In the era of Smartphones and DSLRs, we cannot even take a tour of someplace without clicking some pictures and ‘Selfies’. With great megapixels, clicking photos is not a big deal anymore; especially after the invention of the social media. But decades ago, Indian society did not have the same scenario. Cameras were expensive and not many people had the experience of handling it. During such an era, Homai Vyarawalla was an exception. Had she not only handled a camera, but she was a photographer. More accurately, she is the first female photojournalist of India. Let us hear out the story of ‘Lens Lady’ here.
Early Life of the ‘Lens Lady’
Born on 9th December 1913, Homai was a Parsi by birth. Although she was born in Navsari, Gujrat, her childhood was spent in different parts of India because of her father’s theatre profession. In respect to the then Indian society, Homai’s family was quite open-minded. However, they had a conservative side too which dictated Homai on her choice of attire for a long time. Homai’s family settled in Bombay in the year of 1932, and she started taking her artistic lesson at J. J. School of Art.
The Staircase to her Dreams
J. J. School of Art brought more changes than she could ever think. She not only found the love of her life, Manekshaw Vyarawalla, but the supporting tree that helped her grow. Manekshaw was the first person who showed the tricks of a camera and helped Homai learn about handling a camera. Manekshaw inspired her through the works of the camera, and finally, Homai decided to be a photojournalist. In the background of the British India, her choice was a tough one, but she decided to take a chance.
The Journey of Homai Vyarawalla – First Lady of the Lens
As she had the support of her liberal parents, she did not have to face many obstacles with her choice, be it her love life or her career. The 1930s’ India, in the wake of World War II, was the first background of Homai’s photojournalism. She started working with a magazine named ‘The Illustrated Weekly of India.’ Many of her works with this magazine became famous photographs later. However, she still did not gain her fame as her photographs were often published under her husband’s name who was a photographer for the Times of India.
In between the year of 1940-1942, Homai started earning her own name after her photographs included many famous figures of the then Indian politics such as Gandhi ji, Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Indira Gandhi and much more. She has many photographs of famous politicians under her name. Reportedly, her favorite subject was Jawaharlal Nehru. Most of her photographs were published under a pseudonym, ‘Dalda 13’.
Her photography career took a huge turn after her husband died in 1969. She moved in with her son Farouq and started living in Pilani. She left her photography career forever. And when asked Why, she replied:
“It was not worth it anymore. We had rules for photographers; we even followed a dress code. We treated each other with respect, as colleagues. But then, things changed for the worst. They were only interested in making a few quick bucks; I didn’t want to be part of the crowd anymore.”
Later she gave all her works to Alkazi Foundation. In 2010, Homai received First National Photo Award for Lifetime Achievement. And in the year of 2011, she was awarded Padma Vibhushan. She passed away on 15th January 2012 due to several breathing complications at the age of 98.
It is surprising, how we know so much about photography nowadays but we know very little of such a legend. She was not only the first female photojournalist of India, but she set a milestone for today’s generation photographers that cannot be ignored. More power to her and may her soul rest in peace!
Written By: Subharthi Bhattacharya