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Immortalising the World in Her Work: Homai Vyarawalla

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By Nitum Jain:

What do we call the person who is behind the lens? Yes, a Cameraman. However, the changing times have managed to evolve the term, and now it stands corrected as ‘Cameraperson’. The fairer sex has finally ‘clicked’, and has ‘captured’ the Camera.

Today, we see so many women who practice the art of photography, who are enrolled into specialised courses, or are already successful as photojournalists and artists.  But before this change happened, there was a woman who started it all.

Homai Vyarawalla turned 98 on December 9, 2011, and this woman holds the title of being India’s first woman press photographer who captured the first three decades of a nation in transition. Her career began in the 30s when she met Maneckshaw Vyarawalla, her future husband, and someone with an avid interest in photography. This marked a beginning of a 40-year-long career, and the story of the nation and its builders captured in their most candid moments in a collection of still black-and-whites.

In a 56-minute long film, Three Woman and a Camera (1998) by Sabeena Ghadioke, who developed a close friendship with the dynamic photographer, we get a glimpse of just how fascinating Mrs. Vyarawalla was, and how she was a woman who perhaps always had an ideology far ahead of her times.

This was her favourite one out of the few photographs that she had displayed in her home.

She hated the pictures when the subject was aware of the camera because she felt that their countenance, then, sub-consciously took to artifice. In a throng of men with the large manual cameras, this woman was seen positioned at odd places, waiting patiently to capture that one moment that will not just capture the face but also the very character of her subject. Jawaharlal Nehru was her favourite ‘prey’ as he was someone whom she considered to be the epitome of dignity and wanted to immortalize that quality of his while still showing his real self in her work.

Homai had great respect for her art and for herself; she left the profession and halted her career at its prime as she felt that “It was not worth it any more. We had rules for photographers; we even followed a dress code. We treated each other with respect, like colleagues. But then, things changed for the worst. They [the new generation of photographers] were only interested in making a few quick bucks; I didn’t want to be part of the crowd anymore.
The story behind this was that at an event, while waiting at her usual spot amongst the throng, a foreign official commanded irritably that the photographers be removed from the premises due to excessive rowdiness. That is when Homai decided to walk out. She didn’t wish to be part of a crowd which no longer maintained the sanctity of the profession and took to intrusive behaviour.

She completely disappeared from the scene, and her whereabouts were only discovered when someone commented to Indira Gandhi about how there are no women photographers in India, to which she snapped back that there was one great woman, who was ‘hiding’ in Pilani. Next day there was furore in Pilani as Homai’s neighbours gathered to enquire if this plain-looking woman was the same one mentioned in the news.

Homai never returned to photography but her huge contribution to the field she treasured sealed and preserved in boxes and as negatives, kept packed and away from exposure for almost three decades. Her return to domesticity was marked by the death of her husband in 1970s and then the demise of her only unmarried son, Farouq, due to cancer. She lived alone and led a Gandhian life, even tailoring for herself and fixing the sink in her advanced years.

But this doesn’t diminish the fact that this was the woman who went a-clicking when young Dalai Lama first set foot in India in the 1959, after which she got stranded in Sikkim but managed to secure a ride back on an army truck. She can be seen in the only colour film ever found of 15th August 1947, as a small figure running with the metallic camera in her hand.

She brought a smile to Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s face when she fell while trying to capture him on her reel in his last press conference the day before he left for Pakistan in 1947, also bringing to a halt the proceedings. She was also found lurking behind benches when Acharya Kriplani, who was chairing the meeting of the Congress Working Committee which was ratifying the act of the Partition, showed displeasure at the presence of photographers. She was the woman who perhaps has a collection of the most expressive pictures of Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, for the country and the world to see.

Homai left us on 15th January 2012. She was a legend, a fact that is asserted by both her enthralling work and the Padma Vibhushan awarded to her. Her zest for life can be felt in one of the last interviews given by her, unfortunately lost but recalled through memory by Ghadioke, My body may be wrecked and wasting away but my spirit is as young as when I was 40. It resides within this body like a tortoise. When the time comes to go, it will only be leaving this temporary home.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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