At 92, India’s first and most famous woman photojournalist, remains as active as ever.
HOMAI VYARAWALLA, 92, seems fuelled by some benign supernatural energy. She rustles up gourmet chicken and mutton dishes “at short notice”, cleans and mops her house, dusts its interiors, does the odd plumbing job, drives her own car (a 1950’s Fiat model) and even crafts her own furniture!
Perhaps it was this incredible drive that helped Vyarawalla click astoundingly well as India’s first and most famous woman photojournalist. As a scribe — whose spectacular body of work spans a century — Vyarawalla has not only chronicled the last days of the British Empire, the euphoria of Independence, the birth pangs and growth of a new nation but a repertoire of interesting VIPs, politicians and celebrities on her legendary Rolleiflex and Mamiyaflex twin lens cameras.
In fact the nonagenarian’s iconic photographs have now become a part of collective Indian memory for their sheer elegance. The swearing-in of Lord Mountbatten as Governor General of India, the Dalai Lama’s first visit to India in 1956, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s death, fashion shows at the British High Commission, a flurry of presidential and prime ministerial visits to India, a young Jawahar and Indira Gandhi, Rajiv and Sanjay… are all a part of the erstwhile photographer’s substantive portfolio of over 10,000 photos.
Fortunately, these photos are now also a part of a book titled Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla released recently by Parzor Foundation and Mapin Publishing. And undoubtedly, this project constitutes the exploration of an extraordinary woman’s engagement with the historic events occurring around her. To coincide with the book launch, an exclusive retrospective exhibition of over a 100 rare photos — connected with Vyarawalla’s life, times and work — have also been mounted at the Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi this month.
Though a tad effusive, this belated attention is worth every bit considering Vyarawalla was the only professional woman photojournalist in India during her time. Her survival — nay, success — in an overwhelmingly male domain is all the more remarkable because the profession continues to exclude most women even today. Ironically, even western photojournalists who visited Indian shores regularly — such as Margaret Bourke-White and Henri Cartier Bresson — have received more attention than Vyarawalla. In this already invisible history, Vyarawalla’s presence as a woman was even more marginalised. Hopefully, Camera Chronicles — which acknowledges her role as a pioneer among women and her tremendous contribution to early photojournalism in India — will get the perspective in order.
Born into a middle-class Parsi family in 1913 in Navsari (Gujarat), Vyarawalla’s father was an actor in a travelling Urdu-Parsi theatre company. She grew up in a Bombay where she was the only girl in her class to complete her matriculation exam. She learnt photography from her boyfriend Maneckshaw (whom she later married), some of her earliest works being published under his byline. Beginning her career in Bombay during the World War II, Vyarawalla shifted base to Delhi around Independence recording key political and social events till she laid down her camera in 1970.
Interestingly, though Vyarawalla gave up photography over 35 years ago, she still takes meticulous care of her six antique cameras that are preserved in her Baroda house in an excellent condition.
So what, according to the lady, are the attributes of a good photographer? “Maintaining the dignity of the subject is of utmost importance,” she says after you repeat the question several times due to her now-impaired hearing. “The composition should never show the clicked person in a derogatory way.” And she goes on to narrate the incident of Pakistani President Ayub Khan’s arrival in India in 1959, whom Jawaharlal Nehru had gone to receive at the airport.
SPECTACULAR BODY OF WORK: Her photos span an entire century.
“But since Khan was very tall, he seemed to tower over Nehru in all my frames which didn’t show him in a good light,” says the now retired photographer.
To get around this problem, Vyarawalla chose an angle that required her to almost lie flat on the ground for a period of time. This quixotic posture got the perfectionist scribe the desired results, albeit with a mishap — her sari got undone in the photographers’ stampede to cover the event!
“But despite that, I didn’t compromise upon my angle,” guffaws the nonagenarian, “and managed to get pictures which depicted Nehru at par with Ayub!”
It was this remarkable doggedness — and perfectionism — that became Vyarawalla’s imprimatur. As her reputation spread, the photojournalist was flooded with plum professional assignments from prestigious media outfits.
After a stint at The Bombay Chronicle (where she was paid two annas per picture!), she went on to put in a few years at The Illustrated Weekly of India (owned by the British then) followed by a slew of Parsi publications including the Jaan-e-Jamshed. In the 1950s, the British Information Services snapped up Vyarawalla for their cachet of in-house publications. In fact so impressed were the English with her work that they even allowed her to freelance in her spare time despite paying her a substantive salary.
Not that life has been cruel to her. In fact even today — as Vyarawalla turns 93 on December 9 this year — this spunky Sagittarian continues to live life on her own terms in her beautiful ancestral Baroda home, tinkering with her antique cameras, cooking mutton-chicken and continuing to bask in the fond attention that her fans and the media shower upon her petite frame.