Google remembers Homai Vyarawalla, India’s 1st woman photojournalist

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Mumbai: Google on Saturday dedicated a special doodle acknowledging Homai Vyarawalla — India’s first woman photojournalist — on her 104th birth anniversary.

Vyarawalla, regarded as India’s “first lady of the lens”, is known for her electric images of India’s independence movement and candid shots of the likes of the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The black-and-white doodle, designed by Mumbai artist Sameer Kulavoor, depicts a smiling, young Vyarawalla happily clicking away with an “ancient” camera with its leather cover flap danging.

The crowded but scenic backdrop comprises many of her photo subjects and themes shown in a dual-tone sepia-tint, reminiscent of the glorious days before colour photography was introduced to the world.

Homai Hathiram was born on this day in 1913, to a semi-literate Parsi couple Dossabhai and Soonabai Hathiram, in Navsari area (now a bustling South Gujarat town) of the erstwhile Bombay Province.

Keen to give her the best of education, the Hathiram couple moved to Bombay (now, Mumbai) and admitted her to a local school where there were barely half a dozen girls, and Vyarawalla was the only girl among 36 students to complete her matriculation.

Fighting all social prejudices and family pressures, she did not give up and joined the St. Xaviers College before graduating in Economics with honours from the University of Bombay.

Though most of her childhood was spent like a nomad, moving from place to place with her father’s travelling theatre company, she subsequently enrolled for a course at the prestigious Sir J.J. School of Arts and launched her photographic career in the mid-1930s.

Those were exciting days when the Indian freedom struggle was peaking. There were ominous signs of the Second World War and its onset gave her a break to work on assignments for the now-defunct magazine, The Illustrated Weekly Of India.

Meanwhile, she had married Manekshaw J. Vyarawalla, an accountant-cum-lensman with The Times Of India group in Bombay, and Homai Vyarawalla’s initial pictures were published in his name since a woman photographer was an undiscovered species on the country’s media horizon!

Her talent and hard work paid off, media houses and celebrities started taking note of her stunning black-and-white images at the national level, especially after she moved to Delhi in 1942 and joined the British Information Services (BIS).

There, she shot the meeting where Congress members voted for the partition of India.

She went on to document many important moments in the country’s journey to independence and chronicled everything from Gandhi’s cremation to the Dalai Lama’s entrance into India.

Vyarawalla may have caught some of the 20th century’s most prominent figures in her lens, but from the 1940s through the 1960s in New Delhi, she was a familiar sight herself, Google said.

Often using a pen-name “Dalda 13” signifying her birth year, the age of 13 when she met her future husband, and her first car registration No. DLD 13, Homai soon became a sought after and a commonly seen photojournalist among the political high profiles and celebs, covering mega-events before and after India’s Independence in 1947.

She captured in her lens top personalities like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, the Mountbatten couple, Indira Gandhi and her husband Feroze Gandhi, the other members of the Nehru-Gandhi clan, other Indian and foreign leaders, US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth II and many more.

Travelling in a sari, often commuting on a bicycle, at most big events, people would stare at Homai Vyarawalla, the only woman photographer, keeping a safe distance away from the jostling crowds of lensmen, considered often out of place, but still in the thick of things.

Many of her images were picked up by top Indian and foreign newspapers and magazines including Time, giving her international recognition and catapulting her to virtually an iconic status in the country.

In 1973, after the death of her husband, she completely retired from photography, left Bombay permanently for Baroda (now Vadodara), and later lived for nearly a decade in Rajasthan, where her only son Farrokh was a teacher at BITS, Pilani.

A decade later in 1982, she and her son returned to Baroda and Farrokh succumbed to cancer in 1989.

Homai Vyarawalla continued to live alone in a small house there till her demise at the age of 99 on January 15, 2012 — and she had not clicked a single photo for almost the entire four decades of her life as a widow.

Instead, she spent most of her time gardening and later donated all her photographs and collections to the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts.

She was decorated with several honours including the Padma Shri, the Padma Bhushan and in 2011, the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian award, at the hands of then President Pratibha Patil.

Once in an interview, explaining her decision to quit photography abruptly, she spoke out her mind on the new generation of photographers whom she found “badly behaved and uncouth”, having little respect for colleagues and only interested in making money.

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