July 26, 2021
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Homai Vyarawalla (1913-2012), R.I.P.

Homai Vyarawalla (1913-2012), R.I.P.

The fates seem to have got their calendar wrong. For almost all the important events in Homai Vyarawalla's life had something to do with the number 13 -- she was born in 1913, she met husband-to-be Maneckshaw when she was 13, her first car’s licence plate was DLD 13.  And So there is an element of being cheated that Dalda 13 (a pseudonym she chose for herself) did not live on at least till 2013.

Writing in the Telegraph, last year, Malavika Karlekar recalled the curious life and times of Homai Vyarawalla:

In March 2005, Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first woman press photographer, confessed to her biographer, Sabeena Gadihoke, that it was only 50 years after taking photographs that “I started seeing the value of my work.” At the time, “I was just earning a living” and had little “thought of preserving it for posterity”. And a few years ago, had a Delhi-based photographer not been curious to find out more about the only woman in the list of photographers maintained by the Press Information Bureau, Homai’s work would have been all but forgotten. What remains after many prints and negatives were lost, burnt or thrown away in the years between form a fascinating visual documentary of a newly emergent India, and the basis of filmmaker and academic Sabeena Gadihoke’s India in Focus: Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla.

As Shyam Benegal wrote while reviewing Gadihoke's book for Outlook:

her professional career spanned three of the most decisive and crucial decades in India's 20th-century history—1940 to 1970. In these 30 years, Homai lived in Delhi mainly photographing the political elite and their activities as a press photographer. She may not have been aware at the time that her work would become an important visual testimony of India's transition from a colonised country to the Indian nation and its travails over the next quarter of a century...

Homai was not only the first but the only woman photojournalist in this entire period when press photography was considered an exclusively male domain. Not equipped with either a telephoto or a wideangle lens, she had to be either extremely close to her subjects or go great distances and heights to get composite shots. At one of Jinnah's last press conferences before Partition, she decided to get top angle shots from atop wooden packing cases stacked up in a corner of the room...

The packing cases gave way and she came tumbling down at the feet of Jinnah. His bemused response was, "I hope you are not hurt." Several years later when Gen Ayub Khan came to India as President of Pakistan, Homai took a photo of him with Nehru from her favourite low-angle position. Struggling to get up from between the legs of other photographers, the general noticed her and is supposed to have said, "How unchivalrous...not allowing the lady to get up". And a chuckling Nehru remarked, "That's alright, that's the way she works..."

June Gaur profiled her in the Hindu in 2004:

A quaint sight in Lutyens' Delhi of the 1940s and 1950s, the sari-clad Vyarawalla bicycled around the town and clicked some of history's most unforgettable images of people and events. She carried her cumbersome equipment herself, kept a low profile and discouraged people from focusing on her. "I was very stern — no hanky-panky and no unnecessary smiling which could be misconstrued. I would stand in a corner watchfully, taking pictures as the opportunities came. The other photographers would leave soon after they had taken their routine shots but I would always wait for an out of the ordinary picture."...

[she made] no bones about the fact that she took up photography because she could work as a team with her husband Maneckshaw, from whom she learnt the ropes. "If he'd been an architect, I'd have adopted his line of work." It was Vyarawalla's job to go out and get the pictures and Maneckshaw's to develop them. She was paid one rupee for each of her first eight pictures that were published in The Bombay Chronicle in 1938. Later, during the Second World War, Stanley Jepson, The Illustrated Weekly of India's editor, gave Vyarawalla weekly assignments and she covered every aspect of wartime activities in Bombay for The Weekly.

Her whimsicality, like that of many other Parsis of her generation, was the subject of many a fascinating anecdote. In 2009, in a piece for the Telegraph, Anuradha Roy described how Mrs Vyarawalla (she was advised to send her a handwritten letter: 'Very Important. Don’t forget to call her Mrs Vyarawalla') allowed her use of her photograph gratis — refusing even a token fee — because she approved of a pen-and-ink letter in the age of email in a piece that began thus:

In July this year, it was reported that India’s first professional woman photographer, Homai Vyarawalla, 96 years old, had decided to swap her 55-year-old Fiat for a Nano. She paid up, and was promised that the very first Nano out of the factory would be hers. However, the car company overshot its delivery date, upon which Mrs Vyarawalla cancelled her order. (To add insult to injury, she announced that a second-hand Maruti would do just fine instead.) In August, on Parsi New Year’s Day, Tata officials came personally to deliver her car and beg forgiveness.

After all that, by September she was considering selling the new car. She explained that she was tired of the media attention. Also, she didn’t like the car’s colour any more. She wanted to sell because she did not like driving a red car.

Which man would discard a car because of its colour? Which man would admit to such levity when it came to cars? In Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, two women decide to buy a new car. They set off for a car showroom as if to a supermarket, and subversively, “they picked one because they liked the colour and upholstery ... when the salesman tried to talk car sense, they just giggled at each other. ‘The truth is, they [cars] are all much the same these days,’ she said loudly. ‘I don’t know much but I do know that.’”

Read on at the Telegraph 

Read more about her elsewhere (as compiled in an old 2009 blog):

History, in black and white, (it also shows her favourite photograph -- Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Ambassador to Russia, received at the Delhi airport by brother Jawaharlal Nehru) culled from extensive interviews by by Dionne Bunsha, where she is quoted as saying:

The papers publish the pictures of today's leaders. They look so wily.

Somebody asked if I would want to take pictures today. I said no, thank you. When you have done the best, you can't go to the mediocre...

I read one newspaper. It doesn't give all the information. But there is no time to read all the papers.

India's First Woman Photo Journalist which has a photo of Pandit Nehru, with a cigarette in his mouth, lighting a cigarette on the lips of Ms. Simon, wife of the then British High Commissioner to India.

Capturing History by Kavita Charanji: (this has her famous photo of Mahatma Gandhi with Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan)

"I am busy getting old. Though I like to take general photographs of streets and common people, I am not into political photography in a milieu where dignity and discipline are no longer a virtue."

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