Homai’s work is testimony to India’s iconic history

Homai’s work is testimony to India’s iconic history

By M. SAAD | | 14 May, 2016
Homai Vyarawalla (left) with Sabeena Gadihoke. Photo: Bethany Murray
India’s first female photojournalist, Homai Vyarawalla photographed some of the key moments and leading figures of our national history. M. Saad speaks to her biographer Sabeena Gadihoke.

Tell us about your relationship with the photographer Homai Vyarawalla. Was it a typical biographer’s relation to the subject or something beyond it? And how did you become interested in Vyarawala’s work?

A. I first met Homai Vyarawalla in 1997 when I travelled to Baroda to make a film on her and two other photographers, called Three Women and A Camera. The film was completed in 1998 but I remained fascinated by her life and work, and continued to travel back and forth every few months to meet her and to audio-tape interviews with her. It gave me an opportunity to look at her work in detail too. My book,  which was produced by the Parzor Foundation that works on Parsi heritage, was published in 2006. While I found Homai’s body of work very engaging, I was also drawn to her as a pioneering woman photographer who had mobility and agency at a time when there were almost no women photographers in the public domain and especially in photojournalism. Having worked with her for so many years, I was sure that the book should be about both Homai’s work and life — her public persona and her personal journey. Gradually our relationship changed from a professional to a more personal one. She would write letters to me in her beautiful handwriting and stay with me when she came to Delhi. And I came to look upon my trips to Baroda as immersive experiences where I would focus totally on her. When I now look back on these visits to Baroda, I realise that I know little else about the city.

Q. Can you talk a bit about Homai's journey from the beginning? Is it true that she would have been an actress, had it not been for her photographer boyfriend, Maneckshaw Vyarawalla, who taught her photography and whom she later married?

A. The story of Homai’s life starts more than a century ago, in 1913 in Navsari, Gujarat where she was born. Her father Dossabhai Hathiram was an actor in a traveling Urdu-Parsi theatre company that toured in countries like Burma and Malaysia. Homai was fascinated with the theatre and given a choice she would have liked to be an actress. But choice was not really an option for her. It was not possible for girls from “good” middle-class families to become actresses in those days, and especially after her father’s premature death she urgently needed to earn a living. As it turned out, she made the right choice. Growing up in the city of Bombay, Homai met Maneckshaw Vyarawalla who was a self-taught photographer. She learnt her photography from him. If you look carefully at her early hand-coloured pictures of friends at the J.J. School of Arts in Bombay, they are credited to MJV, the initials of her boyfriend. Maneckshaw already contributed to pictorial magazines in Bombay and it would have been difficult for an unknown photographer, particularly a woman to gain entry. In these early days she was often dismissed as “just a girl”, so Homai had to work hard at creating a reputation for herself.

Q. Do you feel that her employment at British Information Services somehow changed or rather affected the chances of further enhancing her prolific career as a photographer?

A. Well, as a press photographer, Homai documented all the iconic moments of Indian independence and these pictures represent a certain version of nationalist history. However, the need to represent famous people and important events (which is what her job demanded) also diverted her gaze away from other more ordinary representations of everyday life. Homai’s archive now rests at the Alkazi Collection of Photography that has been digitising her work painstakingly. Some of this new emerging work by Homai suggests that she was observing other worlds keenly, that included the inner and outer lives, particularly of young women like herself. They also suggest that the move to Delhi may have prematurely stopped a very significant direction that Homai Vyarawalla’s work could have taken.

Q. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was her favourite subject. There are some marvellous pictures that she clicked of his. Some of which show him in a cheerful mood and others that captured him as vulnerable. Did Nehru like posing for her?

A. Nehru was a camera-friendly person. As she described him in my film, he was “a photographer’s delight”. One example of this is the famous picture of him posing next to a board saying “Photography Prohibited” at the airport.

Q. And Homai was a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, too. Is it true that she was supposed to attend his prayer meeting on that dreadful morning when he was shot?

A. Yes, she was very inspired by Gandhi’s simplicity and frugal living. But Gandhi hated the flash and so she did not photograph him as much as she did Nehru. She did set out to shoot the prayer meeting on 30 January 1948, but her husband called her back saying they would go the next day together. And the rest is history.

“Homai often said that being the only woman in a crowd of men worked to her advantage as the subject often looked directly at her (in curiosity) and she got good frames as a result of that.”

Q. Do you feel she was at an advantage in a sense for being a woman photographer among so many male counterparts?

A. Homai never represented herself as a victim. Of course she had to prove herself as the only woman among men but she had supportive family, colleagues and subjects, like Nehru and Dr Radhakrishan, who encouraged her. There were occasions like costume and fashion shows where being a woman was an advantage. She often said that being the only woman in a crowd of men worked to her advantage as the subject often looked directly at her (in curiosity) and she got good frames as a result of that.

Q. What according to you are the key historical moments that her camera managed to capture?

A. The events around Independence, the funeral of Gandhi, Lord Mountbatten taking the salute for the last time as he departed from India in March 1948, the Republic Day, the Dalai Lama crossing over into India in 1956 to attend a celebration of the Buddhist faith. Plus other arrivals and departures of politicians and famous personalities who visited India.

Q. Do you think she also managed to capture the boldness of Indian women and the influence of fashion in this country through her  photography?

A. Actually I wouldn’t describe her as a “fashion photographer”. The point I also made in one of my recent talks was that her photographs covering fashion and costume shows by elite Indian and expatriate women could be seen to give us insights into a different facet of Nehruvian India that has mostly been looked at through the lens of nationalist politics.

Q. She was in Delhi during Partition. Do we have anything groundbreaking on Partition in her photographs?

A. Homai was present at a Congress committee meeting to ratify the “3rd June plan” about the partition of India. Her pictures tell the story visually of different reactions to Partition. There is an image of Mahatma Gandhi arriving for the meeting. Many important Congress leaders including Nehru, Patel and Rajendra Prasad raise their hands in these pictures. These images never became part of our collective memory of Partition and somehow escaped public scrutiny in the years that would follow. While some of them were printed up in newspapers of the time, they have been overshadowed by narratives of trauma — images of the refugees of one of the largest trans-border migrations in history. In her work on the Long Partition, Vazira Zamindar has drawn attention to how Partition was not just an event within a given temporal span but a set of recurring impulses that continued to reverberate for long after. Taking a cue from Zamindar, I suggest that there could be more ways of looking at Partition narratives in Homai’s work and that is through absence — or what is concealed in her frames. For instance, her photo of Connaught Place in New Delhi in the 1950s, which is considered one of her most iconic pictures, masks a dark Partition story of displacement and forcible occupation. During the weeks and months of violence in Delhi, Homai and her husband would stand chatting on the balcony of their home in Connaught Place. The couple would stand there so that wandering mobs would not set fire to the shop of their landlord, who was Muslim. One night they witnessed how a wealthy Hindu family arrived from Karachi and forcibly occupied the house. Her landlord’s family fled to the camps at Purana Quila and could never return after that.

Homai with her wooden speed graphic pacemaker camera. Photo: HV ArchiveQ. Tell us about your experience of travelling alongside Homai during her first overseas trip to the United States and then to England?

A. I wasn’t entirely surprised when she agreed to accompany me. Strangely enough, she had never been abroad and at age 95, this would be her first journey outside the country. We arrived at Boston after a long journey and a stopover in London. I had been upgraded to business class along with Homai who had charmed the crew members of British airways and a couple of co-passengers travelling with us. The friendly head stewardess was surprised to know that Homai had been the official photographer for the British High Commission for most of her career.

During our journey to London, I kept thinking about Homai’s reactions at Heathrow. What would she feel to be in the country that had fired her imagination for so many years. It turned out to be quite different from what I had expected. We disembarked from the plane with at least 25 elderly Indian passengers, all of whom needed a wheelchair and had to wait for almost two hours in a seedy part of the airport for transport to arrive. There was only one electric cart that could ferry three people at a time. Homai was clearly the most able and as we waited endlessly as the last in line, she walked up to the woman in charge and said, “Madam, this doesn’t speak well for British efficiency.” Clearly the experience at Heathrow was completely at odds with her vision of the dynamic and hard-working employers she had worked for in Delhi. Back to more humble travel during the next leg of the journey from London to Boston, I was woken up by a sparkling Homai who had walked up from club class to slip me some special eats. She had brushed aside all my suggestions about exercises on the flight and seemed to be managing very well on her own. As the cab weaved its way towards our final destination at Harvard Square, I watched her face in the fading sunset as she curiously looked out at the tall Boston skyline. It was a moment I had imagined for months and suddenly all I seemed to want to do was to get to sleep. The next morning was a nightmare. Homai was up bright and rested and I was down with a killer migraine. Despite migraine misery, the talk at Harvard went off well. We would repeat the pattern at North-Western at Chicago and at the University of Westminister in London. At a packed event in London, someone asked her how she juggled career and family. Homai declared that it was possible because her husband and she shared everything “fifty-fifty”. I got a playful rap on my head with her stick for asking, “Why then did he not wake up at 4.30 in the morning to fetch the milk instead of you?” She was cheered for calling herself a “bachelor girl” since the death of her husband.

Q. Why did Homai quit photography all of a sudden in the year 1970?

A. There were several reasons for this. The world around her had changed. She had begun work at a moment when there was optimism and euphoria and now the cracks in the nation state were beginning to show. Politicians didn’t seem like heroes any longer and the profession of photojournalism seemed to be changing too. Her colleagues were replaced by a new and aggressive younger lot of people and she didn’t enjoy work any longer. Her son now had a job in Pilani and it seemed time that she could take a break.

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