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She blazed a 'picture'sque trail

The name Homai Vyarawalla may or may not ring a bell in the minds of young professionals in the news media in contemporary India. Such is the simplicity and modesty of this ninety seven year old lady. As the first woman photojournalist in the country, Vyarawalla has gone alone to places at late hours and accomplished things that others would have hesitated to. Vyarawalla initially clicked the floods, her friends and commoners in Bombay. But their jobs required her and her husband and colleague Manekshaw Vyarawalla to move to Delhi in 1942 with their then three month old boy, late Professor Farouq Vyarawalla. In Delhi, she was at ease taking shots of the unfurling of the Indian tricolour on 15th August 1947, the first Republic Day parade at Purana Qila in 1950, Nehru (her favourite subject whom she has also critiqued) and dignitaries such as Ho Chi Minh (whose humility she appreciated), Jackie Kennedy, the Dalai Lama, Queen Elizabeth and the New Delhi 'elite' in their private parties. Although Vyarawalla took pictures of the vote on the partition of the country, the brutality that followed caused her a lot of pain. And she seemed a bit disappointed that she missed capturing visuals of the Tryst with Destiny speech and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi (whom she admired deeply) despite having set out to click both.


In fact, Vyarawalla who grew up in Mumbai and has been living in Baroda for sometime, has more firsts to her credit. She was the only girl in her high school class in Bombay and the prestigious J. J. School of Art where she studied painting. “I only had fun and did not learn anything there”, she revealed with a mischievous grin. It was interesting to hear that Vyarawalla felt intimidated when she met women newly, as she had been surrounded by men at home and in the office. Incidentally, she has worked for the Illustrated Weekly, British Information Service and the Telegraph. Further, her work has been published in Time, Outlook and other magazines.


However, seeing the loss in values and photographers succumbing to greed, she decided to give up her profession in 1970 and relocated to Pilani where her son taught at the Birla Institute of Technology and Science. Her only child, he pursued photography too, but as a hobby. “I do not regret anything nor do I want to go back. I always want to look forward and learn something new”, Vyarawalla replied those who asked her if she has ever felt like picking up a camera again. True to her words, in Pilani, she enhanced her culinary skills and helped organize gatherings and cultural exchanges of people from across India. (As a graduate of this institution, I am delighted to say that this tradition is still alive!).


Magazines and newspapers rediscovered Homai Vyarawalla and her well preserved and systematically labelled negatives during the fiftieth year of India's independence. That was when many news publications began to search for images of 1947 and associated events”, shared Sabeena Ghadihoke. She is Vyarawalla's biographer and the curator of an exhibition (held in three cities thus far) of selected pictures of and by the great lady (the photograph alongside this article shows the two at the Bangalore  exhibition). A camera person and associate professor at Jamia Milia University, Delhi, Gadihoke first met Vyarawalla in September 1997 for her documentary Three Women and a Camera. Ghadioke also accompanied Vyarawalla on invited trips to the US and UK when the latter was ninety five and when she received the Padma Vibhushan in 2010. 


Seeing Vyarawalla in person on her first visit to Bangalore and listening to her narrate anecdotes and incidents was like going through the annals of history. The interaction with this seemingly frail yet giant of a woman in the morning of Sunday, the 8th May at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru was enjoyable and inspiring. “Photographs freeze moments in time” is the belief. Well, the two hours with Homai Vyarawalla are etched in my mind permanently...