Sunday, January 29, 2012

Deceased--Homai Vyarawalla

Homai Vyarawalla
December 9th, 1913 to January 15th, 2012

Homai Vyarawalla
Rehana Mogul Posing For The Camera
Photographic print on archival paper
22" x 20"

"Farewell Homai Vyarawalla"


Sabeena Gadihoke

January 21st, 2012

The Hindu

Sabeena Gadihoke, close friend and biographer, remembers her 14-year journey with Mrs Vyarawalla.

Homai Vyarawalla turned 98 on December 9, 2011. For the first time in 14 years, I had taken the liberty to visit her without giving her prior notice. I wanted to give her a surprise on her birthday. I texted her as soon as I landed the previous night and promptly got a reply: “Just got your message. Most welcome. See you tomorrow. Love.” Two years ago, Homai had considered the possibility of learning email but decided that texting on the phone was a better option. It was a struggle as her fingers often missed the tiny buttons on her phone but she was determined. Soon she was texting people with occasional ‘misfires'. A friend was once puzzled to receive a cryptic message stating: “Please send pedas!” The message was for someone else.

When Homai Vyarawalla was given a pen, the same fingers magically transformed into those of a calligraphist. Her handwriting till the end was beautiful and our correspondence through letters stand testimony to her disappointment with mine. In 1997, she wrote: “The postman must be able to read the address without stress — he has many letters to deliver. Do try and make his work easier.” In 2005, she asked for 6 fine point ball pen refills — “I am always in trouble here as the stock they sell is unpredictable and my handwriting looks shabby.” In 2006, she actually returned a letter saying she couldn't understand what I had written! By now I began sending her typewritten letters but I preserved each one of her letters beautifully written on recycled paper, sent in re-used envelopes.

While much will hopefully be written in the coming years about Vyarawalla's professional contribution as a pioneering professional — she was India's first woman press photographer who captured the first three decades of a nation in transition — what stays with me are memories of an elderly Homai Vyarawalla who I met when she was 87. Her memory was razor sharp even though it needed a little jogging to set her recounting stories and anecdotes that spanned almost a century of Indian history. She was an untrained but skilled archivist. She meticulously preserved her beautiful monochrome prints and negatives in boxes and hand-made negative jackets stored in Tupperware cases. For years, she struggled to protect them from the humid climate of Vadodara and was palpably relieved when they were finally handed over to the Alkazi Foundation in Delhi on permanent loan.

Everything put to use

Nothing that came Homai's way was discarded easily. Everything was put to good use. Her simple and sparse home had pieces of driftwood that looked like sculpture. Her walking stick, polished with age, was carved out of a piece of wood while her nameplate was made from broken glass bangles. Many who knew her intimately wanted to photocopy her hand-written book of recipes and medical home remedies. She could also cut her own hair and tailor her own clothes. She once sawed an oversized baking tray, repaired my slippers and fixed the plumbing in her water tank. All this and more when she was well into her nineties!

She often said she was like Robinson Crusoe. Her island was her home in Vadodara where she lived independently till the end with her plants and a few personal photographs.

Time spent with Homai in Vadodara had a different quality. We always talked about photography but as the years went by and we became closer, our conversations about the grand events of history melted into smaller more intimate discussions about the everyday. Belonging as she did to a middle class Parsi family, Homai had to struggle for most of her life. She always said that had she not become a photographer, she would have joined any other profession that was available to her. Not working was never an option for her. Her father, an actor in a travelling Urdu-Parsi Theatre troupe had to borrow money to return to India when his company declared bankruptcy in Rangoon. He died soon after and Homai's mother augmented the family income by weaving the parsi kusti (sacred thread). Homai was the only girl in her class in the Gujarati school where she studied.

Thereafter, she received a diploma at St Xavier's College. She studied further at the JJ School of Arts in Bombay where she was introduced to many of the subjects of her early photographs, including the beautiful Rehana Mogul.

Captured official histories

Homai learnt photography from her boyfriend Maneckshaw who she later married. The two would walk the streets of Bombay in the 1930s and early 40s taking photographs. In 1942, they moved to Delhi and as employees of the British Information Services were plunged into the thick of nationalist politics. Homai photographed official histories as they unfolded but she also captured images of leisure as elite Indians and expatriates met at social functions at the gymkhana club in Delhi. She photographed marriage ceremonies, school functions, fancy dress parties and more.


Homai was an adventurous woman. Stranded in Sikkim, she hitched a ride back on an army truck after taking images of a young Dalai Lama crossing the border in 1959. Once she came tumbling down while trying to shoot Mohammad Ali Jinnah, bringing to a halt the proceedings of his last press conference the day before he left for Pakistan in 1947. Homai's fall brought a smile on Jinnah's face.

She had also photographed the meeting of the Congress Working Committee that ratified the decision to Partition the country. Acharya Kripalani, who was chairing the meeting, was not happy to have photographers around so Homai had to keep ducking behind the benches. Her desire to discover new frontiers made her travel to the U.S. and the U.K. at the age of 95 in 2008. When she saw the statue of Gandhi at Tavistock Park, her only comment was that he was not wearing spectacles!

Homai's last birthday brought a stream of visitors to her house. The Parsi Dharamshala sent us a delicious parsi meal and we went shopping for a new television set. In the evening, we cut a cake and, as it got dark, Homai held a lamp in her hand and pretended to cast a spell over us. The next day, I recorded an interview with her. She said this was the first time she had ever celebrated her birthday. Talking about the future she said: “My body may be wrecked and wasting away but my spirit is as young as when I was 40. It resides within this body like a tortoise. When the time comes to go, it will only be leaving this temporary home.” Her only regret was that she had started to fall sick and she hated that. In another interview, she said she would not mind coming back to the same kind of life once again, “because I like this life very much.” She was looking forward to going to New York for an exhibition of her work in a few months. What else would you wish for? I asked. Her reply was simple: “Good friends, peace and quiet and to be able to sit in the sun.”

As the evening ended, I realised to my shock and disappointment that I had accidentally erased the interview. I tried returning to the subject but that moment had passed. By now the sun had set and Homai looked tired. I returned home depressed that I had lost that interview till a friend suggested that perhaps certain moments are not meant to be recorded but treasured in our memories.

As a friend bids farewell to you for now Mrs. Vyarawalla, I wish you a happy birthday once again. I have been privileged to have known you and I hope that wherever you are, you have found peace and that quiet place to sit in the sun.

[Sabeena Gadihoke is Associate Professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia and author of India in Focus: Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla, Mapin/Parzor, 2006].

"Homai Vyarawalla, Pioneering Indian Photojournalist, Dies at 98"


Haresh Pandya

January 28th, 2012

New York Times

Homai Vyarawalla, a photojournalist celebrated in India for chronicling the country’s march toward independence and capturing enduring images of world figures like Mohandas K. Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh and American presidents of the mid-20th century, died on Jan. 15 in Vadodara, in west India. She was 98.

Hospital officials said she had been under their care for respiratory ailments when she died after falling from her bed and fracturing a thigh bone.

Ms. Vyarawalla was hailed as the first Indian woman to work as a photojournalist and remembered as a familiar sight on the streets of New Delhi, the capital, riding a bicycle to assignments, her sari flapping behind her, her bulging equipment bags slung across her shoulders.

To many Indians she was known as Dalda 13, a coinage derived from her license plate number, DLD-13.

In the 1950s, Ms. Vyarawalla photographed Zhou Enlai, China’s first prime minister under Mao Zedong, as well as the North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh and the Dalai Lama, just after he had escaped from Tibet. She recorded state visits by Queen Elizabeth II, Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy and the first ladies Eleanor Roosevelt, Mamie Eisenhower and Jacqueline Kennedy, often capturing them in lighter moments.

But it was her triumphant images of the country’s independence movement — of the departing Lord Mountbatten, the last British viceroy, for example — that resonated most with Indians.

“Her images of Jawaharlal Nehru addressing a jubilant crowd in Delhi, and of the body of Mohandas K. Gandhi being prepared for cremation, give a vivid sense of the mood of a nation whose self-image was cast in a romantic epic mold,” Holland Cotter wrote in The New York Times in 1997 in a review of a show in Queens that featured Ms. Vyarawalla’s work.

“Much has happened since — sectarian violence, economic upheaval, the extended medical emergency of AIDS — to eat away at that initial tragedy-shadowed optimism,” Mr. Cotter wrote. “And the heightened, even exultant mood that runs through Ms. Vyarawalla’s pictures is nowhere to be found in the work of her younger colleagues.”

Ms. Vyarawalla called Nehru her “all-time favorite subject” and “extremely photogenic,” and when photographing him she would wait for an informal image to materialize — lighting a cigarette or releasing a pigeon. She was present at his funeral.

“When Nehru died,” she told the newspaper The Indian Express, “I felt like a child losing its favorite toy, and I cried, hiding my face from other photographers.”

Ms. Vyarawalla was born into a Parsi family on Dec. 9, 1913, in Navsari, a city in the western coastal state of Gujarat. Her father was an actor in a traveling theater company, and as a child she spent much time on the road with her family.

After the family settled in Bombay, now Mumbai, she learned photography from a friend and, at 13, began taking pictures of Bombay life. She earned an art school diploma and began working professionally as a photographer in her late teens. Her career took off after she married Manekshaw Vyarawalla, an accountant for The Times of India who also worked as a photographer for the newspaper.

In World War II, while working for the Far Eastern bureau of the British Information Services in New Delhi, Ms. Vyarawalla began accepting freelance assignments that gave her access to India’s political circles. Her photographs were published in Time, Life and The Illustrated Weekly of India, among other publications. In one series she recorded a day in the life of Indian firefighters during wartime.

Ms. Vyarawalla gave her collection of photographs to the New Delhi-based Alkazi Foundation for the Arts and last January received the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award.

Ms. Vyarawalla moved to Vadodara, then Baroda, in 1982 with her son, Farooq, her only child. A teacher, he died of cancer in 1989. Her husband died in 1970, the same year she gave up photography, abruptly packing up her cameras one day, disgusted by her peers.

“My colleagues had all been gentlemen,” she told India Today, “but the new crop did not know how to behave in high society. I did not want to be associated with such riffraff.”

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