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Last Cut Dalda 13

Homai Vyarawalla and the world she recorded

Written by Geeta Doctor |
January 19, 2012 2:30:48 am

In life as in death,Homai Vyarawalla defied convention. It could not be otherwise.

Dalda 13,as she was codenamed in photo-archives,was a petite Parsi woman from a priestly family in Navsari. Hers was a somewhat unconventional family. Her father was an actor on the Urdu-Parsi stage. And though her family was described as of modest means,even poor by most accounts,they made sure that she was sent to Bombay for her education where she took an honours degree at Bombay University and a diploma at the J.J. School of Art.

Was it the camera or Manekshaw,the man behind it,that first caught her attention? He was a photographer and described as the boyfriend who got her started on her career as a photographer. No matter,history records that both were to define her choices. As with the important landmarks in her life,Homai took her first pictures with a box camera at 13,married her mentor at 13 and,when they could afford to buy a car,found that the number plate was marked DLD-13. Dalda 13 was born.

They were a team. He was the Tarzan to her Jane when he introduced her to their first society pictures — of a group of ladies taking the air on a beach in Bombay. Soon enough she was the Tarzan to his Jane.

The fact that she was a diminutive woman wearing a sari and holding a camera that weighed as much as six pounds in those early days made her both visible and invisible,a grasshopper perhaps or a super intelligent spider lurking in the undergrowth or in the monumental chambers of Parliament recording the making of a nation.

Long ago,when talking to a group of Parsi intellectuals who were part of the set that met at the cafe Chetana to debate on matters of mind and art,one of them who later became the head of the English department at the Elphinstone College described how they would go skinny dipping in the then pristine waters of Juhu: “On moonlit nights we would bathe in the nude and the phosphorous would shimmer down our bodies like spangles.” Maybe these were the women Homai Vyarawalla photographed. There was always an element of beauty in the images she created,even while retaining her regard to documenting the stark moment of history as it unfolded before her eyes.

Homai and Manekshaw’s first pictures were published in the Bombay Chronicle. Later they worked as freelancers with the Illustrated Weekly of India. In 1942,the couple left for New Delhi where they worked for the Far Eastern Bureau of British Information Service,that was to become the British High Commission. It has been suggested that it was because of this that the Vyarawallas found themselves in the thick of freedom struggle. The tragic events of Partition and its aftermath and the dramatic morning after the midnight hour in Parliament were meticulously recorded by Vyarawalla.

If the images of American photographer Margaret Bourke-White managed to capture the stark simplicity of Gandhi,the man sitting behind the wheel of dharma,Vyarawalla recorded the tumult of his funeral. She missed the scoop of the actual moment of his death,but she was there every moment of the way,as part of the river of human mourners as they carried his bier through the flower-decked streets of Delhi to the final immersion in the dark waters — and image after image shows her unwavering instinct to capture the moment.

It was,however,Pandit Nehru who caught the imagination of her inner eye. She photographed him in his moments of unfettered abandon,hugging Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit as First Brother; as Chacha Nehru playing Holi; as perfect host to a young Jacqueline Kennedy; as doting grandfather to his grandchildren; as the dreamer with the perfect rose on his lapel,staring into eternity. She could also be a maker of myths.

Most accounts describe Vyarawalla as a Gandhian in her personal philosophy and aesthetic. As she said recently,“I started clicking photographs at the age of 13 with a box camera in 1926 and I shot my last photograph in 1970,40 years ago. Since then I have not touched the lens.”

When her neighbours admitted her to hospital after she had lived alone in her Baroda home,it was on January 13,2012. Manekshaw had preceded her by 34 years. Their only son Farooq by 15. She had by then been given India’s second highest civilian honour,the Padma Vibhushan,truly an extraordinary achievement for an individual who had only a camera between her and the world.

Then again what a world it was that she recorded. She was a midwife to history.

The writer is a Chennai-based art critic,

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