"For close on twenty-five years, Nemai Ghosh has been photographing me in action and repose – a sort of Boswell with a camera than a pen." – Satyajit Ray. It may sound incredible that someone who received a recommendation as profound as this had never clicked a photograph in his life till he met Satyajit Ray. As Nemai Ghosh says, "Let alone photography, I did not even know how to click a camera."
It is one of those life-altering quirks of fate that steered Nemai Ghosh, at the time a relatively well-known name in Kolkata's theatre circles, to what became his calling and eventual claim to fame. It was sometime in 1968, a group of his theatre friends were busy with a game of cards, when another friend walked in with a fixed-lens Canon camera that someone had left behind in the taxi he had taken. The friend owed Ghosh Rs 200 and on the spur of the moment the latter offered to write off the loan in exchange for the camera.
The second twist of fate came when the friends took off for a weekend outing to Burdwan. Reaching Burdwan, they came to know that Satyajit Ray was shooting Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne at nearby Rampurhat. "Robi Ghosh [who played Bagha in the film] was not only a good friend but also director of our theatre group, Chalachal," says Ghosh. Needless to say, Ghosh made haste to the location, only to learn that the day's shoot had been cancelled. The unit was rehearsing the famous shot of water drops falling on Bagha's drum. "I do not know what possessed me. As if in a trance, I felt my finger pressing the shutter – I finished two rolls of film."
Once the photographs were developed, his friends were very encouraging of the results, particularly given that this was practically the first time he had clicked anything. Pioneering art director Bansi Chandragupta suggested that Ghosh show Ray the photographs and took him to meet the master. "I lurked behind Bansi-da nervously, watching the six-foot-two-inch man minutely go through the photographs clicked by a rank amateur." Ray's next words would alter Nemai Ghosh's life forever. Looking up at Ghosh, Ray said, "You have done it exactly the way I would have – you've got the same angles."
But Nemai Ghosh is not just about Ray. Though he moved away from theatre after his career-altering meeting with Manik-da, Ghosh used his new-found passion to capture on film the world of Bengali theatre in the brilliant book, Dramatic Moments. He also documented Indian art in Faces of Indian Art, collaborated with renowned painter Paresh Maity on a book of paintings and photographs, and has also documented his city, Kolkata, in a book of the same name.
What sets Nemai Ghosh apart is the fact that he shoots only in natural light and has never used a flash. And even today he prefers shooting in black and white. "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," says Ghosh, arguably the best photographer India has had.
A photograph which creates shadows within shadows. I think it captures the persona of Ray more than anything else. The trick is correct positioning to get the perfect shot.
Satyajit Ray and cinematographer Soumendu Roy follow Babita for a sequence in Asani Sanket. I wanted to capture the movement and flux of the tracking shot and literally ran after them.
A scene from Ghare Baire. A difficult shot to get as I had to shoot against direct lights being reflected in the mirror. I wanted to convey the intensity on Swatilekha's face.
A rare photograph that showcases three generations of the Ray family. This was the last image of Manik-da that I took, on 10 October 1991, before his demise the next year.
A photograph from my theatre archives, a Rangakarmee production starring Usha Ganguly … the smoke seems to be creating a profile of Rabindrananth Tagore. I have always taken theatre photographs seating in the front row and without using the flash. I only shoot in available light and don't like to use any source other than the ambient light that illuminates the subject. I rarely move from the seat and it's only by tilting the camera lens at the right moment that I obtain the correct angle. The key is observation and a penchant for capturing the moment at the right time.
Patrick Swayze, Shabana Azmi and Om Puri during the shoot of City of Joy. I was unaware of Ronald Joffe's reputation. When I heard that a foreign film-maker was trying to contact me, I asked Manik-da (Ray). He encouraged me, saying, 'Nemai, you must work with him.' I went to meet him at Grand Hotel. I was part of the recce team that scouted locations in and around Kolkata. It helped that I knew almost every nook and corner of the city. Apart from Manik-da's, I have seldom encountered a more professional unit.
I have two professional regrets. I never got permission to shoot inside Victoria Memorial. It says something about my city that Amritsar was more welcoming in my endeavour to shoot inside the Golden Temple. I also did not get permission to shoot extensively inside coal mines – something I always wanted to. This photograph was shot in available light 1000 ft. beneath the surface. I wanted to take more but I could not.
Mrinal Sen, a master sculpted in time. During the time I took this photograph I used to visit Mrinal Sen's residence often and I found this an interesting frame that captivated me instantly.