Her camera panned generations
The life and work of Homai Vyarawalla, India's first woman photographer, was history in itself. In the summer of 2012, her biographer Sabeena Gadihoke published, Whatever Happened To Rehana? an essay about some of Vyarawalla's frames of Mumbai from the 1930s and '40s, before she moved to Delhi. In a telephonic interview with Fiona Fernandez, Gadihoke reminisces several moments of this legend's journey, in front and behind the camera
How did you come in contact with Homai Vyarawalla? And when you did, what was it that struck you about her?
In 1997, I was working on a film on women photographers, as there was no evidence of women who operated the camera. At the time, I realised that we knew very little about the past. In fact, when I did look into Homai’s body of work, it was a revelation. While speaking of her to my aunt and her parents’ generation, I learnt that she had carved a niche in their popular memory that had somehow slipped away. By then, she was already in her 80s. She had given up photography in 1970 and had settled down in Baroda. I was fascinated by her life. When I began work on her biography (Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla, 2006), I would travel down to Baroda to spend time and document her life and work. She was an incredible woman; self sufficient and independent even in her old age. She drove a car (in her younger days, a bicycle), was brilliant at working with her hands — be it carpentry (including making furniture), gardening, flower arrangements and plumbing; she would even fix her slippers. Homai had also crafted a lovely nameplate (made from glass bangles) for her gate. Looking back at this exceptional woman, she was truly a pioneer of her times, being India’s only woman photographer. Secondly, she took incredible photographs at a time when candid photographs were greatly valued; we now recognise these frames as iconic moments in Indian history. She will always be admired as a photographer and a self-reliant woman.
It has been chronicled that Homai took up photography so she could work as a team with her husband, Maneckshaw. What did she tell you about those early days, about learning the ropes?
It’s more complicated; one needs to relate it to her times. She didn’t hail from an elite family but was born into a middle class family where not working wasn’t an option. She and her photographer husband Maneckshaw dated before they were married in Bombay (Mumbai). She learnt his trade, and so, the profession came easily to her. At that time, while in Bombay (Mumbai), her photos were printed under his name in publications like the The Bombay Chronicle. In the winter of 1942, the couple moved to Delhi and worked with the British Information Services that became the British High Commission later. Roles got reversed — Maneckshaw headed the dark room while she would go out and take photos.
Tell our readers about your recent essay — Whatever Happened to Rehana? — That you wrote this year, after Homai passed away?
In 2010, while curating a retrospective on her photographs for the Alkazi Foundation, I came across sections of her archive that got me thinking. I was fascinated by what I consider as the possibilities, had she not moved to Delhi where she captured nationalist politics as a press photographer. Her repertoire included the documentation of some of India’s most important political and national movements. This was because her career entailed her to do so. But before this period, in the 1930s and early ‘40s, she captured Bombay (Mumbai) — its streets, architecture and its people. There were images of her colleagues and students from her alma mater Sir JJ School of Art. Her photographs offer us an insight into the young, modern women of that era. She documented their independently led lives. We don’t know what happened to them finally, what turns their lives took, and their future. I was keen to unearth what could have happened to the faces within those frames. Since I had access to her archive, it was possible to scan these negatives — some were in brittle condition and needed to be restored. These frames make it possible for us to appreciate her work in Bombay (Mumbai).
Being a Gandhian and having lived and worked in the time when Gandhian ideas were at its peak, what were her perceptions about the Mahatma? Did she share any anecdotes of her interactions with him?
Homai admired Nehru a lot but she followed Gandhi’s ideals. She lived a simple, restrained life by choice. She would get annoyed when the press misinterpreted these choices. She donated all that was excess to different charities, and these were not just Zoroastrian institutions. Homai never wore her religion on her sleeve — it was internalised. She met Gandhi on several occasions. She would often speak of those times. Gandhi never liked camera flashes. There was this one incident where she was trying to get the right frame only to be told by the Father of the Nation, “She will leave only after making me go blind with her flashes!”
What were some of Homai’s most challenging, difficult assignments? Did she have any regrets of having missed a moment?
There were many tough projects. She mentioned the one related to the opening of the Bhakra Nangal dam. She regretted having missed being around when Gandhi was assassinated in Delhi. She was on her way to cover Gandhi’s session at the Birla House but at the time her husband called her back and she missed that most important frame.
What was her take on the emergence of the digital age and the phasing out of earlier techniques of photography?
She kept herself abreast with the times. She watched TV, read the newspapers and was a regular subscriber to Better Photography. She was clear that after “capping her lens” (photography parlance for calling it quits) in 1970, there was no looking back. She never returned to it, even in the late 1970s, when her son got married. This was understandable. After all, here was someone who lived a tough life — she would wake up at 4 am, juggle chores between the kitchen and the dark room, and step out on work. She did enough to last a lifetime. Now Homai wanted to find time to cook, bake, tend to her garden; she even acted in plays, and found time to spend with her son in Pilani.
What were your last memories of Homai?
I was by her side when she passed away. But I would prefer to recall a memory from earlier — when I surprised her on her 98th birthday, in Baroda a month earlier. Those were lovely moments. We went shopping, where she bought herself a new TV, we had a delightful tea party; it was a leisurely time. Just like when it would be while we worked on her biography. I would like to remember those times.