History, in black and white

Print edition : August 26, 2005
Homai Vyarawalla Dionne Bunsha

Homai Vyarawalla with her Speed Graphic Pacemaker Quarter Plate camera.-

I met my husband, Maneckshaw, when I was 13. He was interested in this new upcoming art called photography. He had come from Navsari to Bombay (now Mumbai) for his matriculation examination, and was staying with my uncle at the Andheri Agiary (fire temple), in the same block of houses where we lived.

I studied painting at the J.J. School of Art in Bombay. I got interested in the way he was taking pictures, developing them himself and sending them to the press. He was an inspiration. We went around taking pictures together, working in the darkroom.

Homai at work, shooting Indira Gandhi.-

We married 15 years later, in 1941.

The first pictures I took on my own without his help were published full page in Bombay Chronicle. They were pictures of a picnic party of the women's club of the J.J. School of Art. We had gone to the Amarnath temple, and the girls were enjoying themselves and I went on taking pictures. I was 25-26 years old. The newspaper gave me one rupee a picture in those days. That was a big thing. Painting didn't bring any money, and I thought this would be a paying line. It was something completely new, not being done by any other woman.

My husband was a sort of pioneer in making stories in pictures of all the activities of human beings, the general public - like cottage industries, hospitals, beggars on the street, Parsis, festivals. When we went out together, he had only one Roliflex with him. Whenever I saw something, I would take the camera from him and shoot it. He would sell them in his name because the publishers and editors knew his name. It was later on, in the late 1930s, that my pictures started coming out in my name.

At an exhibition, with children.-

The Illustrated Weekly of India started giving me assignments when the war came on. They asked me to take pictures of all the war-time activities, like the fire brigade, hospitals, ambulance workers and rescue workers all getting ready for any emergency. I was almost working full-time for The Illustrated Weekly and also sending pictures outside.

Then, my husband's and my name were recommended to establish the headquarters of the Far Eastern Bureau of the British Information Services in Delhi, so we moved there in 1942. In Bombay, my pictures were of the general public. When I went to Delhi, it was all political pictures.

Nehru spinning khadi on a modern charkha.-

The British Information Service gave me permission to continue with my freelance work after office hours. I was also working for Onlooker, a paper about the evening functions of the high society people of Delhi. My husband set up the studios, and remained in the office. I used to go about taking pictures, covering official functions, embassies, activities of the Britishers, and so on.

I had taken my son to Delhi when he was only three months old. My mother-in-law stayed with us and looked after him when I was out. My office and our house were so close that we could look at and talk to one another from one building to another. If my son needed feeding, my mother-in-law gave a signal to my darkroom. I would go home, feed him and come back to the darkroom.

I was not a part of the freedom movement. I took pictures of freedom fighters and covered most of the big meetings.

Homai's "favourite photo". Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Ambassador to Russia, received at the Delhi airport by brother Jawaharlal Nehru.-

Independence came to us easily. A few people fought for it, sacrificed for it, suffered for it.

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.

I knew all the big leaders very well. I also covered Lord Louis Mountbatten and all the functions he attended. Panditji (Jawaharlal Nehru) was very photogenic. He had different moods and was very active, so that made it possible to get good pictures of him. He always pretended as if no photographers were around. He didn't mind if he was taking a nap and you took his picture. He would wake up and give you a smile. There were others who would flare up and ask for the film. He was not like that, he was so dignified.

Indira Gandhi near Jawaharlal Nehru's body at Teen Murti.-

Each one of them had a different personality. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Nehru. It was fun taking their pictures. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan looked so imperial, he looked like a real President. You could see the integrity in their faces.

The papers publish the pictures of today's leaders. They look so wily.

Somebody asked if I would want to take pictures today. I said no, thank you. When you have done the best, you can't go to the mediocre.

At Triveni Sangam in Allahabad, where Nehru's ashes were immersed.-

The arrival of Mountbatten was very important. The freedom movement was going on, and so were many meetings. My picture of Gandhiji arriving for the Congress meeting to decide on Partition was very important. I took pictures of the first Independence Day celebrations. These were exciting moments. I took pictures of Nehru's address to the nation from the Red Fort on August 16, 1947 just after Independence. But because of some bureaucrat, I was not allowed to cover the meeting where Independence was declared at the stroke of midnight because I worked for a British company. That was the only time I was not allowed to go somewhere.

I was busy all the time and used to come home at two or three in the night. I never hired servants. I did everything myself, with my husband helping me 50-50. We did our developing and printing ourselves. Right from beginning till end, we believed in doing our work ourselves.

I didn't take pictures of Partition because I was working in the office and couldn't go out. Another reason I couldn't go out was that we were living in a Muslim's house in Connaught Place. People wanted to burn that house down, to loot the furniture in the landlord's shop downstairs. So one of us had to be there. At the same time, we had to work in the office. My son was four years old. We had to take turns saving our house and family, and at the same time we were working. Those were difficult times. We had to be dressed all the time, never knowing when we would have to move. People used to throw burning rags. It was a very posh furniture shop where maharajas' furniture was made. We had to be on the alert. Fortunately, because we were Parsi, we were saved although Muslims were hiding in our house. They had to arrange to move out because so many killings were taking place all around. They had to shift to Purana Killa.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh at an Indian village.-

I stopped taking pictures in 1970. My husband died in 1969. It was not worthwhile anymore. All the good things had gone. All the big leaders had either died or moved away. I was not interested. When Indira [Gandhi] came to power, the security guards made it very difficult to take pictures. Also, photographers started getting a bad name because of their bad behaviour, like gate-crashing into private parties, and so on. I didn't want to be associated with them. In 1970, I kept aside the lens. Since then, I have never taken a single picture.

I went to live with my son in Pilani. He was a chemical engineer and he was teaching at the Birla Institute of Technology. I lived there for 11 years. Then he shifted to Baroda [Vadodara], so I went with him. Then after a few years, he fell ill with cancer and died in 1989. Since then I am alone. That's the end of my life. (laughs)

I don't keep track of new photographers, they keep track of me. They publish lots of my pictures, or invite me for functions.

Helen Keller with her friend Polly Thompson, in Delhi.-

I read one newspaper. It doesn't give all the information. But there is no time to read all the papers.

In those days, the will to get the British out was so great among the people, there were lots of things happening and most of the papers were also for Independence. There was a lot to learn from them. Nowadays, it is all about CM [Chief Minister] said this and PM [Prime Minister] said this, and they are fighting in Parliament. And terrorists, terrorists, terrorists. And Pakistan... I don't think people mention the name of God as often as they mention the name of Pakistan nowadays. Everything bad happening is Pakistan's doing. But we don't get any information out of this. There isn't a single section of society where there isn't a scam. There isn't anything interesting in the papers.

Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay meet the German Ambassador during their visit to Delhi soon after they conquered Mount Everest.

I like to live a simple life, not burden my head with things that don't affect me. Photography keeps me busy. So many people come to meet me. Corresponding with them and working on my book keep me busy. I don't hire servants, so I look after my house myself and make things for myself - so I don't have to depend on others. All my time goes into all this. There are times when I want to do things that I would like to do but I can't because all the time there is some hassle. Photography has become a burden on me at the moment. I would like to do the feminine arts, to make designs and make things. But I have no time. I make my own dresses. I don't even have proper dresses nowadays because I don't have time to make them for myself. I like to be independent of other people and I don't want to ask them for any help. I want to do it myself (as much as I can) or do without it.

A letter from the Editor

Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.


R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor