India’s first woman photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla fearlessly embraced the new in a constantly changing India, says Sabeena Gadihoke
1913 – 2012
DEAR SABEENA, so sorry for the late reply. Yes to New York trip if they arrange for both of us. Life is getting to be more difficult with passing days. Would love to escape. Warm hug.” That was a text message sent by 98-year-old Homai Vyarawalla to me in October last year. Homai hadn’t stopped writing letters in her beautiful handwriting but since my own correspondence with her of late had been so disappointingly sparse, perhaps she realised that this was a quicker way of communicating with me and the rest of the world. In her 90s, she learnt how to use a cell phone. In 2008, at the age of 96, she travelled across the Atlantic making her first ever journey abroad. Now she was ready to do it again.
Living on her own in Vadodara, Gujarat, for the past 30 years, India’s first woman press photographer Homai Vyarawalla lived life on her own terms. Born in 1913 to a Parsi family in Navsari, Gujarat, she was educated in Bombay at St Xaviers and the JJ School of Arts. Homai learnt photography from her friend Maneckshaw Vyarawalla and soon after her marriage to him, the couple moved to Delhi in 1942. Creator of a rich archive of historical images, her vast body of work straddled three decades, from the late 1930s to 1970. This was an extremely significant period in Indian history that spanned the birth of the nation and the two decades after, marking euphoria and disillusionment with undelivered promises. Homai Vyarawalla worked for the British High Commission and not surprisingly a significant part of her repertoire focussed on capturing official events in the capital. However, her employers did not discourage her from following her own independent subjects and Homai soon became a familiar figure at social and cultural events in the city. While she shot official histories as they unfolded, she also chronicled the lives of people like herself. The former found a permanent place in collective memory through acts of memorialisation, while the latter lie scattered in the personal archives of those who were privileged to have been photographed by her.
Preserved meticulously in boxes under her bed, Homai always worried about a safe haven for her work and it was with a great sense of relief that she supervised the packing and dispatch of her archive to the Alkazi Foundation in March 2010. She was extremely happy when a retrospective exhibition of her work at the NGMA travelled from Delhi to Mumbai and Bengaluru. At each venue, Homai insisted on being with us through the day as she supervised and watched us put up pictures. A few months after these shows came to an end, I received two text messages on my phone. The first one said, “Battery down. Both of the mobile and self for house cleaning. But otherwise am Ok.” The second one read, “There is no news about the Calcutta venue? And why is New York so far away in time?”
Gadihoke is Associate Professor at the AJK MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia and author of Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla.