Sabeena Gadihoke, close friend and biographer, remembers her 14-year journey with Mrs Vyarawalla
Homai Vyarawalla turned 98 on December 9, 2011. For the first time in 14 years, I had taken the liberty to visit her without giving her prior notice. I wanted to give her a surprise on her birthday. I texted her as soon as I landed the previous night and promptly got a reply: “Just got your message. Most welcome. See you tomorrow. Love.” Two years ago, Homai had considered the possibility of learning email but decided that texting on the phone was a better option. It was a struggle as her fingers often missed the tiny buttons on her phone but she was determined. Soon she was texting people with occasional ‘misfires'. A friend was once puzzled to receive a cryptic message stating: “Please send pedas!” The message was for someone else.
When Homai Vyarawalla was given a pen, the same fingers magically transformed into those of a calligraphist. Her handwriting till the end was beautiful and our correspondence through letters stand testimony to her disappointment with mine. In 1997, she wrote: “The postman must be able to read the address without stress — he has many letters to deliver. Do try and make his work easier.” In 2005, she asked for 6 fine point ball pen refills — “I am always in trouble here as the stock they sell is unpredictable and my handwriting looks shabby.” In 2006, she actually returned a letter saying she couldn't understand what I had written! By now I began sending her typewritten letters but I preserved each one of her letters beautifully written on recycled paper, sent in re-used envelopes.
While much will hopefully be written in the coming years about Vyarawalla's professional contribution as a pioneering professional — she was India's first woman press photographer who captured the first three decades of a nation in transition — what stays with me are memories of an elderly Homai Vyarawalla who I met when she was 87. Her memory was razor sharp even though it needed a little jogging to set her recounting stories and anecdotes that spanned almost a century of Indian history. She was an untrained but skilled archivist. She meticulously preserved her beautiful monochrome prints and negatives in boxes and hand-made negative jackets stored in Tupperware cases. For years, she struggled to protect them from the humid climate of Vadodara and was palpably relieved when they were finally handed over to the Alkazi Foundation in Delhi on permanent loan.
Everything put to use
Nothing that came Homai's way was discarded easily. Everything was put to good use. Her simple and sparse home had pieces of driftwood that looked like sculpture. Her walking stick, polished with age, was carved out of a piece of wood while her nameplate was made from broken glass bangles. Many who knew her intimately wanted to photocopy her hand-written book of recipes and medical home remedies. She could also cut her own hair and tailor her own clothes. She once sawed an oversized baking tray, repaired my slippers and fixed the plumbing in her water tank. All this and more when she was well into her nineties!
She often said she was like Robinson Crusoe. Her island was her home in Vadodara where she lived independently till the end with her plants and a few personal photographs.
Time spent with Homai in Vadodara had a different quality. We always talked about photography but as the years went by and we became closer, our conversations about the grand events of history melted into smaller more intimate discussions about the everyday. Belonging as she did to a middle class Parsi family, Homai had to struggle for most of her life. She always said that had she not become a photographer, she would have joined any other profession that was available to her. Not working was never an option for her. Her father, an actor in a travelling Urdu-Parsi Theatre troupe had to borrow money to return to India when his company declared bankruptcy in Rangoon. He died soon after and Homai's mother augmented the family income by weaving the parsi kusti (sacred thread). Homai was the only girl in her class in the Gujarati school where she studied.
Thereafter, she received a diploma at St Xavier's College. She studied further at the JJ School of Arts in Bombay where she was introduced to many of the subjects of her early photographs, including the beautiful Rehana Mogul.
Captured official histories
Homai learnt photography from her boyfriend Maneckshaw who she later married. The two would walk the streets of Bombay in the 1930s and early 40s taking photographs. In 1942, they moved to Delhi and as employees of the British Information Services were plunged into the thick of nationalist politics. Homai photographed official histories as they unfolded but she also captured images of leisure as elite Indians and expatriates met at social functions at the gymkhana club in Delhi. She photographed marriage ceremonies, school functions, fancy dress parties and more.
Homai was an adventurous woman. Stranded in Sikkim, she hitched a ride back on an army truck after taking images of a young Dalai Lama crossing the border in 1959. Once she came tumbling down while trying to shoot Mohammad Ali Jinnah, bringing to a halt the proceedings of his last press conference the day before he left for Pakistan in 1947. Homai's fall brought a smile on Jinnah's face.
She had also photographed the meeting of the Congress Working Committee that ratified the decision to Partition the country. Acharya Kripalani, who was chairing the meeting, was not happy to have photographers around so Homai had to keep ducking behind the benches. Her desire to discover new frontiers made her travel to the U.S. and the U.K. at the age of 95 in 2008. When she saw the statue of Gandhi at Tavistock Park, her only comment was that he was not wearing spectacles!
Homai's last birthday brought a stream of visitors to her house. The Parsi Dharamshala sent us a delicious parsi meal and we went shopping for a new television set. In the evening, we cut a cake and, as it got dark, Homai held a lamp in her hand and pretended to cast a spell over us. The next day, I recorded an interview with her. She said this was the first time she had ever celebrated her birthday. Talking about the future she said: “My body may be wrecked and wasting away but my spirit is as young as when I was 40. It resides within this body like a tortoise. When the time comes to go, it will only be leaving this temporary home.” Her only regret was that she had started to fall sick and she hated that. In another interview, she said she would not mind coming back to the same kind of life once again, “because I like this life very much.” She was looking forward to going to New York for an exhibition of her work in a few months. What else would you wish for? I asked. Her reply was simple: “Good friends, peace and quiet and to be able to sit in the sun.”
As the evening ended, I realised to my shock and disappointment that I had accidentally erased the interview. I tried returning to the subject but that moment had passed. By now the sun had set and Homai looked tired. I returned home depressed that I had lost that interview till a friend suggested that perhaps certain moments are not meant to be recorded but treasured in our memories.
As a friend bids farewell to you for now Mrs. Vyarawalla, I wish you a happy birthday once again. I have been privileged to have known you and I hope that wherever you are, you have found peace and that quiet place to sit in the sun.
(Sabeena Gadihoke is Associate Professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia and author of India in Focus: Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla, Mapin/Parzor, 2006)