Sabeena Gadihoke dwells on the incredible life and times of Homai Vyarawalla and photojournalism is only one aspect of it.

There is a school girl-like enthusiasm when Sabeena Gadihoke, associate professor, video and TV production, AKJ Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia University, New Delhi, talks about her association with Homai Vyarawalla, India's first woman photojournalist.

Sabeena knew Homai for 14 years, from 1997 to Homai's last days in January 2012, and is sought after for any individual or institution that wants to learn about the grand old lady of photojournalism. Ironically, Sabeena had never heard about Homai prior to 1997.

“I was researching for a film on women photojournalists and already had two women in mind. I wanted a third person. I came across a news item on Homai. I had never heard of her before. I was intrigued, travelled to Baroda and met her. I made Three Women and a Camera, but felt that the film was inadequate for a person such as Homai. It was the beginning of my obsession. I got a grant to do a study on women photographers and visited her each year. I recorded interviews with her, not just about her career as a photographer,” Sabeena tells us, in an interview before her talk in the city.

Sabeena was stuck by Homai's self-reliance. “Homai herself would state that like Robinson Crusoe, if she was stranded on an island, she would survive. She could cut her hair, stitch her own clothes, fix electrical and plumbing fittings, repair shoes, make furniture, layer bricks like a mason… People called her Homai Kabuliwalla because she never threw away anything. From her, I learnt about life, cooking, Ayurvedic remedies and much more. Somewhere down the line I began writing my book on her (Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla, published in 2006). She had razor-sharp memory and from her I learnt about the history of the century,” says Sabeena.

Though Homai never threw away little things, she was happy to give away her collection of photographs to the Alkazi Foundation. “I felt a tug at my heart when the collection was being taken from her home for archival purpose. But she was resolute. She said ‘Mujhe lagta hai meri beti ko biddhai kardiya'. Homai had also thought about how things should be after her death. She prepared her will and had decided about her possessions (most of which went to charity),” says Sabeena.

Homai also knew when to step back. It is widely known that Homai quit photojournalism in the 1970s. “She never picked up the camera again, not even for her son's wedding,” says Sabeena. The stepping back occurred when Homai sensed the degradation of value systems in society, including her workplace, post the Nehruvian era. “As the number of photographers increased, there came security barriers between politicians and photographers making the task tougher. She did not want to jostle between other photographers,” adds Sabeena. Homai didn't regret giving up photography, sums up Sabeena, “For three decades, she had lived and breathed photography. She had lead a tough life, balancing work and home. She wanted to put up her feet.”

Cutting the clutter

A frame from an archival footage shows the diminutive Homai Vyarawalla, clad in a sari, walking away from the crowd, balancing a camera in her hand, soon after India's Independence. Homai cut the clutter in her own way as she captured the first three decades of India's Independence through her lenses. She knew the ‘right photographic moment'. While other photographers rushed, she would wait and frame her subjects when they were least conscious of the camera. An example is a photograph of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru with his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit. Homai's photos are now archived at Alkazi Foundation, New Delhi.

Sabeena Gadihoke took the audience through her audio-visual presentation ‘Homai Vyarawalla and her Chronicles of India' at Kalakriti Art Gallery, as part of Art Adda, an initiative by Channel 6, Alliance Francaise, Goethe Zentrum, Moving Images and Manthan. A photo curator, Sabeena is now researching for a dissertation on the cultural history of photography in India. Moving away from photojournalism, Sabeena is researching material available in magazines and tabloid press for this project.