Review: Who Clicked That Pic? by Nandita da Cunha and Priya Kuriyan - Hindustan Times

Review: Who Clicked That Pic? by Nandita da Cunha and Priya Kuriyan

Jun 30, 2023 07:47 PM IST

An inspiring picture book for children pays homage to Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first woman photojournalist

Who Clicked That Pic? (2023) is a delightful picture book for children, written by Nandita da Cunha and illustrated by Priya Kuriyan. It pays homage to the legendary Homai Vyarawalla (1913-2012), India’s first woman photojournalist. The writing draws inspiration from real-life events. It is conversational, uncluttered, and has a touch of humour.

Homai Vyarawalla at an exhibition of her iconic photographs on 18 August 1998. (Girish Srivastava/HT Archive)
Homai Vyarawalla at an exhibition of her iconic photographs on 18 August 1998. (Girish Srivastava/HT Archive)

30pp, ₹100; Jugnu Prakashan
30pp, ₹100; Jugnu Prakashan

This is not a biography. It is a work of fiction, and it captures only a slice of the woman’s life. She is introduced to the reader as Pari, a young professional who is so engrossed with her camera that she tends to forget mundane tasks like brushing her teeth. She is at an early stage of her career, hoping that her photographs will be picked up by Mr Nakhrawalla’s newspaper. He pays one rupee per photograph, and Pari plans to use that to buy new photo-film rolls.

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That was a long time ago but the illustrations make it seem so easy to slide back into the past. They help the reader visualize not only the flurry of activity on the streets – groundnut vendors, fisherwomen, balloon sellers, tongas and trams, cats, monkeys, a Ganesh Chaturthi procession – but also the Parsi community of Bombay in the 1930s. The detailing that has gone into researching the time period, setting and the costumes is worthy of appreciation. The illustrations are so cinematic in their look and feel that they seem ready to leap off the pages.

The book also gets its sense of pace and urgency from the writing. At the beginning, Pari has only 10 photographs “left to take” in her film roll. The rest of the story proceeds like a countdown until she uses up all the photographs. Since this is not a film, there is no soundtrack but a swift reading of the book feels like watching an animated motion picture. Pari’s cycle bell, the clicking of her Rolleiflex camera, drums, loudspeaker announcements, rain and thunder, and the ruckus created by excited children conjure up a rich soundscape.

Pari’s husband, named Parvez, is modelled after Maneckshaw – the man whom Homai married. The book does a good job of communicating how they worked as a team, not only for emotional but also tactical reasons. The notes at the end of the book, collated from press reports, interviews and a documentary directed by Anik Ghosh, reveal the systemic gender bias that India’s first woman photojournalist had to confront. Since women photographers were unheard of, Homai’s earliest photographs were published in Maneckshaw’s name.

Author Nandita da Cunha (Courtesy the subject)
Author Nandita da Cunha (Courtesy the subject)

The development of this book was supported by Parag, an initiative of Tata Trusts to expand access to good quality story books for children in different languages. It is published by Jugnu Prakashan, which is an imprint of Ektara Trust. It is a valuable addition to the growing number of Indian picture books on the life of iconic personalities who can serve as inspirations to the young. What makes Homai’s life inspiring is her determination to pursue her passion for photography in what was predominantly a man’s world during her time.

Illustrator Priya Kuriyan (Courtesy the subject)
Illustrator Priya Kuriyan (Courtesy the subject)

Her mother wove sacred thread for Parsi girls; her father was an actor with a travelling theatre troupe. It was Maneckshaw who taught her photography. The book features a selection of black and white photographs from the Homai Vyarawalla archives that are part of the Alkazi Collection of Photography. They give the reader a glimpse of Homai’s talent.

In addition to being a tribute to an accomplished artist, the book itself is a mesmerizing work of art. The illustrations of Pari and Pervez working all night to develop photographic prints in a dark room, the sea of umbrellas opening up during the Ganesh Chaturthi procession, Pari riding a bicycle with Parvez sitting behind her, and Mr Nakhrawalla examining photographs with a magnifying glass, are exquisite. They stand as a reminder of the magic that can happen when visuals are allowed to speak their own language instead of being used only to accompany the written word. They certainly deserve to be displayed in an art gallery.

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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