India's first woman photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla doesn't make a fuss about being a woman in a male bastion. She tells Bhumika K. such small things didn't bother her

It often happens with people who've pushed the envelope. They do not notice their role in history as something worthy of appreciation. For them it was all in a day's work. No superlatives, no fancy adjectives.

Homai Vyarawalla epitomises a generation of India that believed in doing the right things the right way, who believed in proper values and destiny, who believed that you should put others first and not think about yourself always.

India's first woman news photographer may have recently celebrated her 97th birthday, but in the deep pools of her eyes that have seen an India in transition, there are crystal clear memories and a self-assurance that comes from living a practical yet fulfilling life. “I don't know photography, really…I'm not joking!” she pauses. “If you ask me the focal length of my camera, I don't know. I never once read theory. I know how to click, write captions, describe things in English. I said to myself ‘If I waste my time reading theory, my practical work will suffer'. It takes time then to think ‘Am I doing this right or wrong'. It delays taking a picture.”

Initiated into photography by her photographer-husband Manekshaw, Homai learnt photography by trial and error, just as she would have learnt anything else in life, like cooking, she says. “I would become my husband's model and he would be mine.” In the initial days her photographs were published in her husband's name. Did her husband teach her composition? “Nobody can teach you composition,” Homai instantly cuts in. “Or to take the right angle. It comes automatically. It's like an artist — you can teach him how to draw but can you teach him to make a good picture? There are 15 people taking a photograph at the same time; each has his own style. But there's only one who gets the right moment and the right angle.” Homai's life is all about timing. She was there to witness the last days of the Raj. She was there at the stroke of the midnight hour when India gained Independence. She was there when our leaders voted to partition India.

She was also there when Indian women were part of the training for Air Raid Precaution (ARP) during World War II. She was there to process the photographs rushed from England after the wedding of Queen Elizabeth II. She was there seeing Nehru though the lens' eye as she did Indira Gandhi. “I believe in destiny,” Homai declares. “Some people have an attitude ‘I did this'. It's wrong. You have done something because you got the opportunity to do it.” Neither was she ever overwhelmed by the sea of towering personalities she was always surrounded by. “Each person is great in his own way. The most important people in society are the rag pickers and sweepers.”

Her sense of duty, of having done her work with absolute commitment, are so strong, that when you ask if there's any picture she would have liked to click but couldn't, Homai offers an emphatic “No”. “I've always followed things that happened in front of me. I would go to the picture or the picture came to me.”

When she was invited to cover private functions and parties, it was her policy “not to go in till it was the right time”. “A host must be given proper time…the last minute is always hassled.”

Photojournalism has come a long way from her days of decorum to the current breed of aggressive paparazzi. Bring up Princess Diana's tragic hounding by photographers and Homai gets furious.

“The private life of a person is his own. This is being crazy — to rush after them and take photos embarrassing to them. Pictures are not as important as the private life of a person. But all these photographers want are scoops…something vulgar.”

Homai doesn't attach much importance to the fact that her work is regarded in the light that she was India's first woman photojournalist. “These small things don't bother me. In my time, a woman could do anything she wanted, as far as it was done the right way. You should not do something for the glamour or show of it; then you won't be criticised. If a woman wanted to work, she made sure her family did not suffer.” As an employee of the British Information Services, she would cycle from one end of Delhi to another end after her assignment at one in the night because “those were different times. Law and order were strictly followed…but showing fear — that makes is worse. I didn't have fear in my mind and fortunately my husband also thought ‘She can look after herself'.”

The pint-sized cracker in her Parsi sari or salwar kameez was not to be messed with.

Ask her if she's never had a terrible encounter as a woman, and Homai recounts: “Once four people, from Punjab, were sitting on the bonnet of my car. I wanted to go out…but they didn't get off the car.

I opened the door; they wouldn't move. I started the ignition, raised the engine and started moving.

Two of them jumped off then and the other two said ‘Ye toh badi khatarnak hai…'” She drove till she had shaken them off too.

Don't miss the photography exhibition “Homai Vyarawalla – A retrospective” curated by Sabeena Gadihoke, and held in collaboration with the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, which is on at the National Gallery of Modern Art till July 8.

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