Friday, June 09, 2006

The Eye of Time: Book Review

Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla By Sabeena Gadihoke Parzor Foundation and Mapin, Rs 2,570

Time is like a fistful of sand. You can rarely completely own it: the grains are bound to slip out of your fingers and become what we call history. But here is a chance to do just that, own history. Buy Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla.

Vyarawalla needed no introduction to the high and the mighty in the 1940s and 1950s, but for the benefit of the present generation, here goes. She was India’s first woman press photographer, who covered momentous events and who today lives, at age 93, alone in Baroda. Her lifetime’s work, whose importance she didn’t realise in the prime of her life as a photographer, has been put together by Sabeena Gadihoke, a mass communications teacher at the Jamia University in Delhi.

At Rs 2,750, the coffee table book might not fit every budget, but once bought, it gives you every paisa back in the form of hundreds of lavish photographs that mark the transition of British India into our India. And the bonus is that the history chronicled in this book is honest. Photographs, after all, don’t lie, though the same can’t be necessarily be said about a historian’s pen; a historian’s pen has the luxury of omitting or suppressing details, depending on his or her ideology.

Take the Partition, for example. We all know of it as a dark event, when a Muslim Pakistan was carved out of India in the Northwest and the East, leading to the butchering of thousands of people in communal riots on either side of the newly-formed border. Even 60 years on, India continues to pay a heavy price for that outcome of Partition called Pakistan. Today, you hardly notice the front page of any newspaper without the mention of Pakistan — and the news is rarely good.

It is easy to blame Mohammad Ali Jinnah. In fact, it is considered politically correct for Indians to blame him. Praise him, and you are in trouble — as L K Advani might have realised by now. But the lay Indian is not aware that the Partition was also endorsed by the All India Congress Committee during a marathon meeting on June 14, 1947, much to the displeasure of the Mahatma and many others.

Says Gadihoke of the meeting: “While scholarly work on the largest migration of people in history has been more prolific in recent times, the visual representation of Partition has largely focused on the victims of the tragic event… (Vyarawalla’s) own account of this meeting where a ‘handful of people’ voted for Partition is a testimony of her deep disappointment at the turn of the events.”

And this account cannot be more credible because she and another man called P N Sharma were the only photographers left to cover the All India Congress Committee meeting. They had covered the meeting clandestinely after other photographers staged a walkout because the then-Congress president, Acharya Kripalani, did not want the Partition debate to be photographed.

Says Gadihoke: “From Homai’s accounts, this meeting was a stormy one, where younger socialists like Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan lashed out at the others for allowing the division of the country. Congress Muslims like Maulana Azad and Khan Abdul Ghafar Khan were visibly upset, as was Gandhi.’’

Gadihoke further quotes Vyarawalla: ‘‘I feel absolutely disappointed about Partition. They were in a hurry to take power into their hands, and if you see my pictures of the final meeting, there were just a few people there. The entire hall was just about as big as my house. When they said ‘Raise hands for Partition’ you could see there were very few people there. India is so big: they should have taken the consensus of people but they didn’t do. Kripalani was in the chair, and he was averse to our taking pictures. He allowed only two minutes for everybody to speak for or against, and if anybody tried to speak against it, he was made to sit down, and if someone was in its favour, they were allowed to speak. Sardar Patel then stood up to speak and said, ‘If you have gangrene on your arm or leg, you cut it off and finish with it.’ That was their idea of Partition. But the gangrene is still there and it is progressing now.”

In other words, if the Mahatma had his way, the country might have escaped Partition, and you wouldn’t have had a Pakistan today to contend with. But the Congress leaders seemed to be in a hurry to gain power and they bulldozed Gandhi into saying yes. In Vyarawalla’s words: “The Congress party treated India like their own jagir, giving away part of the country as if it belonged to them.”

Only a Mahatma — a great soul — could have seen the larger picture then and felt the pain. For lesser mortals, India was a free nation, and Jawaharlal Nehru the face of that freedom. No other man was going to matter more for the next two decades, so it is not surprising that he figures in most of Homai’s pictures in the book. A rare picture shows Nehru flanked by the Dalai Lama and Chou en Lai.

“Somehow or the other he never resented photographers around him, and sometimes I noticed that he posed for pictures, as if unconsciously,” she says. A couple of pictures show Nehru waiting for his sister Vijayalakshmi Pandit at the Palam airport; right behind him is a signboard that reads: “Photography strictly prohibited.”

The book can help the younger generation catch up with many momentous events of the past, such as the Mahatma’s funeral; Vyarawalla’s coverage is extensive. Also prominently featured is the visit of Queen Elizabeth in 1961. But what can be particularly a treat to the eyes, especially for those interested in political history, are the pictures of Nehru and his first Cabinet ministers.

A set of pictures shows them at a lunch hosted by Sardar Patel. The impression one gets from the picture is that the lunch was a cold and silent affair — as if the bunch did not get along very well. Sitting in one corner is Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, the industry minister, who seems to be totally out of place. He was out of place indeed: he quit the government soon after to form the Jana Sangh, which later on became the BJP.

The book also chronicles Vyarawalla’s own life — from being a poverty-stricken girl to being the wife of a photographer to being a loving wife and a mother, and from being a star photographer to being a lonely woman who lost her husband and son and who now prefers to lead a lonely life. She is one of the monuments of Independent India, and this book is a monument to that monument.

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