Returning the Gaze: The Photography of Sayeeda Khanum

by Jannatul Mawa

Figure 1: Sayeeda Khanum, This photograph was taken in Pakistan Regime in Bangladesh and was published in ‘Begum’, a magazine that played a significant role for the advancement of Bengali Muslim Women, Dhaka, 1960. Courtesy of Drik Picture Library

A thirteen-year-old girl stands with a box camera in front of the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. Before her are two Kabuliwalas (Afghan men).[1] Curious passers-by stop and stare, but the girl does not notice. She wonders: “So these are Rabindranath Tagore’s Kabuliwalas!”[2] Sayeeda Khanum is captivated by the two men, the subjects of her first photograph.

At a time when Bengali Muslim girls were discouraged from being out in the public, Sayeeda Khanum was a trailblazer, playing with the magic of light and shadows and capturing souls in her frame. For a long time, even after the Partition of British India, she was the sole female photographer in East Pakistan and then Independent Bangladesh.

Family and Early Years

Sayeeda Khanum was born in Pabna in present-day Bangladesh on 29 December 1937, into an extended family with progressive views. Her eldest brother, Abdul Ahad was a renowned singer, music director, composer and instructor in the music world. In 1938, during Rabindranath Tagore’s lifetime, he went to the Visva-Bharati University in Shantiniketan on a scholarship. Among her three sisters, one was an artist, another a teacher and one a school principal. Sayeeda Khanum’s aunt, Mahmuda Khatun was the first Muslim female poet whose book, Pasharini (Peddler, 1931) was published from Kolkata.[3]

Growing up in such a prolific family nurtured her own artistry, individuality and creativity. In her autobiography Khanum writes, “It is really difficult to get past a dark age. When I started photography, society was obsessed with dark superstitions. But our family and the environment within which we grew up was educated, free from such superstitions”.[4]

Sayeeda Khanum’s grandfather, Khan Bahadur Mohammad Solaiman was an educationalist. Due to his illness, the extended family relocated frequently. As a result, Sayeeda spent her childhood travelling across various parts of India and Bangladesh. After completing her studies in Bengali Literature and Library Sciences from the University of Dhaka in 1974, she took the job of a Librarian in the Bengali Department of the University.

Sayeeda Khanum’s earliest photographs were taken with a box camera. When her sister, Hamida Khanum had gone to study in the United States, she brought a Rolleicord camera for Sayeeda. With this new camera in hand, eighteen-year-old Sayeeda Khanum was in heaven. At an exhibition in Dhaka in 1954, she participated with photographs taken with that camera. In 1956, she received an International Photography Award from Germany. Though Sayeeda started with no formal education in photography, she was quick to learn from those willing to help her. There were only a few photography studios in the country in the 50s and one of them was the Zaidi Studio. It was Zaidi, the owner of the studio, who initially taught her composition and gave her photography books to read. Over time, while on the one hand she continued taking photos, stalwarts of photography such as Golam Kasem Daddy of the Camera Recreation Club (considered the father of Bangladeshi photography) and Manzoor Alam BegFounder of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, encouraged her, especially at a time when women were not working as professional camerapersons.

With a growing passion for photography, further support came from her aunt and elder sisters. At the age of nineteen, Sayeeda started her professional career as a photojournalist for the celebrated Begum magazine, the first illustrated women’s weekly in East Bengal featuring literary works by Bengali women (Figure 1). From the 1960s, her photographs were being regularly published in other magazines as well.

Though Sayeeda struggled to receive a press-photographer’s card when she started, she went on to photograph illustrious and celebrated personages, including royalty and heads of state such as Queen Elizabeth and pioneers such as Michael Collins, Edwin Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. She also took photos of Mother Teresa, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Bangladesh’s founding father), politician and popular leader Maulana Bhashani, musician Ustad Allauddin Khan, national poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, artist Zainul Abedin, filmmaker Satyajit Ray, as well as actors such as Audrey Hepburn, Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen.

Throughout her illustrious career, Khanum participated in conferences around the world, including the All India Photojournalism Conference in Kolkata in 1973 as a representative from Bangladesh. She actively participated in photography contests and exhibitions both at home and abroad and presented three solo exhibitions of her own photographs of Satyajit Ray and another exhibition of Mother Teresa. In 2019, she was awarded the Ekushey Padak, the second highest civilian award in Bangladesh by the government.

Though primarily a photographer, Sayeeda Khanum was also a prolific author. Her short stories, novels and essays have been published in various newspapers. Some of her books include Dhulomuthi, Upanyashtroyee, Amar Chokhe Satyajit Ray (Satyajit Ray Through My Eyes) and Smritir Path Beye (In the Path of Memory), which is an autobiography.[5]

Sayeeda Khanum and Satyajit Ray          

In 1962, Sayeeda Khanum went to Kolkata on behalf of the popular movie magazine, Chitrali to interview and photograph the famous Indian filmmaker and writer, Satyajit Ray.

Though warned about Satyajit’s reticence, her interview was a success. More importantly, she won over Satyajit Ray and his family with her amicability. She became Satyajit’s ‘Dear Badal’ (her nickname). Satyajit would later comment: “I understood that she was a good photographer just by seeing her posture and angle while holding the camera”.[6]

Just as Sayeeda’s friendship with Ray had an immense influence in her life, his films influenced her long photography career. Satyajit had said in an interview that his films are about human psychology – the human mind, human relationships and the study of the little moments that connect and form his characters’ daily lives. Likewise, Khanum’s great black-and-white compositions portray a psychosocial intensity as well as subtle intimacy, reminiscent of movie stills. This similarity could be interpreted as an exchange of views between the two artists. One may assume that she was undoubtedly inspired by Ray’s films.

Khanum photographed Ray silently for thirty years and was one of only two photographers (other than Nemai Ghosh) who were permitted to attend the shootings and take stills of his three films – Mahanagar (1963), Charulata (1964) and Mahapurush (1965)Her photos of the auteur were exhibited in Dhaka in 1992 and Kolkata in 2001. She had won the hearts of both sides of Bengal! Later, compiling her photos and memories of Ray, she wrote her outstanding memoir titled Amar Chokhe Satyajit Ray.[7]

Sayeeda Khanum during the Bangladesh Liberation War (1971)

Sayeeda Khanum did not take many photos during the Bangladesh Liberation War, a fact which she recalled in later interviews with regret. She wrote in her autobiography Smritir Path Beye:

“Whenever I saw foreign women photographers taking pictures of wars in battlefields amid danger, I longed to do the same. While [I did] not [shoot the] war, I did get to experience something similar when I went to take pictures of the Pakistani army on 16 December [1971]. Prior to that, I had a different kind of experience for nine months. During the nine months of the Liberation War, we lived in mortal peril every moment. The entire city of Dhaka was transformed into something like a concentration camp”.[8]

Khanum’s portrayal of 1971 was then as a moment of revolution, an awakening for the nation, rather than a moment of victimisation. In one conversation, speaking about the experience, she said: “It was a moment of awakening for women: we too could fight for the country, we could give our lives for the country”.

Figure 2: Sayeeda Khanum, Training in Azimpur Field, before Liberation, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1971. Courtesy of Drik Picture Library

The experience shaped her photographs and her work is akin to that of an activist. The frames, angles and expressions that we see in her photos of women, portray the crucial role that they played as active agents in the War (Figure 2).

In contrast to photographs of women during the War, her photos do not show the victimisation of women, unclad or covering their faces. Khanum’s photographs of women carrying guns on their shoulders create a fresh narrative around a subjugated Bangladesh. She often valorised women – especially those tortured and abused, those who supported freedom, those who provided inspiration and courage through cultural activism – as front liners in the battlefield. The photographer also memorialised male freedom fighters as they returned from war carrying Sten guns in their hands. In many respects, Sayeeda took the 1971 Liberation War photographs for the purpose of documentation but also to portray the awakening of a nationalist ideology.

The Portrayal of Women in Sayeeda Khanum’s Photos 

Sayeeda Khanum’s personal collection of photos remains largely unexplored. The photographs that we see span the 1950s till the 2000s and they are mostly a documentation of Bengali women. They bear testament to a cultural and political understanding, to her struggles.

On the covers of Begum magazine, she highlighted the role of women in all spheres of life. She photographed celebrities and non-celebrities alike from villages and cities. We know for instance, of Julia Margaret Cameron’s (born in Calcutta, 1815-1879) photographs of her close associates in intimate settings from the same region. One hundred and twenty-two years after Julia’s birth, Sayeeda too captured the lives of those close to her. Julia took photos in her studio, using a box camera; Sayeeda used her Rolleicord both indoors and outdoors.

The women in Sayeeda Khanum’s photographs are romantic, sentimental, melancholic, and yet independent fighters. Her subjects are seen in sailing boats, in old houses (Figure 3), with paint brush in hand, in prayer, arranging flowers in vases. The play of light and shadow of women posed in balconies, by windows and at the same time, carrying rifles, preparing for war, creates a diverse oeuvre. These photos were not reportage, but a portrayal of the lives of woman in cinematic or pictorial style. Little difference can be found between commissioned works and her personal photographs. In her pictures, the private and public lives of women are attended to similarly. It appears that she knew her subjects well and transformed interactions into photographs.

Figure 3: Sayeeda Khanum, Artist Alea Ferdous and others before Rupnogar Jamindar Bari. Courtesy of Drik Picture Library

Khanum passed away on 18 August 2020. Her works were never given their due recognition during her lifetime. A large portion of Sayeeda Khanum’s archives are yet to be found – and finding these will surely facilitate further research into the life and contribution/s of a forgotten pioneer.


[1] Kabuliwala refers to the Afghans of Kolkata who made a living as traders, sellers and hawkers. It became a household term in Bengal after the publication of Rabindranath Tagore’s short story of the same name in 1892. See Rabindranath Tagore, ‘Kabuliwala’, in Galpa Guchcha (Dhaka: Nouroj Sahitya Sangsad, 1990), 84–89.

[2] Sayeeda Khanum, Smritir Path Beye (Dhaka: Yukta Prokashono, 2013), 37.

[3] Mahmuda Khatun, Pasharini (Kolkata: Manasi Press, 1931).

[4] Khanum, Smritir Path Beye, op. cit., 15.

[5] Sayeeda Khanum, Dhulomuthi (Dhaka: Adil Brothers, 1964); Upanyashtroyee (Dhaka: Yukta, 2015); Amar Chokhe Satyajit Ray (Dhaka: Yukta, 2016); and Smritir Path Beye, op. cit.

[6] Khanum, Smritir Path Beye, op. cit., 15.

[7] Khanum, Amar Chokhe Satyajit Ray, op. cit.

[8] Khanum, Smritir Path Beye, op. cit., 71.



Jannatul Mawa is a Dhaka-based photographer, researcher, and human rights activist. She teaches at Pathshala South Asian Media Institute, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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