Moments from a bygone era

To one interested in modern history, the 1940s are an eventful era. While on the domestic front, the silent and peaceful non-war was waged for a "Free India," the world at large saw the perpetrators here slowly strengthening themselves to take on the threat from Nazism in a different kind of war. As the stage was thus set, the unseen hand of destiny took upon itself the task of guiding a budding painter to become a photojournalist. The vision and aesthetics of painting were required to catch that rare moment and yet render a truthful picture of the happenings, while the instant speed of photography was essential in documenting the world for posterity. Thus emerged HOMAI VYARAWALLA, the first woman photojournalist of India, the unknown face that made known to the world many a celebrity face.

Over a cup of tea flavoured with orange rinds and egg sandwiches, Homai, as graceful as ever with a warm smile ,reminisces to SHALINIRAGHAVIAH.

SHALINI RAGHAVIAH: How did you venture into photography?


I WAS introduced to photography during my student days by Manekshaw Vyarawalla, my husband-to-be. He was an avid photographer. Those days, he had to learn it all by himself, through trial and error and the occasional pamphlets, books and foreign magazines like Popular Photography. At that time, I was studying painting at the J. J. School of Arts, Mumbai. He would always carry his camera, an old Raliflex, wherever we went. This helped me observe him at work and his constant search for something new had me unwittingly involved in it.

The turning point was the response to my first assignment of Ladies Club picnic from Sir J. J. School of Arts. I took the photographs. The response was warm and, by a coincidence, they were published in the Bombay Chronicle. This gave me confidence in my ability as a photographer. Above all, it offered a chance for both of us to be involved in the same profession and work together. That was when I decided to put aside the brush and take up the lens.

Tell us about your days as a photographer. Were people surprised by this unconventional venture of yours?

As long as I moved around with Manekshaw, people did not take me seriously. It was only when I started out on my own, taking pictures of life in general in Mumbai which were published in The Illustrated Weekly of India that people began to take notice of me. As the Japanese army advanced, the Far Eastern Bureau of the British Information Service was shifted from Singapore to Delhi. They needed photographers and Manekshaw and I were chosen. We had to move to Delhi. Though I was on the payroll of the British Information Service, they allowed me to do private work outside office hours, taking pictures of prominent personalities for some magazines in Mumbai as well as for foreign agencies. From the initial "Who is she? What is she doing here?" kind of reaction, the response changed to "Where is she? Why hasn't she come?"

Life in Delhi then was beautiful. I used to go around on a bicycle with all the paraphernalia strapped to my back. The camera alone weighed about nine kg. On countless occasions, when I returned alone well past midnight never did I face any inconvenience or feel threatened. During the war, all roadsigns were removed and, when in doubt, I only had to knock on any door and people were always helpful. It was only later that things began to change, and that too, for the worse.

Did you ever feel that being a woman hampered your work?

Somehow it never occurred to me that I was doing something unusual or that I was the only woman in a maledominated profession at that time. I think I was casual in my dressing and unobtrusive in my demeanour, so this may have made people around me feel at ease. I was always given due credit for my work and was respected just as any other competent person in the field. At school, I was the only girl in my matriculation class. So I was used to being in the company of boys.

According to you, what is it that sets press photography apart?

The most important thing is that you are taking "action" pictures. You have to be alert. There are always moods and expressions changing on peoples' faces and it takes some prediction to capture that moment, for once lost, it is gone forever. As a rule, I never asked my subjects to pose.

Which was your favourite picture?

Looking back, may be it was the significance of the moment, the sheer joy of freedom or whatever - I always enjoy the shots I took of Pandit Nehru delivering his first address to independent India. There were so many changing expressions on his face, it was a pleasure capturing them. But my favourite person was Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the late President. He had an exceptional yet quiet sense of humour. He was very much a man of the masses, and for his stature, his humility was remarkable. He had the qualities of a true leader.

There must have been embarrassing moments too...

Oh yes! I'll tell you. Chief Justice Warren and his wife were visiting from the United States. I was assigned, by the Life magazine to take pictures of them at the Taj Mahal. It was in May and the heat was scorching. After the indoor shots were finished, we came out and I climbed on to a wall to get a vantage point, not realising that there was a canal below. Suddenly I lost balance and fell into the pool of water. Fortunately, I managed to hold my camera above the water and saved the snaps. Later, Mrs. Warren came up to me and said: "How I wish I could do that. It's so very hot!"

There was another time when I had hurt my lips and it was bandaged while I attended some ceremony. Dr. Radhakrishnan, who was present on the occasion, noticed this from the podium and was trying to get my attention by quietly scratching his lip at the point where I had the bandage. I kept quiet and pretended not to notice. Later on, while passing by me, he quietly inquired, "Were you bitten by your husband?"

Was there any photograph you regretted not having taken?

On the day of Gandhiij's assassination, we were at the Ashram visiting him. That evening, I set out for the prayer meeting when my husband called me back saying we both could go the next day. Soon, the terrible news that he had been assassinated came. As a person, I deeply regretted the assassination. As a professional, I regretted not having been there while being so near. My husband wouldn't forgive himself for calling me back, especially because there was no other photographer around.

How did Independence change things?

With Independence, India's prestige in the world was at its highest because we had won freedom through non-violence. But later on, things began to change. Corruption gradually started taking roots and it was a disappointing turn of events.

There has been considerable advancement in technology related to the field of photography. Do you think the change has been for the better?

There are two things here - technology and way one handles technology. In our times, the equipment was basic, even primitive by present standards. There were no metering systems, no automatic flashes. We mastered them by trial and error alone. Technology has improved tremendously - to the extent that the camera selects everything. But then, what about composition? It requires a different kind of interest to master this most important element of photography. When I look at photographs these days, often I find too many things cluttered into one picture. There is no singular focus on the subject - to the extent the onlooker does not know what the subject is till the caption is read. If you give me the kind of fancy equipment you have these days, I would not even know what to do with it.

Why did you decide to opt out of the field in the 1970s?

I shot my last picture in 1970 - that of the late Mrs. Indira Gandhi. After my husband's demise in 1969, I decided to leave Delhi. By then, I began to witness a disturbing trend in the profession. In our generation, the photographers were highly educated, they knew how to carry themselves in the society with dignity. The next generation photographers included those who graduated to the field from the darkroom. Most of them were attracted by the glitz and the seemingly glamorous life of the photojournalist. Things boiled down to a point where one of the ambassadors even shouted, "Throw these photographers OUT!"

Moreover, the quality of our leaders also changed. Gradually, the security personnel began deciding where the photographer should be. I found it difficult to operate in such controlled and dictated circumstances. I know that change is inevitable. But I was unable to adjust to it.

A word for aspiring photojournalists....

Be honest in whatever you do. Respect the other person's dignity and privacy. It takes a lot of commitment and clarity of mind to be a good photojournalist.

Recommended for you