She not only made history but also recorded history being made. Today, some of the most iconic images of an independent India in the making, the climactic moment of the country’s freedom itself, and the heyday of a new republic were recorded by the lens of Homai Vyarawalla.
She was the only female in her school
India’s first-ever woman photojournalist, Homai broke into an all-male domain when there were only a few working women, let alone female photographers, in the country. Her sheer talent and steely determination saw her craft a career that spanned more than three decades.
This remarkable woman was born in Navsari in Gujarat, to Parsi parents, in 1913. Her father was an actor in Urdu-Parsi theatre, which meant the family was always on the move. When they finally set down roots in Bombay, they lived at Grant Road and later in Andheri, and Homai went on to study at St Xavier’s College and the Sir JJ College of Art. Perhaps her fearless nature, working in a sea of men, stemmed from her early experiences, where she was the only female in her school as well.
Homai met Maneckshaw Vyarawalla a freelance photographer, who would go on to become her husband. He gifted her a Rolleiflex camera during their courtship. Unknown to either of them, this simple act would begin Homai’s tryst with destiny.
Her early works were published under her husband’s name
This was Bombay in the 1930s, and a young Homai went to town with her new camera. In the ‘30s and early ’40s, she photographed her peers in art school and captured the streets and sights of Bombay. Perhaps a reflection of her own nature, her images capture the exuberance of youth and the life and times of the city she lived in.
Homai and Maneckshaw published their photographs in publications like Jam-e-Jamshed, Bombay Chronicle and The Illustrated Weekly of India. Since it was difficult for a woman photographer to break into this domain at the time, her early works were published under Maneckshaw’s name.
In 1942, the Vyarawallas were hired as photographers by the British Information Service, which took the couple to Delhi, which would be their home for the next three decades. It was here, from their home and studio in Connaught Place that they did some of their most important work, even as they captured India’s tryst with destiny.
Homai photographed independent India’s first flag hoisting ceremony at the Red Fort. She chronicled the lives and deaths of statesmen like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Mahatma Gandhi. Nehru, she insisted, was one of her favourite and most friendly subjects, and some of the most iconic photographs of India’s first prime minister were clicked by her.
She also photographed key events of the Nehruvian era, like the inaugurations of major dams and factories, meetings and ceremonies, the visits of dignitaries like Martin Luther King Jr, Jacqueline Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth II and many others. In 1956, she was in North-East India to photograph the crossing of the Dalai Lama into India on the back of a pony.
But destiny was to deny Homai what could have been her most defining images – Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination on the 30th of January 1948. She was headed to the prayer meeting where he was shot but called away by her husband for some work. This was her only regret.
It wasn’t only government-related or political photography that she did. In fact, the bulk of Homai’s oeuvre comprised social activities like weddings at St James Church and functions at Modern School. She was in great demand to photograph the activities and events held by the expat communities of the embassies in Delhi as well as the various gymkhanas and clubs in the capital.
Homai hung up her camera in 1970, a year after her husband died. By then, the free access that photographers had to their subjects had started to become curtailed and the profession was changing in many other ways as well. She lamented the deterioration of photography as a profession and the lack of etiquette among the new crop.
She is quoted as saying, “It was not worth it any more. We had rules for photographers; we even followed a dress code. We treated each other with respect, as 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 any more.”
In retirement now, Homai moved to Pilani in Rajasthan with her son Farouq, who taught there and she started a new phase in her life as a homemaker. Once an iconoclast, she now took part in social activities with the other residents of the town, took up baking and gardening, and led a retired life where few knew of her past accomplishments.
In 1988, her son Farouq tragically passed away and Homai moved to Baroda. As time marched on and photography and the world at large changed, her contribution fell into obscurity, that is, till Sabeena Gadihoke, a professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, came across her work when making a documentary on women photographers.
Gadihoke went on to document Homai’s work extensively and became her biographer. She wrote Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla and curated multiple art exhibitions on the legendary photographer’s work. She created a strong bond with her subject in her twilight years.
Interestingly, Homai had never been abroad till this point and she travelled to the United States and United Kingdom with Gadihoke to lecture at various universities, something she thoroughly enjoyed. In her last years, she gave her life’s work on permanent loan to the Delhi-based Alkazi Foundation for the Arts.
Life came full circle for Homai when she was awarded the Padma Vibhusan by in 2011. The investiture ceremony took her back to Rashtrapati Bhavan, where she had photographed many similar events on countless occasions. Only, this time, she was the subject.
Despite her advanced years, Homai remained self-sufficient till the very end. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 98. Not many remember the legendary photojournalist but, then, Homai Vyarawalla always let her lens do the talking.
With inputs from Ms Sabeena Gadihoke