Born on December 9, 1913, Padma Vibhushan awardee Homai Vyarawalla passed away just as quietly as she lived, on January 15, 2012, aged 98. Despite her quietude, she touched the lives of many students and serious practitioners of photography. Her contribution to the documentation of Indian history remains invaluable and unique. Better Photography spoke to some of her closest friends and associates, to look back at one of India’s greatest legends.
This story was originally published in February 2012.
Instead of grieving, I would rather rejoice in the memory of Homai’s wonderful friendship.
When I met Homai Vyarawalla in 1992–93, both of us were getting our work printed at Statfotos; she, for her exhibition to be held at the Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi, and I, for the Lalit Kala Biennale. The curator of her exhibition was photographer and photo historian Satish Sharma, who had tracked Homai down at a time when she was living quietly on her own in Vadodara.
By doing this, he had unearthed India’s first woman photojournalist, who was responsible for a treasure trove of historical photographs shot in the 1940s–70s. No-nonsense, eagle-eyed, sharp tongued and with a flashing sense of humour… she was pointing out areas of improvement to the printer precisely and expertly, be it about grading, contrast, cropping or burning/dodging to improve the image. Wah! My kind of mate! We were photographers 50 years apart, both fiercely independent and self sufficient, laughing a lot together.
We were to remain good friends for the next 20 years; chatting and sharing perspectives on just about everything for hours on end—drinking lemon grass tea, eating choley bhaturey in Bengali Market or cooking fish, as we did the very last time I met her alive in October 2011. And so, I celebrate in the memory of Homai’s kindred spirit. I thank Satish for introducing her to me, Mrs Mishra and Mrs Hawawala for being her closest friends, and Sabeena Gadihoke for being a pillar of support and love, and for enabling the world to see her works.
—Ashim Ghosh, multiple media artist-inventor, one of India’s erstwhile contemporary photographers.
“Look at the camera! Why are you looking at me?” she admonished.
It was the last picture of my project. For almost a year, I made pictures of Homai and her home, but I did not have a single photo with her. I requested a boy playing outside to shoot. When she shouted, I looked at the camera with some confusion. The kid made the photo and the clock struck one. It was time for her to rest. “Punctuality is very important for a photographer,” she would tell me. When I saw the image later, I realised why she had shouted. There she was, looking towards me and smiling, while I looked into the camera. I knew that look. I had seen it many times during our conversations.
When I started the project, it wasn’t about the first lady photojournalist, but someone who had played a crucial role in India’s history and yet, been left alone. It was about understanding her silence and loneliness. I realised that she had created her own world, a choice that she had made—keeping herself at a distance, yet observing everything. A silent observer, a teacher, an inventor, a mother, a photographer, I met all of them.
Now, as I sit at the Karelibaug crematorium, I realise that I can relate more to her silence, than her legacy.
—Ishaan Dixit, student of Photography Design at rhe National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad.
Rarely have I come across anyone as strongly willed and as fiercely independent as my great grand aunt.
In fact, she was the most resilient personI have ever known. If there was something to be done, she would not ask anyone for their counsel, support or approval. She would go ahead and do it on her own. She always had the clarity of thought and deed that can only be achieved by having the courage of conviction. I will certainly miss her presence but I am also happy and proud about the life she lived.
—Viraf Pavri, Homai Vyarawalla’s great grand nephew.
Some time back, I saw a young Homai run across the frame of an archival film made 65 years ago.
The photographs that she took minutes later captured the jubilance of this day—15 August 1947. History is often a story of important events and famous personalities. We see that in this film too as Lord Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru take their place in one kind of history. But if we looked more carefully, we would see other participants. Among them was this lone woman dressed in a sari who wrote a different kind of history as she ran across that movie frame, armed with two cameras.
As my 14-year journey with her comes to a close, I can only say that we need to celebrate the rich life of this incredible woman. Thank you Homai Vyarawalla for being part of my life. And for giving me access to yours.
—Sabeena Gadihoke, author of the book ‘Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla’.
All my childhood, my uncle Kulwant Roy would tell me about this crazy, energetic Parsi photographer.
And so, I grew up wanting to meet her. In 2008, when I finally met Homai Vyarawalla, she regaled me with anecdotes of those days. But, the best of all was a letter that she sent when she learned All my childhood, my uncle Kulwant Roy would tell me about this crazy, energetic Parsi photographer. that I was putting my uncle’s photos together. It was immensely moving—a warm gesture on the part of a largehearted lady. Her words strengthened my efforts toward building photographic archives. Indeed, with her passing, an era has come to an end.
—Aditya Arya, photographer and founder of the India Photo Archive Foundation.
K Madhavan Pillai, Editor, Better Photography recalls the first time he had met Homai Vyarawalla in his February 2012 editorial. Read it here.Tags: Aditya Arya, Ashim Ghosh, February 2012, Homai Vyarawalla, Ishaan Dixit, obituary, Parsi, photojournalist, Sabeena Gadihoke, tribute, Viraf Pavri, woman photojournalist