A legend's lens

Print edition : February 10, 2012

Homai Vyarawalla in her early years. This picture was published in Sabeena Gadihoke's book "India in Focus: Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla."-

Homai Vyarawalla (1913-2012) was a truly gifted photojournalist who let her pictures do the talking.

THE year was 1993, when my friend Satish Sharma, an excellent photographer who is completely dedicated to photography, introduced me to a small, thin and almost wispy woman of 80. He, not given to panegyrics, introduced her thus: Partha, this is Homai Vyarawalla. Her photographs are terrific. She had, of course, retired from active photography then and had come to Delhi at Satish's behest. After the introductions were over, one came to know that she had been a photographer with The Times of India and had been quite a star in her chosen medium through the mid-1930s to 1970.

When a body of her work was exhibited at Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi, it was a revelation. Here was a photographer who had been a witness to some of the most tumultuous events in modern Indian history pre- and post-Independence and had documented key social and political moments with grace and often with humour. Many of her photographs, without her conscious knowledge, had already acquired a timeless quality.

She, being a product of her time, did her photo-journalism in black and white. She took pictures with relish and a kind of sensitivity that is all but absent in documentary photography today. Her no-nonsense outward appearance concealed a lady of piquant wit. She did not like to theorise about her photographs or about photography. Her reluctance to talk intellectually' about photography posed a problem. Her position was, I would rather let my photographs do the talking.

She readily agreed to be interviewed, and in the course of her exhibition came to a friend's house and chatted easily through an afternoon about her life, providing almost in passing glimpses of the social mores of her times. She spoke with a quiet, strong conviction about photography and what it meant to her.

Homai Vyarawalla also cooked the traditional Parsi dish Dhansakh for us and very well too! The four of us Satish Sharma, photographer Kajal Das, art historian Kavita Singh and myself were pleasantly surprised at her youthfulness and the deep insights into photography she gave without for a moment intellectualising about the nature of the medium and what it had to offer. The conversation, tape-recorded on October 16, 1993, at Kavita Singh's residence, is memorable for several reasons. It was the first time that she had spoken at such length about her life and work. She must have been surprised at her own eloquence, though not at her passion. It is highly unlikely that she would have spoken to anyone in such profuse detail about her career as a news photographer, wife and mother. The tape transcript ran to 35 foolscap sheets, much of it fascinating and indeed very valuable as social history.

She was, perhaps, a bit taken aback by the attention she received from lay viewers as well as internationally known practitioners of photojournalism, like Raghu Rai, during a tete-a-tete at Max Mueller Bhavan. She saw herself as a working woman doing her job, nothing more. She considered it lucky that her work gave so much pleasure to herself and others. She would have been a nightmare to the glib journalists of today. She did not care to make good copy'. Her wisdom, photographic and otherwise, had to be prised out of her through persistence and patience.

It was very difficult to pin her down. When complimented on her wit, she said, Not deliberate. One was caught on the wrong foot. She always gave you the feeling that she was testing you out while maintaining a straight face herself. There was also the other possibility of her being dead serious.

She was disapproving of a really funny picture of Ho Chi Minh taken on the airport tarmac on his visit to India. It showed the great Vietnamese leader looking askance at Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as if the latter had cracked a ribald joke! It was never exhibited anywhere except at the Max Mueller Bhavan show. Homai Vyarawalla was a little embarrassed by the picture. She said: I never used that picture or showed it to anybody because I did not want to ridicule anybody. In her eyes, Ho Chi Minh was a great man, a public figure worthy of reverence.

When asked how she got interested in photography, she gave an interesting reply, I was in the art school [JJ School of Arts] and was only interested in painting and music. But then I met my husband who was interested in photography to the extent that he did his own developing. He had no facilities, no electricity. He would go under the four-poster bed blocking possible light leaks with blankets and develop his films. He would after that make contact prints and send the best pictures to Kodak for larger prints.

Husband-wife team

There was a comradeship with her husband from the early days of their courtship. His name was Manekshaw Jamshetji Vyarawalla. She, a budding painter, wanted to take pictures at a picnic. She boldly asked her fianc to lend her his Rolleicord camera, a present from a friend. He was reluctant. She remembered spending a whole day pestering him to teach her all about exposure in varying light conditions, which would have to be flawlessly rendered on the chemical-coated celluloid film. There were 75 people at the picnic on that sunny day and everybody wanted their pictures to be taken. When her husband-to-be developed the 12 exposure rolls of 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inch film, he found many of them interesting. He forwarded them to the Bombay Chronicle, which carried a whole page of those photographs. The year was 1935. She was paid one rupee per picture.

We started moving around together, we liked each other, and my mother did not object. We went around Bombay [now Mumbai] taking pictures. I got more and more interested, she remembered. There was only one camera between them. If I saw a good angle I would say, give me, give me, this is my picture'. Manekshaw Jamshetji was interested in photographing street scenes and festivals such as Diwali. When pujas were held, we would go with our big lights, and those people thought it was a good omen to have lights brought into the shop when the puja was going on. They would give us sweets, treat us like royalty, and then say, Will you give us the pictures?'

ONE OF HOMAI Vyarawalla's favourite photos: Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, Ambassador to Russia, being received by her brother, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, at the Delhi airport.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

They would go into the suburbs on Manekshaw Jamshetji's day off from The Times of India, where he was employed as an accountant. The Vyarawallas did their photography on Saturdays and Sundays, taking pictures at harvest time, and of different types of cottage industry. They walked all the way to Dhansa Lake and Tulsi Lake. Together they celebrated life.

When asked if she discussed various techniques of photography with her husband, she said, At least I was not discussing technique. I wanted to know how the camera worked and what exposure to give. She elaborated, My little training at the art school came in handy when composing pictures and at the easel in the dark room.

Homai Vyarawalla rose to prominence quickly in a male-dominated profession. Her husband became more of a darkroom person, developing her exposed film rolls and making photo prints from them assisted by his wife. He did take pictures when he had the time.

Delhi stint

The Vyarawallas arrived in Delhi in 1942 when the Second World War was raging and Britain had suffered defeats at the hands of the Japanese in Singapore. The Imperial British government in India gave the couple jobs in the photography section of the British Information Services. She reminisced, I had taken pictures of Victoria Memorial School for the Blind in Bombay, covering all its activities. It was the recommendation of Stanley Jackson, editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, which clinched the Delhi job for the Vyarawallas. Jackson used to give Homai Vyarawalla regular assignments.

The husband arrived in Delhi first to do the darkroom work while Homai stayed back in Bombay to take pictures for the War Office magazine. She was pregnant then and took pictures until her ninth month. She recalled with a laugh, I had gone to the hospital and there was a Parsi matron there. I used to climb up tables to take pictures. When my husband came, she told him, Please for goodness sake, ask her not to climb (on) the tables!'

Initially the Vyarawallas sent their pictures under Jamshetji Vyarawalla's initials, MJV. They used to fight like two children affectionate to each other over the authorship of each picture. She included his name in some of the pictures. Slowly, my name started creeping in, she said.

Photographing the famous

She had become a force to reckon with by the time she took pictures of Mahatma Gandhi's funeral. She remembered, not without a sardonic touch: I'll tell you about the funeral part of it. While his body was burning, on the periphery people had collected, like the pakodawalas, toywalas.... Here the body was burning and there people were eating. Homai Vyarawalla's photographs of the event were closer to the heart of the matter than those taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White, who were sent down from the United States by Life magazine to cover the funeral.

Homai Vyarawalla went from strength to strength. She became an expert at rendering the states of mind of the people she photographed, especially the famous. Her portrait of Indira Gandhi seated on an oval-shaped chair, looking utterly forlorn, is haunting. Similarly, a low-angle picture of Indira and Feroze Gandhi gives one a sense of the palpable tension between them.

RECEIVING THE PADMA Vibhushan from President Pratibha Patil at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on April 1, 2011.-RAJEEV BHATT

She did not confine herself to photographing political bigwigs. She went to embassy parties and took pictures of people enjoying themselves, laughing, dancing; even those had a gently poignant ring, of time passing.

She was there on the spot when, in 1959, the Dalai Lama came from Tibet, then forcibly occupied by China, to seek political asylum in India. Sitting on piled-up luggage in an overcrowded jeep, she reached the venue in time to take memorable pictures.

Taking pictures in the street fascinated her. It was necessary for her to get away from the high and mighty' from time to time.

Homai Vyarawalla's training in art and photography, using various equipment like the cumbersome 4x5 inch single-sheet film Speed Graphic, the 12-shot 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 inch Rolleiflex and the 35mm Contax, prepared her to shoot pictures in the most trying conditions. Her mastery over darkroom techniques in developing black-and-white film negatives and making prints out of them also helped.

Manekshaw, with whom she had shared every moment of her life, including the making of 16 mm social documentaries in Kodak Chrome, a superb colour film, passed away in 1969. She gave up news photography in 1970 because the riff-raff had come in. They would gatecrash embassy parties and demand cigarettes and drinks from the waiters. They were so unprofessional. Prints of the events would be sold without fixing them properly, making them fade after a month or two. Press photography got a bad name. It was time to get out.

She went to live with her son who taught at the Birla Institute of Technology, Pilani, and when he died in 1989, she went back to live in Vadodara (she first went there in 1973).

In the course of our conversation, she had said wistfully, Satish [Sharma] came to see me too late. Eighty was indeed too late to be rediscovered, but Homai Vyarawalla, the truly gifted photographer who had witnessed the most tumultuous moments in 20th century history, including the Partition of India, was resurrected through her timeless images thanks to the Max Mueller Bhavan exhibition in Delhi.

Although she had seen far too much of the dark side of life, she was not without hope. Her finest qualities were her modesty and feet-on-the-ground attitude. Her death on January 15 marks the passing of a legend.

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