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This new picture book by Nandita da Cunha is inspired by Homai Vyarawalla's work

Updated on: 15 April,2023 08:48 AM IST  |  Mumbai
The Guide Team |

Nandita da Cunha’s latest picture book takes readers back to pre-independent Bombay, giving a peek into a story inspired by Homai Vyarawalla’s passion for photography

This new picture book by Nandita da Cunha is inspired by Homai Vyarawalla's work

Illustrations by Priya Kuriyan depict events that lend context to Pari or Homai Vyarawalla’s first ever byline in the newspaper. PICS COURTESy/EKTARA

A woman was once at the Rashtrapati Bhavan to report a function. When she lifted her arms to take a top-angle snap, one of her blouse sleeves tore. While the onlookers laughed, she ripped the torn sleeve off, pulled the other sleeve out too, and continued working. That was Homai Vyarawalla — the country’s first woman photojournalist, who traversed the busy streets of Bombay in search of the perfect shot. Who Clicked That Pic? (Ektara) narrates the story of this young and gutsy woman who went around on a bicycle with a nine-kg Rolleiflex camera strapped around her shoulder to become a woman photographer — something unheard of in those times. Nandita da Cunha, together with illustrator Priya Kuriyan’s enlivening illustrations, weaves in fiction with truth to present the context to 
Vyarawalla’s first ever byline. Here are excerpts from our chat with Cunha:

Why did you take the fictional route to tell the photographer’s story?
Who Clicked that Pic? is a work of fiction that blends several events from the photographer’s life into a single, imagined event in the life of a young girl called Pari. Pari is trying to click that perfect Ganesh Charturthi photo. There are 10 photos left in her precious film-roll and in the midst of processions and vendors, chaos and bloopers, the countdown begins! The intent was to lead the reader into the emotional ups and downs of an adventurous story, which brings out Vyarawalla’s personality and values. At the end, there’s a note that provides the biographical context and the links between the story and actual events from her life.

What were some of the fascinating learnings that you came across in the course of your research for this book?
Vyarawalla was a woman in a man’s world, whose photographs literally captured India in transition — from the 1930s to post Independence. Hers was also a trailblazing journey. I was also fascinated by her perspectives — the black and white photographs that she preferred for their depth; her belief in split second photography, wherein you click it or miss it; and her rapport with those whom she photographed.

Nandita da Cunha and Priya Kuriyan
Nandita da Cunha and Priya Kuriyan

How did you and Priya [Kuriyan] jam to make the illustrations talk to the reader in a less-serious way and yet, offer an amazing perspective about a pathbreaker?
Priya has captured the times and characters in her illustrations brilliantly, with incredible detail, accuracy and flair. We shared research and photographs relating to the photojournalist’s life, and then Bombay. The final blend of text and image of this fun-filled romp will hopefully appeal to both young and adult readers. 

How did you zero in on these particular milestones from Vyarawalla’s life that went on to become Pari’s story?
Different moments from her life were selected to depict a unique facet of her personality. For instance, the blouse incident at Rashtrapati Bhavan shows how nothing could distract Vyarawalla. So while researching, I selected 10 such moments from her life, each bringing out values such as focus, wit, a no-nonsense approach and integrity; and wove them into a single narrative.

What, according to you, are the three big lessons that readers can take away from Homai Vyarawalla/Pari’s life?
Homai had a strong personal code of conduct. She strongly guarded her subjects’ privacy, leading to great trust. In fact, she gave up photography at the peak of her career as she did not like the new ‘paparazzi’ culture, which often did not respect a subject’s privacy. I equally admire her perseverance in following her passion for photography, at a time when it was difficult for women to be accepted as professional photographers. Above all, her iconic photographs reveal how her rapport with her subjects, and her patience in waiting for that perfect moment, led to her capturing candid, heartfelt moments amidst a larger, political backdrop.    

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