In this 19-year old unpublished interview Homai Vyarawalla speaks at length about herself, of the post-partition riots at Connaught Place and why she gave up photography in the 1970s.
Photogrpahs: the Homai
Alkazi Collection of Photography
(1913-2012) was perhaps the first Indian photojournalist of renown.
Where talent was concerned she compared with the best Indian photojournalists.
Her work had an intimacy scarcely evident in the pictures of her male colleagues.
She was, in a sense, the predecessor of the great American woman documentary
photographer Ruth Orkin, and as poetic in her visual expression.
When we—Kajal Das, Satish Sharma, both of them photographers, art historian and teacher Kavita Singh and I—first met her in 1993, both she and her sterling contribution to Indian documentary photography had been forgotten. Satish Sharma, brilliant photographer and bona fide eccentric, had stumbled upon her work and was astonished by it. He quickly talked to the people in the Max Mueller Bhavan in Delhi and mounted an exhibition. It was a uniformly excellent show and took the cognescenti by complete surprise.
None of the so-called lovers of photography knew of her. Her “news” pictures had both an endearing and enduring quality. These two qualities were as short in supply then as they are now. Raghu Rai, already an internationally known photographer, superb exponent of modern dance Chandralekha and her boon companion Sadanand Menon, a widely read journalist, were among the people who saw Homai Vyarawalla’s exhibition then.
Edited transcript of the conversation:
How and when did
you get interested in photography?
Well, in Art School, I was interested only in painting and music. But then I met my husband and he was keenly interested in photography. He did his own developing. He had no facilities, no electricity, so he would go under the four-post bed, covering the whole thing with blankets, and with a little kerosene lamp develop his films, take POP prints and find out which pictures were nice and then send those. The first pictures he took got published. That gave him the incentive to do more. He was studying at Vyara, that is where he came from, that is why my surname is Vyarawalla.
What was his full name?
Manekshaw Jamshetji Vyarawala. He came to Bombay after matriculation and there we met. He was staying with my uncle and I was next door. Naturally we started talking about things. And I got interested in photography. Being interested in art also, there was going to be one picnic and I said to myself why don’t I take pictures? So I asked him to lend me his Rolliflex. Very reluctantly he gave it, because he was afraid I might spoil it. One full day I was after him, what exposure do I give for this light, what exposure for inside, and this and that. I learnt it that way—the exposures. And then I took pictures at the picnic, it was full sunlight so it was not so difficult. And I came back with six or seven rolls of 12 exposures each, because the girls and the boys wanted—there were 75 people and everybody wanted pictures—so I went on taking pictures. Film was so cheap those days. He developed the films and he found certain pictures very interesting. So he sent them to the Bombay Chronicle. And a full page of pictures came in the Bombay Chronicle. And I got one rupee per picture from the paper.
What year was that?
Probably between ’35 and ’40.
So that’s how it all started...
Yes, we liked each other, we started moving around together—my mother didn’t object—taking pictures and that way we got more and more interested...
You had only one camera...
Yes, if I saw a good angle I would say, give me, this is my picture. Like that, we would go on. He was interested in street scenes and then Diwali came and we went about taking pictures of the streets. We used to go with big lights, and people thought it was good shakun, (good omen) to have lights brought into the shop when the puja was going on, so they would give us sweets, treat us like royalty, and then say, would you give us the pictures?
The next day we would go to them with the pictures and they used to feel happy about it. That way we increased our area of work.
Where was he
The Times of India—in the job department, but this was his hobby. And on Sundays and Saturdays, I used to miss school. I don’t think I ever attended school on Saturday. In those days we had half-days on Saturdays and my teachers were very good. I would sit down in front of them and write in the name of my mother saying, my daughter is very busy tomorrow so please give her off and I would give it to the teacher.
They would threaten me saying, I will give it to the principal! We would go off to the suburbs. We walked everywhere, those days there was no transport, and tried to take pictures of everything that caught our eye. We made series of different cottage industries, dhobis washing clothes, weavers, even the bullocks and the buffaloes.
Were you also discussing technique and the like...
I was not discussing technique, I was absolutely against technique; all I wanted to know was how the camera worked and what exposures to give.
You never discussed why a photograph is good, why another is not?
That we discussed, and then my training in art school was useful while enlarging pictures at the easel and composing pictures. We would discuss a frame, you know like that. Then we started supplying pictures to the papers also, all over India, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta and then abroad.
The government of India didn’t have a photographic section. When they saw our pictures, they liked then, wanted copies of them—they would order 15 copies of each picture, we worked through the nights...
To make the prints...
Yes, we didn’t have a glazing machine, we used to glaze them on glass sheets and near the fireplace, my mother would be standing near the angeethi, to see that the pictures didn’t fall into the fire, catch them as they came out... the bathroom was our darkroom. After everybody had used the bathroom we would enter the place, take a big stool there, put the enlarging machine on top of it, he would be sitting on the one side of it and I on the floor developing the prints.
When did you come
In 1942, we had no idea we were coming to Delhi, we were happy with the work. Then, Singapore fell to the Japanese and the British had to run. So they wanted to make Delhi their headquarters, they also wanted to put up a dark room, studio and build a photographic section because they had to supply (photographs) to all the Commonwealth countries.
The administrative officer came to Bombay, to the editor of the Illustrated Weekly, Stanley Jackson, asking him whom to keep as a photographer. I was publishing a lot of pictures in the Weekly and the editor was very fond of my work. So they called my husband and the administrator asked him, have you got any of the pictures, and he took out the blind school pictures and that man said I will keep him, and then he said I want an assistant photographer also. The editor said, his wife... I didn’t know that man and he didn’t know who I was and yet I was taken in.
I was in the family way, so my husband said she can’t come for four months or so —that man said, never mind, in the meantime you set up the darkroom and start working. So my husband said she will stay on in Bombay and take pictures for you, wartime pictures, so they started having that magazine going, my husband doing the dark room work there and I would be sending films to Delhi for processing and publishing, so till the last day, the ninth month I was taking pictures.
I had gone to the hospital and there was a Parsi matron there, and I would be climbing tables for taking pictures...so when my husband came she told him, please for goodness sake ask her not to climb tables.
Were you then working exclusively with the Rolli or using the Speedgraphic?
No Speedgraphic, only the Rolli and the Contax. The Speedgraphic much later, in Delhi.
After you came to
When my son was three months old, I came to Delhi on December 25, and after two or three months I started going to the office. I was living in a building just behind where they had set up the headquarters—Malhotra building in Connaught Place.
I had tremendous freedom of movement—I could go home anytime—I could come late to office. So even with my son it was no trouble at all. Then the office shifted to the barracks near India Gate. My colleagues were so cooperative—whenever my son was not well or some problem, they would say bring him here. So they would be playing with my son while I was working. I was very fortunate.
They were taken immediately after the war. There were soldiers from England, America, the allied forces, they organised the celebrations and the procession passed just under our house and that’s how we were able to take those pictures.
About two photographs of the D-day celebrations...
They were taken immediately after the war. There were soldiers from England, America, the allied forces, they organised the celebrations and the procession passed just under our house and that’s how we were able to take those pictures.
(Above) Mahatma Gandhi’s third son, Ramdas, lighting the pyre at Rajghat. February 1, 1948. (On page 112-113) Aerial View of the Republic Day Parade in Delhi taken from the top of India Gate in 1951.
You were the only
woman photographer working at that time (independence).
Yes, woman press photographer.
Around the same time, Marguerite Bourke-White was also in India...
Yes she was here at the time Mahatmaji died...
Did you meet her ?
No, I didn’t meet her, but I saw her working, using Rolliflex and Speedgraphic. She had her own way of taking pictures—on the stand, with a cloth thrown over her head and three or four Indians buzzing around her...
Things were happening so fast, when Mahatmaji died, putting his body on the cortege and all that—din and bustle all around.
Were you there?
Yes, I had taken pictures, there was an outhouse, right in the front, there was no staircase going up—only this pipe—sanitary pipe. So we climbed that. The photographers were helping each other with camera and equipment. So we went to the top and took pictures. She was taking pictures from ground level—so how was it possible for her to get the real thing?
Life magazine which had commissioned Bourke-White, couldn’t use her pictures, they used Cartier-Bresson's pictures.
You designed some lenses and modified the cameras according to your needs, for example, the wide angle.
I felt the need for it. At that time there was this disposal stock, American disposal stock all over the place, there were lenses also. My husband would go and bring the lenses and then we sat down with this sardarji—we would tell him do it this way, do it that way, and he would make them in pieces and bring them in the evening and ask if it was all right. We would suggest some modifications.
What was his name?
Ajit Singh, he was a camera repairer—same with the wide angle lens. We didn’t have one and we didn’t want to disturb the Speedgraphic—so we asked the sardarji if this can be done, he said, why not?
Why did you feel the need for a wide angle?
I used to go to the embassies—they were being built. Some of them wanted pictures of the interiors, they used to call experts from their countries and they would ask me for pictures. Naturally, wide angle lens was required for wall-to-wall pictures.
Once I went to the Norweigian embassy to take pictures and the ambassador happened to come there. He saw the camera and went to the counsellor and said, ‘Will she be able to get any pictures out of this?’
I said, you don’t like
them, you call another photographer. I worked through the night and got the pictures
ready. I look the pictures along; they were very pleased. So the ambassador
came to me and said, ‘I liked the pictures but you're working at a
disadvantage. Why don't you get the latest cameras?’ I said, we are not
supposed to import cameras—in those days we were not. So he said, why don’t you
give me the names of all the things you want and I’ll get them in my name. I
said, no, that would be cheating. He was surprised.
Your photographs were different from those of your contemporaries, they revealed something more, for example the photograph Zhou Enlai, Nehru and the Panchen Lama (page 115), one can feel the tension, almost touch it.
Well, that was an exclusive photograph, I was the only photographer, you know, there was this dinner, and no other photographer was allowed.
Another (page 119) is at Gandhiji's funeral—what strikes one as most interesting in your photograph where the pyre is there in the centre and 8-9 people sitting around the pyre, looking at you, and one man at the centre is very conscious of the way he is being photographed—it seems some people were there because they just wanted to be there.
Yes that’s right. His body was burning—on the periphery people had collected, puri pakodawalas, toywalas and all sorts of things. Here the body was burning, and there these people were eating...
In the Fifties and Sixties, there were discussions about theory, particularly in the West, different schools of photography and movements were coming up, like the Magnum—Robert Capa, Cartier-Bresson—were you aware?
I kept out of all these.
No, he was in the High Commission all the time—he was there till one year before his death. He worked for them for 28 years. I came out in 1951 and started freelancing. I was taking colour movies also—16mm for Associated Tubewells, a British concern.
What were they about?
Tubewells. We would go all over the countryside—making colour movies of the actual construction plus the surroundings and the village life which needed this—for nearly two years.
In the course of your career you did a wide variety of work—not simply personalities.
No, all kinds of work... life in general...
We can say that you documented your time—what aspect of photography meant the most to you?
Well I enjoyed taking pictures of VIPs, especially when all the VIPs from abroad started coming in, one after another...
Starting with Marshal Tito.
Marshal Tito and all of them. Those days were so glorious—every Indian was respected those days—they had such a high opinion of us for having won independence non-violently.
Did you also take pictures in the streets?
Yes, we used to take pictures in the streets.
Around the same time, Cartier-Bresson developed his now famous theory of decisive moment.
To tell you the truth, I never bothered. I and my camera, we did what we liked... we never bothered about what other people thought about photography. Except, you know, these new things that kept coming out and my husband would read about that.
He was very knowledgeable, about focal length and all those things, and he would try to explain to me, and I would say, no thank you, my camera and I are very good friends.
Developing and printing, yes, I would learn and do it myself—beyond that no theory. I only know about films of different kinds because I had to use them, otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered. I told my husband one person knowing all the theory is good enough in the house.
When you were shooting, what did you look for?
Look for the subject, the image in my camera, a nice picture.
What do you mean by a nice picture?
I can’t describe a nice picture.
But you must know what you wanted.
The expression of a person—the right expression. If it is an occasion for sadness—that sad expression must be on his face and his whole attitude should express that sadness. If he was happy, like I have that picture of Pandit Nehru on the aeroplane as if he was the band master conducting the band.
But a lot of your pictures include a lot of other things by way of your own comment about a situation...No?
How do I know? Maybe it comes naturally and I don’t know about it.
One thing which I
have not seen in the work of any other Indian photographer is a consistent and
a very subtle sense of humour.
I never like making fun of people—however funny the thing happening—I would not photograph it. If by chance I photographed it, I would not publish it. The picture of Ho Chi Minh—I never got it published because I did not want to ridicule anybody. That would be ridiculing Ho.
It is there in your personality, so it comes out through your camera.
Maybe my camera was enchanted and it tried to get the best out of the people.
You were here during the partition.
Yes, of course.
Did you photograph the riots?
No, we were so busy trying to save our flat. That time I was working for the British High Commission. We were the only two in charge of the photographic section. So either I had to be there or my husband. Whoever went to the office took our son along and one would stay at home—otherwise we would have lost our flat, and everything, because people started pouring in to take possession.
The flat next door was occupied by the landlord himself, a Muslim. Upstairs all Muslims, so naturally they thought when the Muslims had gone, we would come and occupy them. Those were difficult times. So many people came to burn the house down. And people immediately next to us wanted to take possession of the whole house. They would bribe the soldiers standing down there by sending big thalifuls of money—throw at them and they would pick up and turn their backs to the house and start walking away.
Which soldiers were these?
It happened after the army was called in?
Army was called in—some policemen, some soldiers—you know everybody was there to guard the whole Connaught Place.
Even the army men were taking bribes?
Haan! Policemen, army, you know, whoever was thrown the money would just pick it up and start going towards the middle. By the time they came back everything would be finished on this side. There was Hayat’s furniture shop, he made furniture for the Rajas. He had the best of wood, best of wool, cotton and coir, everything inflammable inside. We kept a big tub full of water. So when they came to do some mischief we would rush down and help the old man. Later, we advised him to put all the furniture on top—the second floor. And you know that is how Janaki Das came—he and his sons came and occupied this place—because the shop was empty.
Where Janakidas is, that was Hayat’s Shop. So they occupied it first, when the landlord’s family had been taken to Purana Qila because they were in danger of being killed. We were neighbours so we would deliberately go and stand outside because people knew we were Parsis. If anybody asked me where are they, the reply was, ‘they have gone’, but they would be inside.
When the landlord’s son came for some sort of agreement that over the shop, they took out a big khanjar (dagger) and said you sign this here, that you are giving up the shop in exchange for whatever it is. So this is how they got the shop—and they were called, you know, first citizens, things like that...
When all these things were happening some people were killed in the corridors of the Place and Panditji came to know about it. I was standing on the balcony outside—I saw a car coming and suddenly Panditji jumped out. He went through the inner circle, then the outer. As he went there one person had a big sword in his hand—that was what I was told, I didn’t see it—trying to beat somebody.
Panditji snatched the sword away from that man—then he saw things getting worse and changed the whole security set-up. He brought south Indians who didn’t know the language, didn’t know one sardar from the other, to “pichhe ekdam shanti ho gaya”.
How long did the riots continue?
About ten days or so, I can’t be so sure. Fortunately, we were told one day before the rioting started because my son—he was quite a favourite in the whole of Connaught Place—he used to go from one shop to another meeting people. One of the shopkeepers came to me and said, “Is bacche ko le kar yahan se chale jao” (Take the kid and go away from here).
I asked: “Kyon chale jaen? Hum to yahan kam kar rahe hain—kya baat hai” (why, we work here, and what’s going on anyway)?
“Achha! Tum nahi jaoge to kam se kam khane ki cheez ikattha kar rakkho, kal se buda din aayega” (Ok, if you won’t go away at least store some food because tomorrow is a big day). That’s what I was told.
Who was doing this?
Some Hindus. I think it was Beecham Printing Press people who told me, “Jao abhi jo kuchh mile khane ki cheez
ikattha kar lo” (go and gather whatever food you can, now). Those days lots of canned food was available—disposal stock—so I told my husband. He had a hundred rupee note with him—we bought egg powder, baked beans, fish, this and that—one hundred rupees worth of stock. Next day everything was finished, all the shops were robbed.
Who was in the mob?
I wouldn’t know who they were but, you know, well-dressed women coming in jeeps to rob the shops of cosmetics and sarees—that we saw ourselves. Well-dressed women of high society—in those days there was Shahab Singh’s big cosmetic shop under us—all the foreign goods, the whole thing was looted.
It was not the refugees who were doing this?
No, “bahut kharab halat thi” (it was terrible). We went to bed fully dressed. Those days I was wearing sarees, so I would go to bed fully dressed and pack some food for my son in a bag, so that we could move out at short notice.
Didn’t you feel the tension—that something was brewing in the city?
We knew something was going on. There was tension, but we could not guess that riots on such a big scale (would take place).
What were the politicians doing?
Squabbling among themselves.
Sardar Patel was Home Minister.
They were trying to control the whole thing. And the worst thing was people would come to our house to get possession of the flat in the name of Vallabhbhai Patel—with forged signatures. Some took the fittings away.
You didn’t take pictures?
“Kahan se picture lein? Bas khali office ka kam karke wapas aa jate the” (How? What we did was finish office work and return home).
Well, after the riots stopped you didn’t take pictures?
No, no pictures.
Well, it might strike you as a very obvious question but what was the period like?
Suspicion... everyone was suspecting the other but somehow or other we felt free, because we did not belong to that particular community and we had no axe to grind. So we didn’t feel that frightened. But other people who knew us—never approached us and asked us—knowing fully well that we were in a Muslim house. Something changed decisively after that.
Coming back to photography, you gave it up in the Seventies. When did you start thinking about giving up and why?
My son was at that time at Kharagpur, doing his PhD in chemical engineering. He had only one year left and my husband died in 1969. So I said to myself—I had done so much work—so long as my son was there I carried on.
Just like that... I had had enough. Things had become a little difficult with security—then the behaviour of photographers all around, the new lot coming in—no honesty about their work. In the end, people started looking down on us saying bloody photographers. They not only did not know how to behave, they misbehaved—gatecrashing parties where they were not invited—just to get some money out of it.
I would be an invited guest—press photographer—but the waiter wouldn’t come because the order was not to serve any photographer. So I said if you want to do work do it with respect.
The political scene was also changing...
New people coming in—who didn't know us. So if a photographer behaved badly he would be treated accordingly. So that official when he came to us would think we are of the same kind. He would be rude and then there would be fights. Why should one undergo all that? Then there was trouble about material. If you wanted hard paper you would get soft. If you wanted glossy you would get matte. I also developed cataract and I found it difficult to see expressions on the face. You can’t shoot a nice picture without that. So I called another photographer for my son’s wedding. I had shot dozens of pictures of other people’s weddings.
Another reason was over-importance of security that limited your access to VIPs?
Yes, unnecessarily coming in, stopping us, you know, going forward.
Which year was this?
I don’t remember the year but it started with Mrs Gandhi…
That’s when the politicians started changing. What was the change like?
Well, they became aloof—there was this I am somebody sort of attitude. Humility was gone, graciousness was gone. I have a picture of myself taken with Subroto Mukherjee and Thimayya. They asked for that picture—they took my camera and asked somebody to take that picture. You know, that sort of attitude was there—and when they came to a dance party or something like that they would enjoy themselves—no stiff neck business. I was lucky in the sense that I stopped at the right moment and began at the right moment.
Why was that the right moment to stop?
Because I found that I could not get the things I wanted, I mean the pictures. I wanted exclusive pictures. Of all the pictures that I took you will not find the same thing with other people. Not the tonal values and all that, but the same subject taken by other people is different from my pictures. So mine was exclusive that way.
In those days people were so liberal—when Babu Rajendra Prasad was declared president in the council hall he was sitting on that big chair and I wanted to take his pictures as the first President of India.
In the council hall there is this white railing going round the dais where they all were sitting. It was always very prominent. If I stood there and took the picture that railing would be coming halfway. I said this is not the way to take a President’s picture.
There was a table there for reporters, it was not occupied. I just got on to the table right in front of the President and took the picture.
The MPs were shouting asking me to get down. So I took the picture and jumped down. The President was smiling and nobody reprimanded me or anything. Those were such times. How gracious people were. They knew I had a job to do and I was doing it, that’s all.
(This conversation with Homai Vyrawalla was recorded On October 16, 1993 at Kavita Singh's Kailash Colony residence in New Delhi. Others present were Satish Sharma, Kajal Das and Partha Chatterjee.)