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A homage to Homai Vyarawalla : chronicler of India's tryst with destiny


Mumbai : January 16,2012

A picture of Jawaharlal Nehru, smoking and helping Ms Simon— wife of then British High Commissioner to India— light up a cigarette, showcases a different side of India’s first prime minister. This photograph was taken by India’s first and for a long-time, only woman photojournalist, Homai Vyarawala, who passed away in Vadodara on January 15.  

 

Through her pictures, she captured the social and political life of a nation in transition. From Nehru to Mountbatten to the Dalai Lama entering India, her photographs became iconic symbols — they evoked a story of pre and post-independent India.  Vyarawala photographed key events that would have a decisive impact on Indian history, including a meeting where leaders voted for India’s partition.

 

She also captured the first flag-hoisting ceremony at the Red Fort on August 16 1947, the departure of Lord Mountbatten from India and the funerals of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri. Her work that spanned four decades, included both the euphoria of the Independence as well as the disillusionment with undelivered promises in the new nation.

 

Vyarawalla was born on December 13, 1913 in a middle-class Parsi family in Navsari, Gujarat as Homai Hathiram.  Her father was an actor with a Parsi-Urdu theatre.  She grew up in Mumbai and learnt photography first from her boy friend Maneckshaw Vyarawalla and then at the J J School of Art.

 

Her first published pictures were in the ‘Bombay Chronicle’, which paid her one rupee for every photograph. In 1942, she, along with her husband moved to Delhi, where she photographed events leading to Independence as an employee of the British Information Services.

 

At the onset of the World War II, she started working on assignments of the Bombay based The Illustrated Weekly of India magazine which over the years till 1970, published her black and white images. Many of her photographs were also published as photo-stories in Time, Life, The Black Star and numerous other international publications.

 

The work and life of Vyarawalla has been brilliantly documented by Sabeena Gadihoke in her book “India in Focus — Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawala”. The photo-biography is based on many interviews with the photographer spread over two years .

 

Vyarawalla’s favourite subject was Jawaharlal Nehru, who, she commented, had “the perfect figure for a photographer. A personality who posed for pictures, as if unconsciously”. Black and white was her preferred medium, as she found colour to be excessive.

 

In her photography, Homai used the methods increasingly popular with photojournalists — the low-angle shot, flash during daylight and backlighting to enhance images, so as to give her subjects depth and a  good stature for her subjects.

 

Most of her photographs were published under the pseudonym “Dalda 13″. The reasons behind her choice of this rather amusing name were that her birth year was 1913, she got married at the age of 13 and her first car’s number plate read “DLD 13″.

 

In 1970, shortly after her husband's death, Homai Vyarawalla decided to give up photography lamenting over the "bad behaviour" of the new generation of photographers. 

 

Despite not having taken a single photograph in the last 40 years, Homai Vyarawalla remained iconic and her collections were put on display by the National Gallery of Modern Art in March last year.  The life which this Padma Vibhushan awardee led is an inspiration to many new aspirants.

PIB  Feature/MH/17

 

 
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