I called filmmaker Sandip Ray only a few hours after the news of seminal photographer Nemai Ghosh's death had surfaced on 25 March. Ghosh was 86, and suffered a cardiac arrest at his home in Kolkata, drawing his last breath amid a nationwide lockdown in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. As the world watched its cities turn into ghost towns overnight, Sandip's wish to see his Nemai Kaka one last time went unanswered. "I can't quite express how terrible this feels. There couldn't have been a worse time for him to leave. He was doing fine until a few days ago when we last spoke," he tells me over the phone.

Before passing away at the age of 84, Satyajit Ray gave Ghosh his now legendary moniker of "Boswell with a camera, instead of a pen". The lensman, by his own admission, could never quite get over the shock of losing his mentor, whose life and work assumed a greater degree of permanence through his stills — over a lakh of them, to be precise.

Nemai Ghosh's entry into Ray's charmed circles was simply a primer for honing his unmatched skills behind the camera, as he accidentally stumbled upon his passion that went on to become his greatest legacy. "He was referred to Baba by our art director Bansi Chandragupta, and first joined our unit in 1968, during the shoot of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne. Baba was very impressed with the photographs he had taken, and asked him to join us," Sandip Ray recalls.

Facebook/Syamantak Chattopadhyay

Despite his towering frame and laid-back, jolly temper, Ghosh was an unassuming man.

He stolidly held on to his old address and habits, even after having successfully transitioned from a 9-to-5 job at an automobile company, to the sets of one of cinema's greatests.

His first encounter with the camera was a moment of pure serendipity, when one fine day, a friend — who owed him 240 rupees — found a fixed-lens camera (a Cannonette QL-16) which was left behind in a taxi. Inexplicably, and rather instinctively, Ghosh asked his friend to settle the debt by handing over the camera to him. What followed is history.

"Nemai Kaka's dedication to the craft was unmatched, and it didn't just end with him clicking a picture. The way he developed and preserved each one of his film negatives is incredible, and he continued to do so till his last breath. There was something about his presence on a set that was so pleasant and reassuring," Sandip Ray says, acknowledging Ghosh's unparalleled contribution as an architect of the Ray legacy.

To him, the loss is monumental, besides being deeply personal — one that will take a while to sink in. It is also cruelly ironical that Ghosh's exit happened only days before the run-up to Ray's centenary birth anniversary celebrations next year.

Before committing himself to the camera, Ghosh harboured thespian dreams, bringing them to life with actor-director Utpal Dutt's Little Theatre in Calcutta. Starring in Dutt's iconic Angar (1959) — a play critical of the sub-human working conditions of Indian coal miners under the British rule — Ghosh's act was imposing. Arts critic and editor Samik Bandopadhyay testifies to this: “He was an impressive and formidable figure on stage," but wasn't too keen on photography at that point, he adds. This lesser-known aspect, however, spilled over into his life post-Ray, which resulted in astounding documentation of the stage, as Sandip points out.

"Some people probably know of Nemai Kaka's tryst with the stage. But his stage photography is something worth beholding," he tells me.

As a still photography enthusiast himself, Sandip would often refer to Ghosh's techniques and style, and aspire for a "Nemai Ghosh-esque shot" every once in a while. "That's how we met and connected — over images. I can't quite point to what exactly I'll miss about him, because it's too personal a loss. But watching him at work at all times, defying age, and being dedicated to his craft like no other will most definitely be one of the things."

Ghosh gravitated towards natural light, which, coupled with his spontaneity, helped him capture the perfect moment almost every time.

He didn't find much use for the flash, as it tended to "harden" images, Sandip Ray says. However, what piqued his father's interest in Ghosh — who, until he met Ray, had never touched a camera, let alone train in photography — were his keen eye and chosen angles. "On seeing the first few photos he'd taken on the sets of Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, Baba said that Nemai Kaka had shot them from exactly those angles that he would've taken them," he recalls. He was relieved to have found a familiar face in Robi Ghosh (who played Bagha) on walking into the film's outdoor sets at Rampurhat, as the photographer had been a part of the veteran actor's theatre group, Chalachal. Within minutes, he had run out of camera rolls that were now brimming with candid shots of the crew preparing for the memorable scene of water dripping on to Bagha's dhol.

There's a sense of urgency in Sandip's voice, as he draws my attention to the possible fate of his Kaka's legacy over a dozen times through our conversation, emphasising on the need to digitise his works while there's still time. "He lived with one severe regret all his life — that he couldn't find a permanent space to exhibit his works in his very own hometown," he says. "He's handed over a large part of his collection to the Delhi Art Gallery, which is a competent institute that will hopefully do justice to his heritage. If we can safeguard his work, he will continue to live on among us. Our future generations deserve to experience the magic that was Nemai Ghosh. This should be done for posterity."

Ghosh lost his elder son Shantanu in 2001, and is survived by his younger son Satyaki, a Mumbai-based photographer, — who could not attend his last rites owing to the country-wide lockdown — daughter Sharmistha, and wife Sibani. The Padma Shri awardee (2010) leaves behind a formidable body of work that ranges the entire spectrum of the arts.

He had grown numb after Ray's sudden departure in the summer of 1992, failing to find the inspiration that would take him back to what he did best. This changed after he did a series on the tribes of the Rann of Kutch. The photographs have a piercing pathos, heralding a need for social introspection that further extends to his successive documentation of the tribal populations of Bastar, Odisha, and the Apatanis of Arunachal Pradesh. But what particularly marked his virtuosity was his ability to treat every subject equally — even if it was the legendary Italian filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni.

"It is what made people like him (Antonioni) and Henri Cartier-Bresson [a favourite of his father] seek Kaka out," Sandip says. Ghosh and Cartier-Bresson's friendship was propelled by his impulse to suddenly take off for Paris one day, where he met the French photographer over breakfast. He then went on to have him write a foreword for his book Satyajit Ray at 70 (1991). "It was a matter of great pride and honour for us all. I asked him to document his time with Antonioni as well — how he captured the transformation of a great filmmaker into a painter," he tells me.

On the Italian auteur's visit to Calcutta during the film festival in 1994, Ghosh gifted him a copy of Satyajit Ray at 70. Overwhelmed by what he saw, Antonioni invited the photographer to join his crew, if and when he would shoot in India — an idea that failed to materialise. However, years later, in 2006, he asked Ghosh to attend an exhibition of his paintings in Rome. The latter used this opportunity to photograph Michelangelo the artist — a profoundly intimate experience that only he was privy to. He had hoped to chronicle the episode in a book until his last days.

Nemai Ghosh's simplicity, however, barely betrayed his brilliance, as is evidenced in the artist's oeuvre that nonchalantly boasts of works with the likes of Ritwik Ghatak (in Jukti, Tokko, Goppo), Goutam Ghose (in Antarjali Jatra and Paar), Mrinal Sen (in Calcutta 71 and Interview) and Roland Joffé (in City of Joy, starring Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, and Patrick Swayze).

Unsurprisingly, the man was a stickler for quality. "He was uncompromising on that front. He never worked with an inferior stock, and was incredibly quality-conscious, as a result of which his books are all great paradigms of excellence. However, whenever he wasn't happy with the quality of print of any of his books, he'd come and tell me about it. In the later years, he became quite tech-savvy to keep up with the times, but he always had a soft spot for black-and-white, even though he had done some outstanding work in colour," Sandip says.

Ghosh's enviable eye for detail and perseverance steered him through the 25 years with Ray, where he meticulously recorded every moment of his movement through film sets, dubbing and recording studios, and even his home.

By his own admission, the Rays were his favourite models.

He'd shot the couple at Kathmandu for a Brooke Bond/Lipton tea commercial (that ultimately didn't see the light of day), besides having photographed their romance on their wedding anniversary as well. His induction into their family meant Ray never having to worry about stills again.

"Whenever we'd require photographs for film promotions, print ads, newspapers, lobby cards, or for absolutely anything else, Baba would ask for Nemai Kaka. He'd not have to spare a thought about stills because he knew Kaka would be around to figure it out. Until he joined our unit, the absence of a production photographer made things pretty difficult for us," Sandip says, acknowledging that being his father's visual biographer was no mean feat. It demanded being on one's toes round the clock, as Ghosh would also be spotted lending a hand in illustrating for FeludaProfessor Shonku, among others. Eventually, from Ghare Baire (1984) onwards, he started receiving regular paychecks.

His pioneering works in print, such as The Faces of Indian Art: Through the Lens of Nemai Ghosh, his coffee table book Nemai Ghosh's Kolkata, and his exemplary collaboration with painter Paresh Maity, attest to the sheer range of subjects he managed to traverse during his lifetime. The man, however, was stubbornly finical about the work he signed up for. Ghosh had, rather famously, turned down Dev Anand's request to do the stills for his 1974 multi-starrer, Ishk Ishk Ishk, which ultimately tanked at the box office.

His fly-on-the-wall temperament was perhaps an indispensable part of his creative process, causing him to blend into the background while on duty. "He was careful about not making his subjects conscious. That would kill the candid moment he was trying to capture," Sandip says. He sounds rather amused as he recalls instances of people refusing to believe that the man they were facing was the Nemai Ghosh himself. "He was so incredibly grounded and simple," he says, before remembering some of Nemai Kaka's parting words. "I'd told him that he has to be heavily involved in Baba's 100th birth anniversary celebration that was slated to start in May this year. Now, of course, it's all uncertain. He'd promised to be around and had said that he was preparing for it already. Well, what do I say now," he trails off.

As the curtain comes down on an era of trailblazing artists and their art, the exit of Nemai Ghosh seems poignantly momentous. His is the story of the humble middle-class man, who became a force to reckon with in a craft that was seldom sought out, let alone mastered by those of his class.

He was audacious enough to have competed on merit in a space colonised by the beau monde, thereby embodying a narrative that is curiously mirrored and immortalised in Ray's cinema.

It is only fitting that the maestro's lasting images would be the handiwork of one such man, who shied away from the spotlight, despite knowing that he had to keep the show running. And so he did, until his final breath.

Banner image via Facebook/Umakanth Thamizkumaran

All photos by Nemai Ghosh, via Facebook/Cinemadrome (except where indicated otherwise)