Homai Vyarawalla: The Photographer at the Tryst of Destiny

Homai, Vyarawalla, photographer
Homai with her Speed Graphic camera. Image: HV Archive/ Alkazi Collection of Photography
India's first female photojournalist captured the making of independent India from a ringside view.

Few are privileged to witness the creation of history. In the 1940s, many emerged who could lay claim as its makers – Edward Mountbatten, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, to name a few. But it took one person to immortalize them all – Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first female photojournalist.

You couldn’t miss the sight of her at history’s many trysts with destiny. A petite Parsi lady in a Sari wielding a nine kg Rolleiflex camera, trying to be unobtrusive – often succeeding – and capturing the intimate, real moments of the biggest names of the time.

After her boyfriend, Manekshaw Vyarawalla (later husband), introduced her to photography, she took up a course at the J.J. School of Arts in Bombay. Her break came in 1942 when the British Information Service shifted office to Delhi during the war – and needed a photographer. Homai cycled the streets of Delhi carrying her bulky equipment. She soon became a familiar sight in influential circles.

As she wrote in an article for The Hindu:

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?’.

Jawaharlal Nehru, No photography,
Jawaharlal Nehru at Palam airport. Image: HV Archive/ Alkazi Collection of Photography

Homai was born into a Parsi family. Her astrologer predicted that “she was destined to walk among royalty and important people.” Destiny would continue to play a role in her life. The number 13 played an important part in her life – she was born in 1913 and picked up her first camera at the age of 13. After marrying Manekshaw, their first car had the license number DLD13. She took the cues – and signed off her photos as “Dalda 13”.

It’s her photos that truly speak of her. Of her many subjects, Nehru was her favourite and she had a knack for capturing him across a gamut of emotions. It’s tough to pick her most famous photo of his – as all of them are well known. From Nehru lighting a cigarette for Lady Mountbatten to him posing in front of a “Photography Not Permitted” sign, she captured the human side of the first Prime Minister like none other.

Gandhi too was not exempt. She clicked him so often that he once remarked: “This girl will not rest till she makes me blind”.  On the day of his assassination, she was supposed to have visited his ashram, but her husband suggested she go the next day.

Gandhi, Partition, talks
Gandhi with Khan Abdul Gafar Khan and Sushila Nayar, emerging from the Partition talks of 1947. Image:HV Archive/ Alkazi Collection of Photography

In the course of her career, she captured the freedom struggle, portraits of its leaders, discussions leading up to Partition and personalities who visited India following independence. She knew when to click. The photo of Nehru, the Dalai Lama and the Chinese Premier standing together in an awkward moment is a testimony to her ability to capture moments in history that speak for themselves.

Nehru, Dalai Lama, Chou
Chinese premier Chou en-lai, Prime Minister Nehru and the Dalai Lama during the celebrations to mark two thousand five hundred years of Buddhism. Delhi, 1956. Image: HV Archive/ Alkazi Collection of Photography

Her other greats include a beaming portrait of Ho Chi Minh, a candid shot of V.P. Menon, and the Queen visiting the Victoria Memorial (where Homai was the only photographer allowed).

She made her exit from photography in 1970, after the profession grew too crowded, perhaps too ignoble, for her. For years, she’d had a ringside view of the nation’s top decision makers. But with Indira Gandhi’s rise, photographers grew in number – and had to be kept at bay. A combination of losing control over her frame and her freedom seems to have provoked her to quit. As she wrote:

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!.

Her husband passed away in 1969 – leaving her bereft of the person who showed her life on the other side of the camera. She lost her only son in 1989. Ever since, she’s lived alone – never shooting a photo since.

Homai passed away in January, 2012, after a bad fall in her apartment in Baroda, Gujarat. Her neighbours brought her to the hospital, where she passed away on January 15.

We rarely recognize or acknowledge the trials of the photographer. The pains they go through to capture the perfect moment. For Homai, it meant navigating a world that was full of men, negotiating the complicated egos and security arrangements of the great – and waiting patiently for the humanity of the famous to reveal itself.

The men and women who capture history are often reduced to but a footnote in it – a byline or pseudonym at best. Having seen history up close, they are best served to record it.

Homai’s photographs are the rarest insight into the making of a nation. Her photographs are moments in time – of the people of the world, going about their life – looking into the camera and acknowledging it in respect. When you see Nehru smiling at the lens in a photograph, it is likely it was Homai that he was smiling at.

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