The keen photographer of Mahatma Gandhi

My maternal grandfather Dady Rustom Dossabhoy Wadia. Paris, France. Circa 1925

Image and Narrative points contributed by Ashok Captain and Leila Wadia Captain, Pune, India

This is a photograph of my maternal grandfather Dady Rustom Dossabhoy Wadia, whom we fondly called ‘DRDW’. He was born on September 14, 1902 in Bombay (now Mumbai) to Rustom Dossabhoy Wadia, a judge at Bombay High Court and Hirabai (Hilla) Wadia (nee Luvji), a home maker. DRDW had an elder brother named Adeshir (Eddi) who ran an automobile agency for imported cars, namely the Austin – called Autocars on Queen’s Road in Bombay (established by their father). DRDW grew up in Bombay, and attended the J. J. School, then attended St. Xavier’s college both in Bombay, and then as many Parsi young men of the time did, he went to London to study Law.

This photograph of him was taken around 1925 at a photo studio called Portraits Par Papers located at 23, Rue Boissy-d’ Anglas in Paris, France. I am not exactly sure what he was doing in Paris at the time, but it is possible that he went there on a vacation with some of his friends because he also travelled to Austria and Hungary. We also know that he had by then discovered the delights of a camera and photography.

After returning from London, the automobile agency was divided into two between the two brothers, and DRDW began to run his half. He then received the contract for Philco radios and Nash Motors. In 1927, he married Dorothy Fraser. Dorothy, was also called Piloja, (a north European name). She was the daughter of a Parsi father and German mother. She had studied at the Cathedral School, Bombay and then attended St. George’s Hospital to train and qualify as a nurse. After their marriage, she too began to develop a deeper interest in art and attended J. J. School of Arts to study Fine and Commercial art. They had three children – Zarine in 1930, Leila (my mother) in 1931 and Sher, who was born 17 years after Leila, in 1948.

The automobile business must not have done well because DRDW, my grandfather, then joined an advertising agency and even worked with the tabloid of the time Blitz. He was known to enjoy the many pleasures that life offered – speed trail car racing at the Worli sea face, tennis, golf and big game hunting. My mother, Leila remembers DRDW confessing the deep regret he felt after shooting a tigress in central India because when she was skinned, they found cubs inside her. Overcome with guilt, and the horror he had caused, he swore never to hunt again and announced that from then on he would only ‘shoot’ with a camera – an interest that had expanded on to home movies and cinema. He was quite serious about the craft of images, and in 1937 he became one of the founding members of the Photographic Society of India.

By 1943, after several stints and jobs, DRDW established his own film production house called DRD Productions and went on to make four documentaries on Indian Dance – in collaboration with Major Bacha (whose family had also established the Bacha’s Nursing home in Bombay). He produced at least three films with top performers of the time under his own banner- ‘Ishara’ (1943) Prithviraj Kapoor, Suraiya and Swaran Lata, ‘Aina’ (1946) starring Yakub and Kausalya, and Nek Parveen (1946) starring Ragini and Yakub.

Acutely aware of the situation in the subcontinent, Piroja and DRDW had by then also developed an affinity with the Quit India Movement, and got involved in the cause. The family thinks that they may have been introduced to the cause by Minoo Masani who was the mayor of Bombay in 1943, and a leading member of a political party known as Swatantra party (1959-1974).

My mother remembers going to meetings with her mother, Piloja to hear Nehru, Gandhi and Sardar Patel speak. When DRDW was not busy with his films, he would attend these meetings with his camera and photograph the people, and leaders in attendance. Consequentially he built a rather large folio of Gandhi’s portraits that he was even able to share with Gandhi himself. My mother has a clear memory of DRDW taking photographs of Gandhi sitting on the dias, when he visited Bombay and held a meeting at Juhu’s Palm Beach. The pictorial quality by the photographers of the time, DRDW included, was astonishingly high and many of his prints of Gandhi, were personally signed by Gandhi himself. The prints were sold or given to people, and the money would go to the movement’s cause.

Around the mid 70’s, DRDW was about 75 and living at Panorama building, Walkeshwar in Bombay when he told my mother that the heads of the Indian Post and Telegraphs Office had come to visit him. They wished to purchase a photograph of Gandhi, with a lifetime license to use on a postage stamp, and perhaps other documents. DRDW, we are told, responded by saying that they could have it for free on the condition that he wouldn’t have to pay income tax for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, they couldn’t agree to that, they explained – that was a different department. 

Nonetheless, a few photographs of Gandhi were sent, and one of those photographs indeed became a stamp that was released in the mid 1970s. The unfortunate part is that the whole event was taken so lightly by DRDW that we do not know which particular stamp it was, which year it was printed and what became of it. We are also told it may have also been used for some currency notes, but we cannot confirm that.

It is unfortunate that only few of DRDW’s prints are with us. Some of his prints, we were told are held by a museum / private collection in Delhi but we do not know where exactly. Some found their way to auction houses all over the world and continue to be sold as I write this. When my aunt Zarine found some prints of Gandhi in Germany, she got them back and those photographs became part of an exhibition on India, in New Zealand in 2014.

Towards the end of his life DRDW spent much of his time going to Willingdon Club and playing golf. He had indeed led a most rich, creative and adventurous life, and in some way that has been passed on to us.

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