The Biographical Dictionary of Delhi – Homai Vyarawalla, b. Navsari, Gujarat, 1913-2012
The definitive directory of famous Delhiites.
[Text by Mayank Austen Soofi; pictures shared by Alkazi Collection of Photography]
Like most of today’s generation, you must have been introduced to her photographs in history textbooks. Homai Vyarawalla, 97, originally a Bombay photographer, captured some of Delhi’s greatest 20th century moments. She worked for journals, such as Current, Onlooker, Bombay Chronicle, The Illustrated Weekly of India and Time Life.
The Parsi photographer produced her most memoreable work when she was living in Connaught Place (CP), Delhi’s central business district, during the 1940s and the later decades. The residences used to be on the first floors of the Inner Circle corridors. She called the circular colonnade a “pearl necklace”. In a photograph of the Inner Circle (see pic below), she captured the fluffy white clouds wafting above the white pillars. The forlorn plaza has a dream-like feel.
Ms Vyarawalla’s more famous photos, however, are as ‘deep’ as the cover of the latest Time. She was a photojournalist, not an artist. France’s Henri Cartier-Bresson and America’s Margaret Bourke-White dropped by in Delhi during the same era, and their photos are more arresting. Yet, Ms Vyarawalla’s images are legendary, her subjects were legends: Nehru, Gandhi, Dalai Lama and Jacqueline Kennedy.
Ms Vyarawalla had a hectic schedule: She would wake up at 4.30 am, explore the Capital’s power corridors during the day, and return home late in the night when she processed her photos. Occasionally, she stepped into the city’s underbelly. Amid the Mountbatten-Jinnah collection of her Delhi archives are buried stills of the city — Muharram procession in Matia Mahal, Ramlila parade in Khari Baoli and Eid prayer in Jama Masjid.
With her photographer’s pass, stamped ‘No. 16’, Ms Vyarawalla documented the ‘transfer of power celebrations (August 14-17, 1947)’. Beside the funerals of Gandhi and Nehru, she covered India’s first Republic Day parade that took place outside Purana Quila. She also captured city landmarks that no longer exist: the statue of King George V in the now-empty India Gate canopy, and the statue of Brigadier-General John Nicholson, the East India Company officer who was buried in Kashmere Gate. During Ms Vyarawalla’s years in Delhi, the city had no high rises and Humayun’s Tomb was visible from from Connaught Place. Her photo of Jantar Mantar shows a sky unobstructed by the view of Park Hotel.
Ms Vyarawalla learned photography from her husband Manekshaw, an accountant in The Times of India. The couple always ate from the same plate. After 33 years of work, she gave up photography in 1970. A year earlier her husband died. (He was cremated in Nigambodh Ghat.) She moved to Pilani, Rajasthan, with her son, Farooq, who died of cancer in 1989. Ms Vyarawalla lived in a small apartment in Baroda, Gujarat, and spent her time gardening. In January 2012, Ms Vyarwalla fell from her bed and died three days later in a hospital in Vadodara.
Lord Mountbatten taking the salute at Rashtrapati Bhawan, 21 June, 1948
The crowd at the Red Fort, with Jama Masjid in the background, 16th August, 1947
Connaught Place, 1950s