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Witness to history

Print edition : Feb 10, 2012 T+T-
Homai Vyarawalla, with her photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in the background.-ANUPAMA KATAKAM

Homai Vyarawalla, with her photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in the background.-ANUPAMA KATAKAM

Interview with Homai Vyarawalla, India's first woman photojournalist.

HOMAI VYARAWALLA was not only India's first woman news photographer but had the privilege of capturing exclusive shots of momentous events in the country's history. This correspondent met her last July while on an assignment in Vadodara, where she lived alone. The Vadodara Parsi Panchayat, which alone could reach Vyarawalla, organised a meeting with her. Its authorities warned me that she was 97, was hard of hearing, and therefore might not respond to all questions.

This correspondent found her sitting alone reading newspapers at the entrance to her tiny apartment in a nondescript locality of the city. A petite lady with a shock of short grey hair and dressed in a skirt and T-shirt, Homai Vyarawalla did not seem her age. A photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel hung by her bedside. When she understood why I was there, she was wonderfully warm and soon happily settled into a conversation about her career and the current state of news photography.

Homai Vyarawalla had an amazing memory for a nonagenarian. She spoke with great clarity and a sparkle in her gentle eyes. It was fascinating to hear her recount incidents that took place 50 years ago.

She was a very dignified, gracious and special woman a true representation of her era. We began the discussion by talking about the person she most enjoyed photographing Nehru.

Why do you have this particular photograph of Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel?

This was a great moment in history. It's Nehru giving the Independence Day speech.

You have shot pictures of so many luminaries in your career. Who was your favourite?

Pandit Nehru. Undoubtedly. He was the Prime Minister at that time. He was very photogenic and would encourage you to take pictures. I have captured him in many moods being playful, pensive or sad. He always cooperated with photographers. His personality was such that you would want to take pictures. The moment he walked into a function, all eyes were on him. That white cap was most suitable on him. His jacket with the rosebud was his signature. It made for a wonderful picture.

The other person I liked to photograph was Lal Bahadur Shastri. He was a wonderful person. Very sensible, very firm-minded and kind.

And later?

Indira Gandhi was very moody, difficult, yet dynamic. She could be sweet as honey and then absolute poison. Sanjay Gandhi was a bad name in the country. He was very proud and could be extremely nasty. It was not easy to capture good pictures of him.

What changed as the years went by?

To begin with, Indira Gandhi was nothing like her father, so that started taking the joy out of news photography. Pandit Nehru allowed us to come close and take pictures from less than five feet some times. Indira Gandhi said all photographers must stay 20 feet away from dignitaries.

Things had started changing with Independence. It wasn't independence so much as a licence to take no action on anything. The law and order situation deteriorated and a lot of aggression crept into our people.

I would cycle alone to work and all over the place: Safdarjung Enclave, Friends Colony, India Gate, Delhi Gymkhana, Connaught Place. By the 1970s, I could not go anywhere alone.

How did you react to the advances in photography and technology over the years?

When I started, we had to carry three cameras because each camera gave only eight to ten pictures. We, therefore, had to be very choosy about our shot and angle. If you wasted the film, you may miss the picture as well. The load we carried was huge. Flashbulbs, film, stands. We needed one bulb for every flash picture. Then we had to collect all the dead bulbs and put them back in the bag to dispose of. It was a donkey's load we carried.

We were also very economical. So we really had to make sure we had the angle and exposure set. We could not afford to waste film or bulbs. There was a lot of work to do before taking a picture judge the distance, ground space and hope that the subject matter did not move! In the early days we would take the picture and only after developing would we know whether we got it or missed it!

In the 1960s came the electronic flashbulbs and that helped us. But by the time technology started helping out, my career was coming to an end.

Tell us about news photography and your beat.

Most things were important those days. Historical events were taking place every day. It was an exciting time for the country and naturally for us. We covered the Dalai Lama, the Prime Minister, the buzzing social life of Delhi. Delhi was the place to be. The whole world was in Delhi then. All the embassies were forming, so we had plenty of work.

The recent retrospective on your work in several cities, organised by the Alkazi Foundation, has had a huge response.

More than 4,000 people have seen the show. I am very pleased that people are interested in our country's history. These pictures are able to explain important events. The Alkazi Foundation has my photographs and I hope future generations will benefit from them.

What advice would you give news photographers today?

Only one be honest, don't manipulate the image. Let the camera do the work, not your brain. Don't try and push your opinion into the pictures. Let the pictures be an honest representation of the event.

Don't ridicule people. Their dignity is important. Don't try to violate their privacy. No sneaking around to get a scoop. It is wrong to do that. Be a clear and honest photographer.