At the Modern Art Gallery in Mumbai, we notice a woman, white haired, with a face full of wrinkles, like the rings on a tree. She is seated on a wheelchair at the center of the hall, just ten feet from my father and me. The photo at the entrance matches her face. Wow, imagine our luck! Homai Vyarawalla the lady herself, maybe being photographed for an interview.
Lights, camera, and Vyarawalla in front of the lens? But no. We are surprised to find her joining our tour! Vyarawalla then begins to share tidbits of information—how in those days photographers could not go within twenty feet of VIPs. She talks about how she had to order some of the parts to assemble her camera on her own, since she could not afford the fancy American cameras in those days. I could not help wondering how she lugged those twenty pounds of camera with her. She points to a photograph she has never exhibited before. It is of the Indian Prime Minister Nehru wiping Vietnames leader Ho Chi Minh’s beard. That would not have appeared dignified, I suppose.
I take in her pictures of Old Bombay—a monsoon afternoon at the Gateway, the parapet with only three people and two umbrellas, a lone lamp post reflected in the puddle of water. Where are all the crowds I wonder? Then I remember this is 1930, not the 21st century. We prepare to climb another floor. Vyarawalla, 97 years of age, gets up and slowly but sure-footedly climbs using only the railing for support.
In two of the photos on display Vyarawalla herself is the subject. In one of them, we are told that she is sixteen years old and is seated in front of a kerosene stove making chappatis before catching the local train to school. Her face looks young and innocent, her hair is coal black and cropped short. Another photo shows her in her thirties, wearing a white sari, maybe chiffon or cotto, a gigantic camera is draped on her right shoulder along with her sari pallu. I wonder who took these photographs?
We break for lunch and when we return we see that Vyarawalla is back, participating in another tour for aam junta (ordinary people) like us.
I once again study the photos of Old Bombay—there’s one with a policeman, obviously British, looking out stiffly, wearing a starched white uniform (or light colored outfit—this is a black and white photo after all), with a blow horn and commanding black boots. He is standing on a wooden table, directing traffic—mostly pedestrians in khadi (hand woven) with topis (turbans). They are carrying statues of the elephant God Ganapati being taken for immersion in the sea. Those Ganapatis seem small compared to today’s ten feet mega monstrosities carried in huge lorries (trucks). Another photo, this one of a ship, from Britain, is shown as having just arrived at the harbor. My father comments, “If you think a flight from the United States is long, think of those days when people were in the ship for three weeks.”
Emaciated Indian porters appear hurrying around carrying the heavy luggage of what my father calls “beef eating British sahibs.”
As we leave, I remark, how lucky we were to have seen not only Homai Vyarawalla’s photographs of Gandhi and Nehru and old Bombay and Delhi, but also the legendary lady herself.
My father comments, “Yes, true but I also feel like she’s being paraded around like the monkeys at Nariman Point, being brought out for the curator and author to sell more books.”
I guess the image is angled, depending on how it is framed.
Roopa Ramamoorthi is a biotech scientist working in global health, and a poet. Her essays, poetry and short stories have been published in various venues including a perspective piece on NPR, an essay in the book She is Such a Geek, India Currents, Berkeley Daily Planet, Khabar and Konch.