Homai Vyarawala: An Obituary

Born in Navsari (south Gujarat) on 9 December, 1913, Homai Vyarawala was a graduate of St. Xavier’s College, Bombay, where she received a diploma. Later, she studied painting at the prestigious Sir J.J. School of Art.

Vyarawala only became interested in photography because of her husband, Manekshaw’s passion for the subject. The first photographs she ever took, of a picnic she attended, were published in the Bombay Chronicle in 1935, which paid her one rupee for every photograph printed. Over the course of her career, she also freelanced for the War Office, the British Information Services, and the Illustrated Weekly of India.

In 1942, she moved to Delhi with Manekshaw and their three-month old son Farooque. Here began her journey in the male-dominated world of photojournalism and the documentation Indian history. The beauty and grace of her images from this time lay in the fact that they were simple, shot only with the intent of capturing a moment and doing her job perfectly. A gentle and quiet photographer, she also made sure her subjects were at ease with her presence.

Unfortunately, in 1970, her affair with the camera was to end prematurely at the peak of her career, following the tragic death of her husband in 1969. In addition to this personal loss, to be the only professional woman photojournalist at the time was certainly not a cakewalk. She had begun to feel the changing trends in professional photography, which had resulted in a general disregard of the ethics and etiquette she was used to, and decided to withdraw from the field.

As she recalled, “It was not worth it anymore. We had rules for photographers; we even followed a dress code. We treated each other with respect, like colleagues. But then, things changed for the worse. They [the new generation of photographers] were only interested in making a few quick bucks; I didn't want to be part of the crowd anymore.”

Vyarawala moved to Pilani to live with her son Farooque who was a teacher there. From her glamour filled life in Delhi and the respect she enjoyed in its political and social circles, the photographer turned to a quiet life of anonymity in Pilani. No one there knew of her as a professional photographer, until one day it made it to the news that she was living there. In 1982, Vyarawala moved to Baroda, Gujarat, along with her son and daughter in law.

In Baroda, a small circle of friends, along with daughter in law Dhun Vyarawala who survives her (Farooque passed away in 1989), made up her family. All of them affirm that she had the same passion we can see in her photographs for the things she turned to following her retirement from the field. Be it her relationship with her car, her plants, cooking, or creating customized knick knacks for her home out of various recycled materials.

During her thirty years in Baroda, Homai quietly and insistently went about doing most of her tasks by herself. She had no time to make any complaints about her life, and believed in and practiced living this life as fully as possible. “She once told me during our usual meet that she was alone but not lonely” says Biren Kothari, a Baroda based writer-biographer and a close friend of the photographer.

In 2006, a monograph on Vyarawala’s career titled ‘India in Focus: Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla’, written by Sabeena Gadihoke, was published. A few years later, in 2010, a large-scale retrospective of her work was held at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi and Mumbai in association with the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, the custodian of her extensive archives. In April 2011, Vyarawala was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian award.

Earlier this month, when every news line informed us that Homai Vyarawala passed away in a private hospital following a fall at home, we feel like an era has ended. Nonetheless, her photographic images continue to inspire us with their magical realism. Each of the frames looks alive. Almost as if the subjects might speak up any moment; or perhaps if we paid them a little more attention, we might hear what they are saying.

The power of her iconic images is so profound that, even decades after her retirement from the world of photography, her images haunt us. Homai Vyarawala will always be remembered her for the black and white melodies she painted through her lens. As her biographer and close friend, Gadihoke notes, “Not only was she an incredible pioneer and outstanding professional, she showed us how we could live outside of conventional family structures with complete self-reliance and uncompromising dignity.”

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