’Art & Soul

Homai Vyarawalla, first woman photo-journalist of India, was a restrained chronicler of India

Homai Vyarawalla, first woman photo-journalist of India, would often say she just happened to land up at the right places at the right time

Homai Vyarawalla, first woman photo-journalist of India, was a restrained chronicler of India

Great crowds at Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral.

BN Goswamy

“One must always know when to stop, however good things might be. People change. That graciousness and that dignity (among her peers and subjects) were just not there. It was not worth it anymore”... “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 were only interested in making a few quick bucks; I didn’t want to be part of the crowd anymore.”…“I missed that graciousness and when it was gone, my interest in photography was gone as well.”

— Homai Vyarawalla on retiring in 1970

With her ethos of respect and restraint, Ms. Vyarawalla was a different kind of photojournalist from many today… (Her) range was narrow, her tone subdued. If the times she lived in automatically set her photography within an epic frame, her individual images, with some outstanding exceptions, tend to be undramatic, unelevated, sometimes even awkwardly grounded.

This down-to-earthness, (however), has the effect of making you turn your attention to her as a participant in her pictures, to thoughts about her physical position in relation to her subjects from shot to shot, and about her place as a woman within her larger culture. It required enormous courage and commitment simply to be who she was, doing what she was doing, when she was doing it.

— Holland Cotter in the New York Times

Coming as she did from a Parsi family — one speaks here of Homai Vyarawalla, the photographer — she was named probably after Huma, that legendary bird of Iranian mythology, who, it is believed, never comes to rest, living its entire life flying invisibly high above the earth, never alighting. She certainly shared some characteristics with the bird: restless, at work ceaselessly, living her life at an ethical high. She was visible, but was always pushing herself, it seems, to the point of virtual invisibility while working. In any case, she was rara avis, a ‘rare bird’, in so many ways.

So much has been written about Homai, especially after she passed away in 2012, that one seems to know it all by now: that she was born in 1913 at Navsari — that most ‘Parsi’ of all towns in Gujarat; studied at the Bombay University and the JJ School of Art; got married to another Parsi, the photographer Maneckshaw; began taking photographs as a professional in 1938; worked for the magazines, Current and Illustrated Weekly of India; was employed by the British Information Services for some years; and kept covering for nearly four decades the people of India and the history of the land as it was unfolding in those life-changing times.

A young Dalai Lama shortly after he entered
India from Tibet.

Such a large body of her work has survived that one can almost see her cycling through streets and lanes, massive Speed Graphic camera on shoulder; making her slight frame through crowds of men, many of them photographers, and click at close quarters men and women of the highest rank in the world: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Queen Elizabeth, Jackie Kennedy, Ho Chi Minh, Eleanor Roosevelt, Chou-en Lai, Ayub Khan, Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Helen Keller, the Shah of Iran, U Nu, Sukarno, Mountbatten, among them, and of course, in far greater numbers, great Indian leaders of the past: Gandhiji, Nehru, Jinnah, Vallabh-bhai Patel, Abu’l Kalam Azad, S Radhakrishnan, Indira Gandhi, included. Through the pictures that she took, one can get a sense of almost being present at stirring moments: the departure of the last Viceroy of India, the great ‘Tryst with Destiny’ when India stepped into freedom on the 15th of August, 1947, the surging sea of humanity gathered for Gandhiji’s funeral following his assassination.

‘Home Leather worker’, 1946, an early
photograph that made the cover of
the Illustrated Weekly of India.

There is thus great interest that resides in the thousands of photographs that Homai took and has left behind. Discerning critics have remarked that there are not too many among them that keep returning to one’s mind as works of art: “her range was narrow, her tone subdued”. For me, however, two things mark her work, as they do her life: her warmth, not unmixed with a slight sense of fun, and her simple, straightforward honesty. The latter — one says it with a degree of sadness — has been long gone from the field, new developments (one hesitates in naming them as ‘advances’) in technology, like new editing tools or photo-shopping, hastening the process further. Time was when a photograph stood the test of authenticity, but that time has faded. In Homai’s work there is barely a piece, an exposure, in which one can discern the presence of artifice. Surely the moments are chosen; surely there is a scale of preferences: but deception? Trickery? No. Her photographs are like her statements. Thus: “I was not a part of the freedom movement. I took pictures of freedom fighters and covered most of the big meetings… I was very interested in the freedom struggle, but my job was to do good work for my employers and myself and to look after the family.” Or: “It was after fifty years of having taken these pictures that I started to see the value of my work. I was just earning a living at that time with no thought of preserving it for posterity.” She was touched by candour: the simplicity of Ho Chi Minh appealed to her and, for her, stood in contrast to the self-importance of Marshal Tito; Jawaharlal — for whom she had great admiration — never struck a pose for her and that she liked.

Homai, sari-clad, kneeling, camera in hand.

There are myriad aspects to Homai that her biographers and others will keep speaking of. Letters filled with warmth and respect from the highest of the land have been preserved and published. But, in the end, one knows that she herself had no sense of self-importance. She was just a Parsi girl from Navsari who happened to land up at the right places at the right time, she used to say about herself. When asked by a chronicler about being remembered for her work by the coming generations, she simply turned around and said: “In a country where a great man like Gandhiji has been forgotten, why would I be remembered?”

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