New Delhi: Her face crinkles into a smile, drawing a fine mesh of crow`s feet in the gentle folds of her skin.
At 97, Homai Vyarawalla, India`s first and oldest photojournalist, is still as spirited as she was in the 1920s when she shot glimpses of Mumbai life with her box camera and chronicled the Independence struggle in striking black and white compositions.
The story of Vyarawalla`s life spans almost a century - older than that of independent India.
"I started clicking photographs at the age of 13 in Mumbai 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. But I am aware of the drifts in press photography down the decades," the Gujarat-born Vyarawalla told IANS in an interview.
The photographer was Thursday honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award here by the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting.
The honour was part of the National Photo Awards that the government has instituted for the first time to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of the Photo Division, a media unit of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. The award with a purse of Rs.1.5 lakh and a citation was presented by Vice President Hamid Ansari.
Vyarawalla`s photographs of Jawaharlal Nehru, including a rare shot of the former prime minister lighting a cigarette with Lady Edwina Mountbatten and another of a banquet attended by the first interim council of ministers in 1947, were on display at the Lalit Kala Akademi in an exhibition `The Big Picture` presented by the All-India Working News Cameramen`s Association.
The exhibition features documentary photographs by 60 press cameramen.
Recalling her tryst with Independence as India`s lone lens-woman in the male-dominated media, Vyarawalla said: "It all began on the night of August 14-15."
"The women decided to organise a `havan` at night to felicitate the leaders who were going into parliament for transfer of power. I was working for the British High Commission then. I was not allowed to photograph the leaders by the man in charge of the press section because he thought he was a greater patriot. However, I was supplied with pictures by a friend who had gone in," she said.
In the morning, Lord Mountbatten was sworn in as the governor-general, she recalled.
"The prime minister and the cabinet were sworn in at the Government House Aug 15 and the tricolour was unfurled at the Red Fort Aug 16 and I wanted to photograph the guard of honour," Vyarawalla said.
"I climbed on to the ramparts to shoot the sea of faces and the unfurling of the flag. I had a Rolleiflex camera, but cameras did not have zoom, wide-angle or telephoto lens those days. I was fortunate because I managed to capture Lady Mountbatten with Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in my frame. Pandit-ji (Nehru) was addressing the people... and we shot many photographs," Vyarawalla said.
She later joined three photographs - one of the crowd and two smaller ones of Nehru and the rest of the group to "present the big sequence of the former prime minister`s first Independence Day speech".
"For eight years, I used a 35 mm camera and then a Rolleiflex Speed Graphic through which I could take pictures in the darkest of the dark nights. I remember shooting Pandit-ji and Mountbatten talking under a tree at night. As I used the range finder mounted at the side, he thought a worm had crept up his coat and he tried to brush it off," Vyarawalla said.
The daughter of an actor in an Urdu-Parsi theatre company, Homai Vyarawalla was born in Navsari in Gujarat in 1913. She grew up in Mumbai and learnt photography from a friend.
"I was not doing well in school and my father told me to learn photography from a friend who lived near my uncle`s house in Mumbai. He was a student of Elphinstone College. I used his camera," she laughed.
After matriculation, Vyarawalla took up photography as her vocation.