In memoriam: The path-breaking life and work of Homai Vyarawalla, the country's first woman photojournalist.

I first heard about Homai Vyarawalla in the 1970s when I was still in school. My uncle Kulwant Roy, who was a friend and contemporary of Homai, used to tell me about this “energetic, mad Parsee lady”.

As a chronicler of the Indian freedom movement, he had worked closely with Homai and described how she used to go on a bicycle all over town to cover events. The Fleet Street of Delhi in those days — the 1930s and 1940s — used to be Mori Gate. It was a different era — a more gentlemanly one. The subjects that Homai was shooting — the politicians and freedom fighters — were a dignified, sophisticated lot. Homai had a way of taking charge of a situation and leading her colleagues. She made great friends with her subjects. My uncle told me how Dr Radhakrishnan had a pet name for her.

He described to me how she cut across a man's world, adapted beautifully and made a mark, the way she conducted herself, took control of things. Those impressions stuck in my head.

But it was only when he died in 1984 — a bachelor — and his entire archives came to me, and I found mentions of her photographs, that I made up my mind to meet her. However, it was only in 2000 that I could meet her in person. I met her through Sabeena Gadihoke, who was doing a project on the legacy of photographers like Homai and Kulwant. When I met her, Homai was surprised that I knew so much about her. When I explained that I grew up with someone who talked about her all the time, she opened up with a flood of stories about Kulwant. I was very touched when she dug out a couple of letters that Kulwant had written to her from his tours abroad and sent them to me through Sabeena. In 1958, my uncle had packed his bags, disbanded his studio and gone off on a world tour with just his camera bag, but Homai told me he used to send letters.

When I began working on preserving Kulwant's legacy, Homai sent me a sweet little note saying she considered herself lucky to be working with “gentlemen photojournalists who took me as a lone woman amidst them without any gender bias”. She talked of Kulwant as friendly and helpful — a rare quality now. The fact that she quit photojournalism in the 1970s, citing the “bad behaviour” of today's generation, speaks volumes of how she cherished the gentlemanly era.

As a photographer, what impresses me about Homai's pictures is the way she tells stories through them. She had been trained as an artist and that shows in her pictures, where she goes about creating stories. We today talk about the “decisive moment” in clicking a picture. They may have not known this jargon, but Homai and her contemporaries certainly knew all about it — she had the amazing knack of predicting the right moment to click. And those moments were not staged, as her subjects — Nehru, Gandhiji — were hardly likely to agree to a re-shoot.

As someone who documented history through her lens, her work is of immense significance

Picture by the author

(The author, through his India Photoarchive Foundation and Aditya Arya Archives, works on digitising, annotating, and preserving photographic archives.)

(This article was published on January 19, 2012)
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