This exhibition is an illustrated journey through the rich photographic world of Homai Vyarawalla as she captured the last days of the British Empire and the birth of a new nation.
Having worked for thirty three years of her life Homai Vyarawalla gave it all up one day. Why did she give up photography?
Often meant for a fleeting glimpse in the newspaper, press photographs become visual archives of the future. Homai Vyarawalla’s photographs chronicling the defining moments of India’s Independence have acquired an iconic status and are now integral to a Nationalist version of history. According to this version, some people led and others followed. As important people dominated photographs, ordinary citizens or `the masses’ frequently found themselves relegated to the margins. Sometimes, they would be `cropped’ from the frame to accommodate more prominent figures.
Like all periods of history, these too were troubled times even though they are commonly perceived by many to have been `innocent’. But it was also a time of hope as a majority of the leaders and citizen-photographers shared a dream for the future. Photographers continued to exercise restraint while pursuing their subjects despite the increasing demand for candid photography. As was perhaps inevitable, the following decades brought disillusionment as the Nehruvian dream faltered. As press photographers struggled to adapt to the changing times, Homai Vyarawalla chose to lay down her camera. A new world had emerged; one she could hardly recognize.
This show has emerged out of my thirteen year journey with Homai Vyarwalla. It started with a film, went on to become a book and has now taken the shape of this exhibition. In this retrospective, I have sought to map the significant moments of her repertoire by including photographs that have circulated widely along with those that have not. My attempt was to frame the photographs within a larger cultural history and draw attention to their circulation in public and private domains. In addition to the cameras and equipment that she used, the exhibition displays letters and other memorabilia that speak of alliances and friendships forged through photography. Another cluster of images are of the photographer herself. These offer insights into the life of a pioneering woman who chose an unconventional profession.
Vyarawalla’s attempt to lead an ordinary life was transformed through the extraordinary circumstances of history. On the one hand she shot political moments as they unfolded and on the other, she chronicled the lives of people like herself. The former found a permanent place in collective memory while the latter lie scattered in the personal archives of those who had the privilege of being photographed by her. Like all exhibitions, this too is only partial. But it hopes to start a journey of many new discoveries about the life and times of Homai Vyarawalla.