Ninety-year-old Homai Vyarawalla, India's first woman photojournalist, seems to have been forgotten by history. JUNE GAUR profiles 'Dalda 13'.
TO Homai Vyarawalla, India's first woman photojournalist, history seems to have delivered less than it had promised. Vyarawalla's political photographs are a vivid document of the turbulent years that heralded and followed Independence. Her striking images of the death of Gandhiji and the visits of international dignitaries such as Ho Chi Minh, Queen Elizabeth and Jackie Kennedy were stamped on public memory.
The world saw the optimism and jubilation of a newly liberated country through her pictures. But Vyarawalla herself was never in the limelight and after she retired in 1970, her name was all but forgotten. It was only during the golden jubilee of Independence that she began to get the appreciation she deserved. Among the long-overdue tributes to Vyarawalla's work is a documentary with the sub-title "A Talented Woman History Forgot".
A quaint sight in Lutyens' Delhi of the 1940s and 1950s, the sari-clad Vyarawalla bicycled around the town and clicked some of history's most unforgettable images of people and events. She carried her cumbersome equipment herself, kept a low profile and discouraged people from focusing on her. "I was very stern no hanky-panky and no unnecessary smiling which could be misconstrued. I would stand in a corner watchfully, taking pictures as the opportunities came. The other photographers would leave soon after they had taken their routine shots but I would always wait for an out of the ordinary picture."
Ninety-year-old Vyarawalla draws effortlessly on memory to evoke those early days of Indian photojournalism and the environment she worked in. "Those were the days when photography was a respected profession and the men I worked with prided themselves on decorum we were all siblings working together," she declares. She could cover an event like the Kurukshetra Mela and even spend the night at the venue because her colleagues were all gentlemen who were careful to avoid off-colour jokes and remarks when she was around. The camaraderie they shared would be unthinkable in these days of aggressive competition. Vyarawalla recalls the rehearsals for the Independence Day celebrations at the Red Fort. "The army general in charge of the drill was adamant that there should be no movement of photographers during the flag hoisting. They were to take up their positions at the flag post and the guard of honour and not move from these places. All of us boycotted the function and our editors supported us." The General apologised subsequently.
"Before this incident, there were hardly any restrictions and photographers could move about freely in political and diplomatic circles." Pandit Nehru, Vyarawalla's favourite subject, was particularly accessible and would be photographed with all and sundry who came to greet and hug him on occasions like Holi. These pictures would be prominently displayed in places such as barbers' shop-windows and paan shops till Panditji's security staff clamped down. "The security people were afraid for our leaders' safety and so they were often rude to press photographers. Whenever we went to the External Affairs Ministry, or to see Panditji, we had to submit our cameras for them to inspect. A few press photographers brought a bad name to the profession by gatecrashing embassy parties. Half an hour later, they would return with an album to pester the hosts." Vyarawalla, who never attended a party without an invitation card, recalls one occasion when an ambassador threw some of these photographers out. Disgusted and disillusioned with this new face of Indian photojournalism, Homai Vyarawalla decided to put away her camera for good.
The Ho Chi Minh visit .. among Vyarawalla's most striking images on record.
Vyarawalla blends maternal warmth with this professional acumen. She makes no bones about the fact that she took up photography because she could work as a team with her husband Maneckshaw, from whom she learnt the ropes. "If he'd been an architect, I'd have adopted his line of work." It was Vyarawalla's job to go out and get the pictures and Maneckshaw's to develop them. She was paid one rupee for each of her first eight pictures that were published in The Bombay Chronicle in 1938. Later, during the Second World War, Stanley Jepson, The Illustrated Weekly of India's editor, gave Vyarawalla weekly assignments and she covered every aspect of wartime activities in Bombay for The Weekly. People began to take notice of her.
"I began to do pictorial essays and stories about the lives of ordinary people. Versova has a lot of beaches and I described the lives of the fishermen and women there in pictures with captions. Then, the cotton industry the fields, the women collectors with their big bags, the cotton ginning the whole process was captured in pictures. This was something absolutely new in India at the time and even the government bought my pictures."
In 1942, the Vyarawallas moved to Delhi where the headquarters of the Far Eastern Bureau of the British Information Service were located. "Though I was on the payroll of the British Information Service, they allowed me to do private work outside office hours and would even get me assignments with some churches. After work, I would go to the Gymkhana; I covered social functions at the British High Commission and took pictures of prominent personalities for Onlooker, a `high society' magazine, and for Time and Life magazines too.
"There was a lot of political activity in Delhi and I was accredited with the government of India. There were no restrictions on press photographers in Rashtrapati Bhavan, which was then Government House. I remember being invited there to cover a function when Mountbatten was Governor-General. I wanted a high-angle shot so I got onto a table and people were very kind and tolerant perhaps because I was a woman. "In the years following Independence, Heads of State from around the world would descend on Delhi and grand banquets would be held in their honour at Rashtrapati Bhavan. Our ministers were very gracious and dignified then."
Always a firm believer in decorum, Vyarawalla was one of the founder members of the News-Cameramen's Association. "We had a very strict code of conduct and a dress code that required the men to wear closed collar shirts and trousers and shoes. I would go dressed in a sari as against the salwar-kameez I favoured for my bicycle-rounds of the capital, where it was safe for women to move around even at 1 a.m.
"Being a good photographer calls for skill in handling people. As a rule, I never asked my subjects to pose that would have made them look theatrical. People's moods and expressions are constantly changing and you have to be alert to capture them."
In the archives of photojournalism, Homai Vyarawalla appears only in her professional identity "Dalda 13". This unusual name "Dalda 13" is derived from her birth in 1913, her marriage at 13, and her first car's licence plate, "DLD 13". Now, the fascinating story of the woman behind the pictures has begun to emerge. The self-effacing Homai Vyarawalla will share her life in a book to be published by PARZOR, the UNESCO-supported project to spread awareness about Parsi Zoroastrian culture and its distinctive place in the rich tapestry of multicultural India. Sabeena Gadihoke, maker of the documentary "Three Women and a Camera" on pioneering Indian women photographers, has been entrusted with the work.
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