Woman with a View: Homai Vyarawalla

If you mention women and cameras today, the picture that comes to the minds of many is that of an attractive young woman posing in front of a camera. In a world driven more and more by the visual image, it is ironic that even today, we have few women behind the lens, especially in the media.

By Mahesh Dattani | Manorama Online

Homai Vyarawalla is the first woman press photographer of our country. Not many people know that some of the most iconic pictures that represent the history of modern India—pictures of Nehru, the first unfurling of the Indian flag in free India, early photographs of Indira Gandhi—were all taken by this frail woman who defied her time and place not with fiery polemics and political rallying, but by simply doing what she wanted to do—take pictures.

The recent retrospective of her work at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai was a window to the history of our country at its fledgling stage. The common citizens were an equally, if not a more, important part of our Independence movement, according to her. This careful juxtaposition of images was a reminder that history is not shaped by emperors and politicians alone. It is clear that a great deal of thought and labour have gone into the exhibition for such themes to be comprehended in retrospect. Homai graciously credits the curator of the exhibition, Sabeena Gadihoke, for her consummate devotion to documenting her work.

Homai was present at the guided tour conducted by Sabeena, adding greater value to it by interrupting the talk with precious anecdotes related to some of the photographs on display. The two women with more than 50 years separating them share a special relationship which began a decade ago when Sabeena first took interest in Homai’s personal archive of her photographs.

Homai talked about her times as an intrepid photographer with a razor-sharp memory that recalled every incident as it happened. “I don’t have to remember them, they are all there in front of me,” she told me.

One of her favourite dignitaries was Ho Chi Minh. She recalls a time when Nehru escorted the visiting dignitary to his seat. He noticed that their seats were higher than the rest. He refused to sit until the chairs were replaced with regular ones. “Then he was presented with a carpet. He took the carpet, put it on his shoulder and walked up and down to show it to the public. Look at the humility of this big man, who had fought and won against the Americans,” Homai said.

Her subjects look almost ethereal in so many of the pictures. If at all we see Nehru as a giant walking in solitary regal splendour, the credit ought to go to Homai. She always shot Nehru from a low angle, placing him in front of the clouds. When Ayub Khan, the second president of Pakistan, visited India, photographing him with Nehru was a challenge because of the noticeable difference in height. She couldn’t have Nehru depicted as shorter in stature! Through skilful positioning, she managed to shoot them in a way that showed them as equal in stature.

She gave up photography a long time ago for many reasons. One of the reasons she gives is the changing behaviour of her colleagues as well as the politicians. The last straw was in 1970 when a politician screamed, “Please kick these bloody photographers out.” Then with her characteristic sense of humour she said, “Also, today’s politicians all look alike with their big fat bellies!” The present lot of politicians don’t understand and respect the art of the photographer.

In her book, Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla, Sabeena recounts a time when they were watching a soap opera in which the family has fallen on hard times. Homai shot out impatiently, “Look at all these women weeping away. They wouldn’t think of going out and earning a living to help. I think working class women are much better in this respect.”

Feminist? Socialist? A great artist? She is too busy to think of labels. Her focus is on far more important things. Like whittling a cane from a dead branch, or making slippers to wear on her tour. She brings 97 years of experience to it.

mahesh.dattani@gmail.com