She took the most candid shots of India’s independence movement, the first tri-colour hoisting on the Red Fort on August 15, 1947, the death of Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Indira Gandhi at their best moments, world leaders such as Ho Chi Minh, American Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, and the first ladies, Mamie Eisenhower and Jacqueline Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth II’s State visit, and the young Dalai Lama who had just escaped Tibet. She was always very close to the famous and powerful, but yet preferred to lead a simple life and go with a pseudonym. She was India’s First Lady of the Lens’ Homai Vyarawalla.
Today on her 104th birth anniversary the tech giant Google has dedicated its doodle to this extraordinary person who witnessed and captured India’s transition from the British Raj to an independent country after its subsequent partition. The doodle by the Mumbai artist Sameer Kulavoor aptly shows Homai at the centre capturing historical events and eminent personalities.
Homai was born on December 9, 1913, in a Parsi family in Gujarat. After completing her education from Bombay University and Sir JJ School of Art, she got interested in photography and took snaps of the daily life of Mumbaikars. She started to work as a professional photographer with the Illustrated Weekly in her late teens but her career took off after her marriage to Manekshaw Vyarawalla, an accountant and a photographer for Times of India. As there were no female photographers at that time her photos were initially published under his name, or her pseudonym DALDA 13 (a combination of her birth date and car’s licence number). However, as her black and white photographs started getting the national recognition she moved to Delhi in 1942 and joined the British Information Services as a press photographer. Here she got her lifetime opportunity to capture the lives and moments of the then most powerful people of India. Nehru was her favourite subject and Mahatma Gandhi her ideal. She framed for us some of the classic, historical and poignant moments such as Nehru addressing jubilant crowds in Delhi, Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy departing from India, and Gandhi, Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri being prepared for the funeral.
The photographer who was always close to royalty led a simple life soon. She was a professional and got disappointed when the profession started changing for bad. She gave up photography soon after her husband’s death, in 1970 and in 1982, moved to Vadodara with her son Farooq who she lost to cancer in 1989. She lived alone until the age of 98 when she passed away on January 15, 2012. She was awarded India’s second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan in 2011. The iconic lady’s collection of photographs and memories are preserved by the Delhi-based Alkazi Foundation for the Arts.