First woman photo journalist of India passes away

Vadodara: India`s first woman photo journalist Homai Vyarawala, who captured the flag hoisting ceremony at Red Fort on August 15, 1947 and several historic events, died at a private hospital here this morning at the age of 98. The 2011 Padma Vibhushan winner fell from her bed three days ago and was admitted at a private hospital, doctors said.

Her husband Maneckshaw Vyarawala predeceased her. She is survived by her ailing daughter-in-law, who stays in Jamshedpur. Born on December 9, 1913 to a Parsi family, Vyarawala grew up in Mumbai and moved to Delhi in 1942 where she photographed events leading to Independence, as an employee of the British Information Services. Her work that spanned four decades included both the euphoria of the Independence as well as the disillusionment with undelivered promises in the new nation state.

She was the only professional woman photojournalist between 1939 and 1970, as she survived the male-dominated field, making her presence more significant because of the codes of this profession that largely continue to exclude women even today. She took photographs of key events that would have a decisive impact on Indian history, including a meeting where leaders voted for the June 3 plan for India`s partition.

She also photographed the departure of Lord Mountbatten from India and the funerals of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri. Vyarawala had been living alone in Vadodara after the death of her husband in 1970. According to her neighbour Amarnath Mishra, she had fractured her back due to the fall. "Soon after learning that she had fallen off her bed, my wife rushed to her house and shifted her to the hospital," he told PTI.

Because of her old age it was not possible to carry out a surgery, he said. Vyarawala was active till she breathed her last, Mishra said, adding her funeral would be held tomorrow. An obtrusive photographer who liked to capture her subjects in their natural poses, Vyarawala has also covered the visits of Queen Elizabeth and former US President Dwight D Eisenhower.

She took a number of memorable photographs during her career. Her favourite subject was Nehru, about whom she once said, "He used to get surprised whenever he saw me in his functions and used to remark `you too have come here?" She was in the profession for nearly four decades before retiring in the early 1970s.

Vyarawala worked under a different professional name and the identity she had chosen was `Dalda 13`. The reasons behind her choice of this rather amusing name were that her birth year was 1913, she got married at the age of 13 and her first car`s number plate read `DLD 13`. In February 2006, a book documenting Vyarawala`s works "India in Focus – Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawala" By Sabeena Gadihoke was also published.

Many of her photographs were published as photo-stories in the Illustrated Weekly of India, Time, Life, The Black Star, Paul Popper and numerous other international publications. Her other pictures include a series of pictures on a day in the life of Indian firemen during wartime, right from receiving a distress call to sliding down poles into an appliance room, from picking up uniforms neatly arranged in rows to dousing the fire. It appeared in the Illustrated Weekly of India in the 1940s.