March 13, 2009

A tribute to Nemai Ghosh

Since 1968, Nemai Ghosh, best known as Satyajit Ray's photographer, has chronicled the best of Bengali film and theatre.

By Anjana Basu

Of all the people who knew Satyajit Ray, one man still considered the last word on the filmmaker is photographer Nemai Ghosh. Some images from his extraordinary body of work will soon be seen in a book titled Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema.

For 25 years, Nemai recorded almost every moment of Ray's cinematic life - his expressions, his movements, his moods. He is still called 'Ray's photographer'. "I found him more interesting than his actors," says the 71-year-old, who has over 90,000 photographs of the filmmaker. There are also photographs of actors of Bengali theatre, politicians, artists and tribals. They cover the shelves of a narrow whitewashed room in his house behind Purna theatre, in Bhowanipore, Kolkata. A room so narrow that besides an old television set, a table and desk, there's nothing else but the shelves that rise to the ceiling.

Nemai 's interest in photography developed quite by accident. He was 34 and his passion was theatre. He had loved to act since his college days - Bengali and Hindi film actor Utpal Dutt saw his performance in one of his college plays and inducted him in his Little Theatre Group. Later, Nemai and his actor-friend Robi Ghosh broke away to form a splinter group, Chalachol.

In those days, his circle of actor-cinematographer-filmmaker friends like Robi Ghosh, and Banshi Chandragupta would congregate at his home to play cards. Never a card player, Nemai would sit and watch, and listen to their conversation. One day in 1968, a friend brought over a fixed-lens QL 17 Canonette camera and gifted it to him. He was fascinated. That's the time that his actor-friend Robi Ghosh was shooting for Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, a children's film directed by Ray. On a visit to the sets, Nemai took his new camera along and took some photographs of the actors rehearsing. "Banshi saw the photographs and introduced me to Manik Da [as Ray was fondly called]," he recalls. "He asked me to go ahead and take some more."

It was the beginning of a long relationship. The photographer and the filmmaker rarely spoke to each other, yet understood each other perfectly. In fact, Nemai had access to Ray's home and sets in a way few others did. "I visited him whenever I liked, even as early as 6 am or as late as 10 pm," he says. "He would throw me a new book of photography and his wife Bijoya would bring me a cup of tea, and I would sit there for long."

Nemai recorded the filmmaker's life on his sets, setting it down in the subtle interplay of black and white. He captured him briefing actors like Sharmila Tagore and Sir Richard Attenborough. Nemai was also moved to occasional experiments in colour, the first being a portrait of Ray biting his tongue. The filmmaker wrote in a foreword to Nemai's first book, Satyajit Ray at 70, in 1991: "For close to 25 years, Nemai Ghosh has been assiduously photographing me in action and repose - a sort of [James] Boswell working with a camera rather than a pen. Insofar as these pictures rise above mere records and assume a value as examples of a photographer's art, they are likely to be of interest to a discerning viewer."

Before the book came out, Nemai compiled an album of his photographs in 1986 and wrote to Henri Cartier-Bresson, the famous French photographer, for his seal of approval. Cartier-Bresson invited him to Paris. A year later, he scraped together enough money to buy a ticket and presented himself at the photographer's home. "Here is Ray's photographer," was Cartier-Bresson's greeting. Seated in the huge drawing room at a low table piled with books, Nemai found himself, despite his protests, sipping his first glass of wine. Cartier-Bresson persuaded him to stay a few more days, putting him up at the guesthouse in his apartment building, and introduced his work to Serge Tubiana, editor of Cahiers du Cinema, an influential French film magazine. Tubiana agreed to publish some of his photographs and Nemai flew to London where he met Ray's son Sandip. Sandip telephoned his father with the news and Ray instantly rang up Nemai's wife Shibani.

He returned to India triumphant. Cartier-Bresson also wrote the foreword to Satyajit Ray at 70, which was sponsored by Kodak, the photo company. It went: "Through his visual gift, Nemai Ghosh allows us to be intimate with filmmaking, and to feel with great fidelity the drive, the alertness and the profundity of this giant of cinema in all his majestic stature." A string of international exhibitions followed between the years 1991 and 2002.

Only once was Nemai without his camera when around Ray. On April 23, 1992, the filmmaker died, nine days before his 73rd birthday. Nemai was among the hordes of people who came to pay their last respects. Filmmaker Mrinal Sen says it was the first time he saw the photographer without his camera. "I went up to him, gently put my hand on his shoulder, and asked, 'How is it you are not with your camera?'," recalls Sen. "Is it of any use now, Mrinal Da?" replied Nemai.

Ray wasn't the only filmmaker Nemai captured through his lens. He also visited filmmakers Ritwik Ghatak, Gautam Ghosh and M S Sathyu on their sets, and captured their passion and eccentricities. And he never forgot his first love - theatre - regularly photographing experimental theatre groups in Kolkata. "At no point did I lose touch with theatre and its progress," says Nemai. "I was no longer a part of it, but I watched from a distance through the lens of my camera. It was as if the camera was an extension of myself that built an invisible bridge between me and the stage." Actors Utpal Dutt and Sombhu Mitra and Tapas Sen, the master of theatrical lighting, inspired the techniques and staging of his photographs.

Nemai has taken over 12,000 photographs of the theatre, some of which are part of his book Dramatic Moments, which is a record of theatre in Kolkata since the 1960s. It captures directors and actors like Sombhu Mitra, Utpal Dutt, Tripti Mitra, Badal Sircar, Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay, Manoj Mitra and Bibhas Chakraborty. "Shooting with no flash and at slow-shutter speeds to capture those dramatic moments has always been thrilling," he says. Theatre historian Samik Bandyopadhyay observed in a foreword to Nemai's exhibition Faces in and Out of Time, "The creative exercise, as recorded by Nemai Ghosh, captures the intense passions and pains that agitate the complete artist."

Human documentary has always been an area of interest for Nemai, whether it was the interplay of actors on Satyajit Ray's sets, or on stage. In the late 1990s, he embarked on another kind of documentary, a series of portraits of the tribals of Bastar and Kutch, setting them against walls, architecture and other human landscapes. He has enough photographs to put two books together but the project is waiting for a corporate sponsor. "I thought I should freeze-frame them because it won't be long before they are all 'civilised', and no longer look ethnic," says Nemai, who has published four books after Satyajit Ray at 70. The latest is Satyajit Ray: A Vision of Cinema, for publisher I B Tauris, with text and captions by Andrew Robinson.

Nemai also plans to capture the artists and sculptors of India in the act of creation. Most of the major artists of Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai have given him time, except for Ganesh Pyne and M F Husain. "I have yet to see another photographer working with such single-minded dedication and total passion," says artist Paritosh Sen. "Both his works in black and white and colour are of an extremely high standard and it is difficult to say which is better. I look forward to many more exhibitions of Nemai Babu's work in the days to come."

Meanwhile, Nemai is taking up only those projects that really excite him - at 71, he feels he has the right to take life at his own pace. He goes for a morning walk and sips cups of tea while watching television in his narrow study. He has no other hobbies or pastimes, though he confesses to listening to music while he sorts out his professional and personal "negative thoughts". Of his three children, his son Satyaki, a fashion photographer, is the only one who shares his father's passion. "If Satyajit Ray was my oxygen," says Nemai, "my son Satyaki is now my emotional support." That support is enough for a man who works with a Nikon by available light, immersed in recording the decisive moment in a medium under threat by digital photography.

Featured in Harmony Magazine
July 2005