Considering its ability to record and bear witness with the greatest perceived fidelity, the photograph has been the natural choice to document history since its inception. The press photograph, in particular, has always been seen as the essential historical document.
An ongoing exhibition in National Gallery of Modern Art, Delhi, is showcasing the photographs of Homai Vyarawala, a press photographer of undeniable value. The show documents a changing India from the 1930s through the turbulent 40s, through the nation’s independence and the decades up to 1970. Mostly unseen by the wider public until now, the photographs record moments that shaped the nation’s history, but are also important for another landmark: they are taken by India’s first and only major woman press photographer until as late as the 1980s.
Homai Vyarawala began taking photographs in the 1930s as an assistant to her husband, an amateur photographer in Bombay. In fact, some of Homai’s early photographs were published under her husband’s name. Soon, however, she began to publish under her own name at the Illustrated Weekly of India, and subsequently contributed to several national and international publications over the years. In the early 1940s, she joined the British Information Services (BIS) in Delhi as a political press photographer—presenting a unique sight as she cycled throughout the city in a sari and later a salwar kameez with a camera slung around her neck. In the evenings she photographed the city's upper crust—the new ruling class in the city’s formerly ‘white only’ ballrooms and clubs.
Witness to some key historical moments, Homai's pictures (curated by her biographer Sabina Gadihoke) are primarily political in nature—national leaders, official events, and the war effort in Bombay, including English and Indian women learning emergency services. She photographed Gandhi, Nehru, Mountbatten, as well as other leaders of the independence movement, and visited personalities like the Dalai Lama, General Ayub Khan, and Jackie Kennedy. All of her images are characterised by her eye for the unposed, candid instant; often taken 'when all the other photographers had left and I would wait for this unguarded moment.' Nehru appears frequently, Homai's favourite subject—photogenic and comfortable, with a ‘rare ability to pose for a picture as if he wasn’t posing’, Homai revealed chuckling at a public talk with Gadihoke.
Living through a time of intense political upheaval, Homai was witness to events leading up to the country's partition. Unfortunately, there are no pictures from the partition itself due to her day job at the BIS, but she did cover the highly controversial partition vote in June 1946. One of only two photographers who managed to capture this moment, Homai's photographs are very telling: few leaders are present, and few hands go up in assent of the motion, among them Nehru's; leaders like Maulana Azad and Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan look visibly dejected and unhappy with the vote. These previously unseen images vividly bring to life the debates at the time surrounding the 'hasty' partition decision, the fate of so many decided by a few with insufficient care.
Comparisons between Homai and Margaret Bourke-White, a contemporary woman photographer whose pictures of Gandhi at his prayer meeting are as well known as Cartier-Bresson’s, are to be expected. Homai and Bourke-White had different styles but their paths did meet — both photographed Gandhi's funeral procession winding down Delhi's Connaught Place.
As India's first woman press photographer from as early as the 1930s, and the only woman in an otherwise entirely male dominated realm, Homai was clearly a trailblazer. Despite no formal desire to breach boundaries, the very fact of her success in the face of convention reads like a feminist stance. Her biographer Gadihoke's own interest has been in exploring the unique perspective that early female photographers brought to their work. However, any special feminine perspective appears absent in Homai's images. Her images do, however, communicate her great skill with composition and lighting, and a sound instinct for the dramatic moment and storytelling— qualities also seen in the works of her contemporaries such as Kulwant Roy.
Regardless, Homai's work capturing a time in transition is an invaluable record of a period that vitally shaped the nation's history. Long ignored, despite photo-editors' familiarity with and use of her photographs, Homai's work was in dire need of attention. Her entire collection of negatives, prints, cameras—the twin-lens Rolleiflex in perfect working condition, the large format Mamiyaflex, and 'press camera' Speedgraphic--as well as her personal memorabilia of letters, official invites and family photographs, have now been acquired by the Alkazi collection of Photography; most on display here.
It is, however, the lady behind the images who leaves a more lasting impression—warm and funny, with a fantastic undimmed spirit and a sharp mind, seen in conversation with her biographer in the latter’s film on view. Also touchingly old world, Homai holds dignity dear—not displaying for decades an image that appeared to show Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh in an undignified light, and hanging up her camera in 1970 disgusted by the new lot of press photographers who gate-crashed parties and heckled celebrities. The exhibition of her work presents a sensitive portrait of a gutsy, gifted artist ahead of her times, tracing her vital place in the history of Indian photography, not least her extraordinary importance in the narrative of feminism and women in India.
-- Shruti Parthasarathy
(Images, from top to bottom: Nehru in B.O.A.C. jet plane with Mrs. Simon, wife of the Deputy High Commissioner of Britain during the planes first flight in India; Gandhi’s funeral procession at Allahabad; The Dalai Lama in ceremonial dress leads the mount down from the high border pass into India. Directly behind him is the Panchen Lama; Nehru voting for the motion. Dr. Rajendra Prasad and Govind Ballabh Pant are seen in he background. All images courtesy of the Alkazi Collection of Photography and the artist.)