INTERVIEWIndia's first woman photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla doesn't make a fuss about being a woman in a male bastion
It often happens with people who've pushed the envelope. They do not consider their role in history as something worthy of appreciation.
For them it was all in a day's work. Homai Vyarawalla epitomises a generation of India that believed in doing the right things the right way, who believed in values and destiny, who believed that you should put others first.
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, and describe things in English. I said to myself ‘If I waste my time reading theory, my practical work will suffer'.
Trial and error
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. 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 got Independence. 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 Jawaharlal 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.” When she was invited to cover private functions and parties, it was her policy “not to go in till it was the right time”. 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.
“ 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 firstwoman 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.” As an employee of the British Information Services, she would cycle from one end of Delhi to another after her assignments.
“I didn't have fear in my mind and fortunately my husband also thought I can take care of myself.”
In my time, a woman could do anything she wanted, as far as it was done the right way