Aar Gappo (1974) by Ritwik Ghatak, Interview (1971), Calcutta 71 (1971) and Ek Adhuri Kahani (1971) by Mrinal Sen, Paar (1984) by Goutam Ghose and Ijjodu (2010) by MS Sathyu. Ghosh photographed great masters Jamini Roy, Ramkinkar Baij and Benode Behari Mukherjee over the years 1969 and 1970. He went back to his interest in documenting master artists from 2002, photographing more than 30 major Indian painters and sculptors at work, resulting in a massive suite of photographs of the best minds in contemporary Indian art at work.

Moving beyond Ray, he photographed the land and the people of Kutch in Gujarat (1995–97), the tribal Bastar region in Chhattisgarh (1998–99), Bonda Hills in Orissa (2007) and the Apatani tribals in Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh (2010). “You cannot even begin to imagine what a long struggle it was to capture the lives and habitats of these Adivasis [aboriginals] of India living in remote places inaccessible by any form of public and private transport involving miles and hours of trekking on foot in terrible climatic conditions and all this when I was not exactly young,” Ghosh once said.

“The three things that have seen me through my struggles to establish myself are tenacity of purpose, discipline and hard work. I learnt discipline from Utpal Dutt when I trained under him as part of his Little Theatre Group. The same applied to Ray and I re-learnt it from him. But my ability to catch the exact mood, the precise moment, the particular posture, the body movement, the facial expression are all rooted in my theatre training.”

Finally, he agreed to mail me some portrait pictures of himself — in black and white.

Nemai Ghosh