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     Volume 5 Issue 86 | March 17, 2006 |

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Homai Vyarawalla
Capturing History

Kavita Charanji

Homai Vyarawalla in 2002

Medicine, teaching and nursing--these were the only career options in the 1930s and 1940s for women in our part of the world. One woman dared to break the mould and emerge as India's first woman photo journalist. Her name is Homai Vyarawalla, all of 93 years old, whose works were on display recently at Lalit Kala Akademi in New Delhi.

Homai's riveting black and white photographs have captured magical moments in time. There are the works on Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Lord Mountbatten and other dignitaries. Some of them reveal the less known side of these personalities: Nehru at a YWCA flower show (February 25, 1950), in a cat mask at grandson Sanjay Gandhi's birthday, with the famous , visually, hearing and speech impaired Helen Keller. Other personalities are the young Dalai Lama, Dr Martin Luther and his wife Coretta Scot King and Jackie Kennedy.

The photographs also depict the ethos of the time, ranging from a photograph of a fox hunt revived by General KM Cariappa, the first commander in chief of the Indian Army soon after Independence to British men and women dressed a la mode jiving at the famous Delhi Gymkhana Club.

The Parsi community, to which Homai belongs, is also on display in the photographs. Among the notable works is that of Parsi women making traditional Parsi chalk patterns, a Fire Temple, the Parsi prayer of Thanksgiving and women from the community who participated in the Air Raid Precaution Training during World War II. Apart from this selection is a kaleidoscopic view of India, as for instance, the crowds in Connaught Place, Delhi's shopping complex (also known as Pearl Necklace) and the Jama Masjid during Eid prayers in Delhi.

Parsi Women in an air raid training during World War II

Why did Homai opt for photo journalism? Firstly she learnt photography with the help of Maneckshaw, later to become her husband. Her early pictures were published under his name and the Vyarawallas became a reputed team zeroing in on people and professions as diverse as fisher folk and firemen. Secondly, the medium was challenging. In Homai's words, " In my view, photo journalism as a profession carries with it a great deal of responsibility in the sense it can make or mar the destiny of an individual or even a nation."

Homai's first photographs were published in the Bombay Chronicle. The newspaper published a whole page of her pictures and paid her a sum of Rs 1 for each one. Her early work was as a freelancer for the Illustrated Weekly of India. Then she joined the Far Eastern Bureau of the British Information Services.

After freelance work for SPAN. Life and other international publications, she finally gave up photography in 1970. Concurrent with the exhibition was the release of a book titled India in Focus, Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla, authored by Sabeena Gadihoke. Behind the book and the exhibition is the hand of the UNESCO Parzor Foundation, which seeks to research and document the vulnerable heritage of the Parsi Zoroastrians of India.

It has been rough going for Homai. She still bears the scars from the deaths of her husband and son and currently lives in Vadodara, India where she tends to her plants and her home along with putting her vast collection of photographs in order. "I am busy getting old. Though I like to take general photographs of streets and common people, I am not into political photography in a milieu where dignity and discipline are no longer a virtue."

Homai, herself a Parsi took many pictures of Parsi women including those who had taken training for World War II

Homai has a word of advice for young women photographers: "Women's first priority should be the welfare of the family. Neglecting the homefront or even abandoning the very idea of having a family.. could become a cause for heart wrenching regrets in later life."

Homai's historical snap of Mahatma Gandhi with Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan

Courtesy Unesco Parzor

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