Portrait of a Lady

 

The following is Better Photography’s Editor K Madhavan Pillai’s editorial from February 2012. He pays tribute to India’s first lady photojournalist, the late Homai Vyarawalla.

The 1940s were exciting times for a photojournalist. A new nation was being born. The yoke of foreign rule was being flung off by a country whose leaders preached and practised nonviolence. Photojournalists from all over the world had converged on India to witness our extraordinary freedom struggle. They also saw something that was quite unique in those days… a small, sharp witted woman, clad in a sari, expertly clicking pictures on a heavy, homemade dual-Rolleiflex rig with a single flash unit, that allowed two simultaneous exposures to be captured with a single release. At the time, little did they know that the enterprising young woman, who had endeared herself to our leaders back then with her spirit and enthusiasm, and who rarely failed to get her shot, would go on to make history as India’s very first lady photojournalist and professional photographer.

Homai with her Speedgraphix camera. Image Courtesy: Homai Vyarawalla Archive/Alkazi Collection of Photography

Homai with her Speedgraphix camera. Image Courtesy: Homai Vyarawalla Archive/Alkazi Collection of Photography

The very first time I met Homai was for an interview in 1998, which was later published in Better Photography. She was 84. I was 21. I was quite apprehensive, wondering how the conversation would unfold. By the time I left, several hours later, I was already half in love with her. Here was a lady who was larger than life, not because she was overtly glamourous or because she had achieved so much. What struck me was her warmth, simplicity, truthfulness, patience, curiosity, clarity of thought, and, most of all, her incredible grace. And also that she lived alone, drove a car, shopped for herself, washed her own clothes, prepared her own meals, did her own dishes, repaired her broken furniture and made her own shelves.

Homai photographed India being born. Her photography captured the idealistic fervour and the exultant mood of a people demanding freedom with one voice.

Homai was always a picture of strength, courage, conviction and passion, right up to the very end. She demanded punctuality and attention to detail from all who worked with her. She delivered no less. It took all of these to build professional relationships, develop trust and demand respect from her fellow photojournalists in a wholly male-dominated field. From the late 1930s to the early 1970s, Homai photographed India being born. The beauty of her photography was that it captured the idealistic fervour and the exultant mood of a people demanding freedom with one voice.

Jawaharlal Nehru at the Asian Games in New Delhi. Photograph/Homai Vyarawalla. Image Courtesy: Homai Vyarawalla Archive/Alkazi Collection of Photography

Jawaharlal Nehru at the Asian Games in New Delhi. Photograph/Homai Vyarawalla. Image Courtesy: Homai Vyarawalla Archive/Alkazi Collection of Photography

With the coming of paparazzi journalism, sensationalist press photography and dirty politics, Homai preferred to quietly stop shooting. A similar sort of joy in photojournalistic work has rarely, if ever, been seen since then. Yet, the spirit of idealism never left Homai. A completely self-made, independent woman, she lived her life in relative anonymity, without seeking recognition for any of her achievements, until her work was rediscovered in the early 1990s. Since then, she has never been known to refuse speaking with students or helping them with their projects, or refuse invitations to inaugurate exhibitions, despite her age and failing health. She still demanded absolute timeliness, and continued to live her life in the way she saw fit.

Towards the end of my interview, I remember asking Homai the difference in the people then and now. “Back then, if we found a pile of rubbish on the road, we would cross over to the other side and walk past. Today, I find that people would rather step over the rubbish to get to where they are going,” she replied.

She was a true Gandhian,who left us with the knowledge and the meaning of idealism and spirit.

Homai Vyarawalla was conferred with the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian award, in January 2011. On January 15th, 2012, she passed away. Her cremation was attended by close family and friends, and just a few photojournalists who were there because it was their ‘assignment’ for the day. For those who knew Homai, her legacy extends beyond her photographs. She was a true Gandhian, who left us with the knowledge and the meaning of idealism and spirit.

Tags: February 2012, Homai Vyarawalla, india, remembering Homai, tribute, woman photojournalist