Face to face with a living legend: An evening with Homai Vyarawalla

I got interested in photography about 3 years back and as it often happens with a new interest, related things also come into the focus of that interest—in this case it was photographers and their works. One photographer, whose name kept cropping up was that of Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first woman photojournalist. While I was curious about her work, I must admit that I didn’t really go out of my way to know more about her apart from reading the mandatory Wikipedia article and the stray media reports and photographs that would appear now and then.

Homai Vyarawalla

Therefore, it was serendipity when I noticed an invite for the inauguration of a retrospective of Homai Vyarawalla’s photographs on February 25, 2011. Curated by Sabeena Gadihoke, “Homai Vyarawalla: A Retrospective” was being held at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai, in collaboration with the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi.

It was even more serendipitous that I had meetings near the NGMA that day and could attend the inauguration without taking time off from work. 🙂 I arrived early at the NGMA and as I was debating whether to go in or try to grab a quick cup of coffee, a car drew up to the entrance. I knew it had to be someone important, as the NGMA does not allow cars to come in. Two women stepped out, one of whom was Sabeena Gadihoke (as I found out later), and the other was Homai Vyarawalla herself. I had very obviously only noticed the invite, and not read it, as I wasn’t aware that Homai would be present for her retrospective! Since I was standing at the entrance, I found myself face to face with her. As I gaped at her, she smiled at me and said a warm hello as she was helped up the stairs. And what was my response? I continued gaping at her and just about managed to nod my head in acknowledgement !

Some of Homai Vyarawalla’s photographs at the NGMA

After this awful display of manners, I decided to forego that coffee and entered the NGMA premises to a world of black and white photographs, a world of pre-independent India, a newly Independent India, and snippets from everyday life in Bombay (now Mumbai) of the 1940s and Delhi in the 1950s and 1960s. A world of nostalgia and history.

[The]… exhibition portrays an illustrated journey through the rich photographic world of India’s first woman press photographer… [who] photographed the last days of the British Empire and the birth of a new nation… The exhibition acknowledges [her] role as a pioneer among women and her contribution to early photojournalism in India. The great value of her work lies in photographs that archive the nation in its infancy documenting the euphoria of independence. (From the press release)

Homai Vyarawalla

As I waited for the inauguration to begin, I walked around looking at the photographs, some of them  tagged with Homai’s observations, notes or comments. There are photographs of the June 3, 1947, session of the Indian National Congress, where its leaders voted for the partition of India: Nehru raising his hand to support the motion for partition, and another photograph with Maulana Azad sitting dejectedly with his face in his hands as Rajaji, who is seated next to him, appears to console him. There was a stunning photograph of the national flag being unfurled for the first time at the Red Fort on August 15, 1947, with what appears to be the entire country spread out before the flag.

The tricolour being hoisted for the first time at the Red Fort on August 15, 1947

As I walked around, an unfamiliar emotion welled up inside me. It took me a little while to recognise that emotion as patriotism. I do not wear my patriotism on my sleeve, but there was something about the photographs that was so deeply stirring and moving, that it was difficult not to be affected by it.

The Gateway of India

The retrospective also showcases 30 photographs of my beloved city, Bombay, taken between 1937–42 and which have been never exhibited before. These include two beautiful shots of the Gateway of India, scenes of Parsi families enjoying a day out on the beach, students of the JJ School of Art picnicking or studying, etc.

But my favourite one has to be that of the photograph of a policeman standing on a table in the middle of the road and directing the Ganpati visarjan procession. His back is to the camera, one hand on the hip and the other hand raised to direct the traffic. This photo captures attitude and how!

A policeman directing the ganpati visarjan procession in Bombay.

It is not only Homai’s photographs that are being exhibited at the retrospective, but also the cameras that she used, her press cards, and her work for magazines like the now defunct The Illustrated Weekly of India. Seeing the size of cameras, I wonder how she lugged them around !

The cameras of Homai Vyarawalla

Inaugurated by Charles Correa, the retrospective was a short, but intense affair. In spite of the usual speeches, punctuated by applause and some humourous remarks, the event conveyed the seriousness of all the people concerned in putting up this retrospective. All the speakers were unanimous in declaring the work of Homai Vyarawalla as a national heritage, and also in their mission to involve the larger public, beyond the exhibition walls, in understanding and preserving this heritage of ours.

The lamp lighting ceremony at the inauguration. Sabeena Gadihoke is at extreme left and Homai is next to her

In her speech, Sabeena Gadihoke mentioned how Homai Vyarawalla did not own a single photograph or negative today. While Homai had “recently given away her entire collection of prints, negatives, cameras and other memorabilia to the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, on permanent loan for safekeeping and documentation”, there were many more photographs that she had just given away and had no record of it. Sabeena made an impassioned plea for the importance of such photographs to be scanned and archived and requested anyone who had an original Vyarawalla photo come forward and share it. You could have heard a pin drop when Sabeena said this, as most of the people in the audience must have found it difficult to imagine giving away their creations just like that.

Homai Vyarawalla signing autographs at the NGMA, Mumbai. Photo Courtesy: http://aajartmediapoint.blogspot.com/

After the inauguration was over, people lined up to take autographs of Homai Vyarawalla. I purchased a set of 6 prints of Homai’s photographs and got her autograph on a photograph of the Connaught Place in New Delhi in the early 1950s (I would have loved to take her autograph on a Bombay photograph, but unfortunately, the set did not include any image of the city).

Apart from requesting people to not use the flash while photographing her, Homai did not complain at all, even though one could see her getting tired as she continued signing autograph after autograph. She remained smiling and had a personal word for everyone who came up to her for an autograph. This time around, I did not gape and remembered my manners !

As I was leaving the Gallery after having got my autograph, I saw this poster tucked behind one of the entrance doors. I was struck by the expression on the Dalai Lama’s face captured so beautifully by Homai. One cannot miss the look of optimism on his face.

A young, youthful and optimistic Dalai Lama

Homai Vyarawalla is a living legend, a term that I have always considered to be an oxymoron, and a term that I don’t like very much as these days just about everybody is packaged and marketed as one. Legends are created by adding myths, or spicing it up with half-truths and half-lies, and an eccentricity or two. But then, as I found out to my absolute delight that evening, it need not always be so.

I was truly privileged to meet a living legend that evening. Homai Vyarawalla’s work speaks volumes that cannot be expressed in words or in one blog post. She was a pioneer in every sense of the word and as a woman in a man’s world like photography, her work assumes even more importance. Today, Homai Vyarawalla is 97 years old and she has seen almost a century of events in our country. A century that has seen radical changes in every aspect of life, some of which she has recorded those events for posterity for us and for the future generations to come.

I will be going back to see, savour and experience another India at the retrospective, an India that existed before I was born. The exhibition ends on April 10, 2011, so I have time to see it one more time. And please do make time for the retrospective, if you haven’t seen it yet.

I am not a great fan of “token celebrations” like Women’s Day, but I felt inspired by  Homai Vyarawalla and, therefore, will make an exception this year. On the occasion of International Women’s Day today, I wish all my readers a Happy Women’s Day 🙂

17 thoughts on “Face to face with a living legend: An evening with Homai Vyarawalla

  1. wow… she is awesome… thank you so much for this great opportunity to know about her and meet her through your post… she is adorable… thank you so much again…
    Happy Woman’s day…

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    1. Thank you for stoping by and commenting, Pooja. Do try and see the exhibition if you can, either here or in Bangalore where it moves to next. A Happy Women’s Day to you too.

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  2. Welcome to my blog, Maneesh. Yes, I do feel very privileged and lucky to have met her and also seen her work. Do try and see the exhibition either at Mumbai or Bangalore where it moves to next.

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    1. Thanks, Punit. Even I didn’t know much about Homai Vyarawalla till I went for the inauguration of her Retrospective. She is one inspiring person. If you get a chance to see any exhibition of her photographs, do not miss it.

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    1. Thank you so much. Mystique Pree, for your lovely comments as well as for stopping by. Homai’s post is very special for me too as she is such an inspirring person. I always think it is a pity that people (and women) like her are not thought about as inspiring. I think that she deserves a Bharat Ratna.

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  3. What a coincidence, I was looking at the photographs taken by her and getting nostalgic and now you showed me the whole gallery. The photogallery must have looked like the History of the Indian republic. She continues to inspire petty photographers like me.

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