Lady With The Lens

Like most of today’s generation, you must have been introduced to her photographs in those boring history textbooks.

Homai Vyarawall , 97, a Gujarat-born photographer, captured some of Delhi’s greatest 20th century moments.

By Mayank Soofi / Hindustan Times

Vyarawalla worked for journals, such as Current, Onlooker, The Illustrated Weekly of India and Time-Life

. The Parsi photographer produced her best work when she was living in Connaught Place (CP), Delhi’s central business district, during the 1940s and the later decades. Then, the houses were on the first floors of the Inner Circle corridors.

Vyarawalla called the circular colonnade a “pearl necklace”. In a photograph of the Inner Circle, she captured the fluffy white clouds wafting right above the white pillars.

The forlorn plaza has a dream-like feel. Vyarawalla’s more famous photographs, however, are as ‘deep’ as the cover picture of the latest Time magazine. She was a photojournalist, not an artist. France’s Henri Cartier-Bresson and America’s Margaret Bourke-White dropped by in Delhi during the same era, and their work was superior.

Yet, Vyarawalla’s images are considered legendary. Maybe because her subjects were legends like Nehru, Gandhi, Dalai Lama and Jacqueline Kennedy. Replace Nehru with Manmohan Singh in her pictures and people might stop wow-ing.

Vyarawalla would wake up  at 4.30 am, explore the Capital’s power corridors during the day, and return home late in the night. She then processed her photographs. Occasionally, she ventured into the city’s underbelly. Amid the Mountbatten-Jinnah collection of her Delhi archives, it is nice to suddenly come across moody stills of the city — Muharram procession in Matia Mahal, Ramlila parade in Khari Baoli and Eid prayer in Jama Masjid.

This doesn’t mean that Vyarawalla’s VIP oeuvre was dull. With her photographer’s pass, stamped ‘No. 16’, she documented the ‘transfer of power celebrations (August 14-17, 1947)’. Beside the funerals of Gandhi and Nehru, she covered India’s first Republic Day parade that took place outside the Purana Quila.

She also captured city landmarks that no longer exist: the statue of King George V in the now-empty India Gate canopy, and the statue of Brigadier-General John Nicholson, the East India Company officer officer who was buried in Kashmere Gate.

When Vyarawalla was a Delhiite, the city had no high rises and Humayun’s Tomb was visible from Connaught Place. Her photograph of Jantar Mantar shows an open sky, unobstructed by the view of Park Hotel.

Vyarawalla learned photography from Manekshaw, an accountant. He was the man whom she eventually married. The couple always ate from the same plate. After 33 years of lens work, she gave up photography in 1970. A year earlier, her husband had died. (He was cremated in Nigambodh Ghat.) She then moved to Pilani, Rajasthan, with her son Farooq, who died of bowel cancer in 1989. Vyarawalla lives in a small apartment in Baroda, Gujarat, and spends her free time in gardening.

The National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), in collaboration with the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, is showing ‘Homai Vyarawalla: A Retrospective’. The exhibition is on till October 31 at NGMA, Jaipur House, near India Gate.

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