In memory of the country's first photojournalist. Women photographers remember the footsteps they followed
When India's first woman photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla quit the profession and laid down her lenses in the early 1970s after capturing the nation's history for four momentous decades, there were few women to follow in the trail that she had blazed.
In fact, over a decade later, a young woman watching the Republic Day parade was surprised to see not a single female face among the lensmen in the photographers' enclosure.
That was what provoked Saraswati Chakravarty to pick up a camera and get a press card. “I was sitting just opposite the President's saluting podium, and I had a good view of the photographers' enclosure, but there were no women there. It was the 1980s, and women were making their way into every field, so I felt I wanted to fill the gap,” she remembers. Quitting her safe job as a stenographer-secretary in a private company, she started taking on freelance assignments, making her mark with over 250 published photographs from the Delhi Asiad.
“I was only the second woman photojournalist to get a PIB accreditation card in 1982,” she says with pride.
While she never met Ms. Vyarawalla, who passed away in Vadodara last weekend, Ms. Chakravarty says the pioneer was her inspiration. “All the men would talk about how good she was,” she remembers.
Sipra Das, photo editor with the Bengali daily Sakalvela, who also became a photojournalist in the early 1980s, remembers meeting Ms. Vyarawalla at an exhibition in Delhi.
However, she feels that it was the second wave of women photojournalists who took their craft to the fields of danger. “Homai Vyarawalla was a pioneer, but she mostly covered events and leaders and the Nehru-Gandhi family. Women in those days did not cover things like bomb blasts, firing, cyclones,” she says.
Ms. Das remembers her own experiences clicking pictures while trying to avoid getting caught in the crossfire of a gun battle between the BSF and Kashmiri militants at Anantnag temple, or in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. “I was then working for PTI and my pictures were used all over the world,” she says.
Ms. Chakravarty also recalls being beaten up outside Tis Hazari while covering a protest. “Most of the men thought I would not be able to stay on through the push and shove demands of the job, but I was determined to prove them wrong,” she says.
Renuka Puri, a photojournalist with The Indian Express, agrees that one faces extra pressures as a woman in the field. “Many subjects become very self-conscious when being photographed by a woman, it becomes difficult to get a natural action picture,” she says.
The advantage comes when photographing other women. “When shooting in Tihar Jail for my book ‘In Custody', it was easier for me to mingle with the women prisoners. And once when covering a story on widows in Punjab, the reporter said he would not have gotten access to their homes if he had not been accompanied by a woman photographer,” says Ms. Puri.
She treasures her photograph taken with Ms. Vyarawalla a few years ago. “She was happy to see more young women as press photographers,” she says.