Immortalising the World in Her Work: Homai Vyarawalla

Posted on March 5, 2012 in Specials

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.