Homai Vyarawalla: My interaction with the grand old lady (First Person)January 15th, 2012 - 9:38 pm ICT by IANS
I remember when I first met Homai Vyarawalla. She sat in front of us calm and collected. For me, she was an awe-inspiring figure, a myth that I suddenly realised to be a reality.
That was 2004. Now on a Sunday eight years later, when I heard of her death, a sudden rush of memories took over… the memories of my first interaction with India’s first professional woman photographer.
Being a student of journalism and communication studies at Vadodara’s M.S. University, photography was one of my interests. While Vyarawalla’s was a name widely known, it came as a welcome surprise when we, as students, were told she would be with us for the next two hours.
While I watched a documentary on her with an open mouth, I realised that what I knew about her was only the tip of the iceberg. The frail lady I saw sitting in front of me, was no less than a tigress at work.
And she proved just that while answering questions after the screening of the documentary. Although deaf, Vyarawalla had a resounding note to her voice and spoke clearly and loudly like an orator.
When I asked her about her views on the current generation of photographers and her words of advice for them, she was soon to mock them, stating that they would not need a frail old lady boring them with her lecture.
Vyarawalla often lamented the “bad behaviour” of the new generation of photographers. She said that she did not shoot anymore as she thought it was no longer worth it. She reminisced how photographers had a code and a rulebook and treated each other with respect.
She said photography today is reduced to only cut-throat competition and nothing more.
Later, I kept hearing stories about her minimal public appearances. Mostly, she kept to herself and rode in her Fiat all across Vadodara. She stayed on the upper floor of a tenement which was rented out to her in Nizampura area of the city and considered it to be her own. She moved there in 1973 after she lost her husband. Her son had passed away in 1970.
She even did all her chores by herself. She did her own cooking, carpenting, plumbing, electric fitting and even small repairs to her car.
Again after a spell of long silence, friends in Vadodara told me that Vyarawalla had managed to get a Tata Nano out-of-turn.
In August 2009, company officials handed her the keys of a swank new red Tata Nano after she wrote to the company cancelling her booking. She said she had waited enough and no longer required the car.
However, she gracefully accepted the car after the officials personally handed it over to her on Pateti day.
That was the last I heard of her and on Sunday, when I hear of her death, my memories left me wanting for one more meeting, one more handshake with the grand old lady.
Along with being remembered as India’s first professional woman photographer, Vyarawalla will also be remembered as “The Grand Old Lady” who, at 98, did all her chores by herself and took a flight of stairs at least twice a day.
Vyarawalla died in Vadodara Sunday, days after being hospitalised due to a fall from her bed, close friends said.
According to neighbours she has slipped and developed a fracture of the hip. “It took some time for the neighbours to find out she had a fall. They had then taken her to the hospital Thursday,” said Sabeena Gadioke, an associate who called on her from time to time.
However, according to doctors attending on her, it was not the fracture that took her down. She developed severe breathing problems which was too difficult for her handle. She was also suffering from lung congestion which ultimately led her to trouble in breathing and then her death.
Vyarawalla is survived only by her ailing daughter-in-law, who stayed in Jamshedpur in Jharkhand. “She has been informed and is on her way to Vadodara. She, too, is not keeping well,” Gadioke said.
Born on December 9, 1913 to a Parsi family in Navsari (Gujarat), Vyarawalla studied at Mumbai University, the then Bombay University and did her arts diploma from Sir J.J. School of Arts.
She started working soon after in late 1930s before moving to Delhi in 1942 where she photographed the first flag hoisting of independent India in 1947.
The grand old lady, as she was called, had several accolades to her credit including the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honour.
Vyarawalla took a number of memorable photographs during her career. Her favourite subject was India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
(Mauli Buch can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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Tags: answering questions, bad behaviour, communication studies, first person, m s university, new generation, old lady, open mouth, orator, professional woman, public appearances, sudden rush, tenement, throat competition, tigress, tip of the iceberg, university photography, welcome surprise, woman photographer, words of advice