'Sheer Brilliance': Sharmila Tagore on the Life and Work of Photographer Nemai Ghosh

What made his art distinct was that he shot only in natural light and never ever used the flash or artificial lighting.

I don’t remember who was the first to inform me that Nemaida [Nemai Ghosh] was no more. Was it a message or did somebody call? All I remember is a kind of sadness that overwhelmed me. I couldn’t fathom why it was so. After all, I hadn’t really kept in touch with him. Now I wish I had. I had always known he was very fond of me. Another link to my past is now irrevocably broken. Life is full of regrets.

It is particularly numbing and devastating to have to write so soon about someone you have known for a long, long time. I don’t exactly recall when I met him for the first time, but it must be over half a century ago at least. What we had in common was Manikda, (Satyajit Ray), mentor to both of us. Nemaida had started working as a still photographer in Manikda’s unit with Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, sometime in the late 1960s. Incredible as it may sound, he had no knowledge of professional photography before that. Not only that, he had never even handled a camera.

Manikda must have been suitably impressed with the results, for his association with Nemaida lasted till the day he passed away. Nemai Ghosh was the official still photographer for Aranayer Din Raatri and that is when perhaps I met him for the first time. Not having seen his work, like many others, I had my doubts but once again how right Manikda was and how wrong we were! The provocative stills of Aranayer Din Raatri proved beyond doubt Nemaida’s sheer brilliance once and for all.

And what a stunning location it was. The magical forest of Palamau, in the simmering heat of April, with its skeletal trees, scorched, dry leaves piling up under a limpid sky must have been awe-inspiring. Not that Simi, Kaveridi or I were bad subjects either. Then there were Soumitra Chatterjee, Robida, Shubhendu, Samit, and last but not the least, the photogenic Manikda himself.

Also read: Fifty Years of Satyajit Ray’s ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’

Thus began our association. All of us know how he immortalised Manikda in iconic frames. And anyone who knew Manikda would know how perfectly Nemaida’s candid photographs captured his persona. As Ray himself said, Nemaida was his visual Boswell.

And yet, Nemaida went well beyond Ray. Since he was never given to self-aggrandisement, not many people are aware that he was quite a stalwart of Bengali theatre in the 1950s and ‘60s. He had acted in Utpal Dutt’s Little Theatre Group and been part of popular plays like Angar and Ferari Fouj.

After his defining encounter with Ray, he gradually moved away from active theatre. But as an insider, he used his newfound skill to document the world of Bengali theatre in  Dramatic Moments, a brilliant book replete with captivating and breathtaking and archival images. He also documented the world of Indian art in Faces of Indian Art: Through the Lens of Nemai Ghosh.

He went on to collaborate with the celebrated artist Paresh Maity on a book of photographs and paintings, The World on a Canvas. I am happy and proud to say that Paresh invited me to write the prose. It was an enriching experience for me to engage with two legendary artists on their journey to discover the different colours and shades of India.

What made his art distinct was that he shot only in natural light and never ever used the flash or artificial lighting. “I play with different shades of light and shadows in my photographs and so have a preference for black and white as it can capture light, ambient and hidden, in a manner colour cannot,” is what he said.

Also read: Mrinal Sen: The Master of Cinema with a Warm Heart

I met Nemaida after ages at an event organised by the Satyajit Ray Society in May 2018. He looked tired and it saddened me to see him so frail. Yet, he met me with so much warmth and affection; I was moved by the humility of the man when he once again mentioned the Canon camera I had gifted him a long, long time ago. He claimed that it was this camera that inspired him to passionately pursue his newfound vocation. As usual he was being his magnanimous self. In that fleeting moment so many memories surfaced and before we could dwell on them we were separated by people who wanted his and my attention.

I didn’t realise that was the last time I would see him. It breaks my heart to think that Paresh Maity was in the process of putting together a book on Nemai Ghosh and I was supposed to release it at an event in Kolkata on April 24. I was so looking forward to meeting Nemaida again. Sadly, it was not to be. But then, with people like Nemaida, there are no farewells. They stay on with us, with their exemplary life, their achievements and a lifetime of cherished memories.

Sharmila Tagore is an actress who has worked in Bengali and Hindi films, including many made by Satyajit Ray.