At the Homai Vyarawalla Retrospective in Bengaluru recently, photographs of yesteryear came alive and spoke to viewers in a future time.
A turn around the Homai Vyarawalla Retrospective at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru, will bring you to a letter dated October 9, 1945, from the editor of The Illustrated Weekly in which he says, of Vyarawalla “…She …is one of the few lady photographers in India whose charm of address coupled with real photographic ability should enable her to cover difficult assignments.” This retrospective, through design or accident, foregrounds these very aspects of the life and work of 97-year-old Homai Vyarawalla, India's first woman press photographer. In creating a binary between ‘photographic ability' and ‘charm of address', curator Sabeena Gadihoke — and no doubt, the photographer herself — succeed in giving the show nuance, without which it would function as documentation rather than narrative, coming alive less organically in the viewing, and, in a Barthesian sense, ‘resurrecting' less easily.
To create this layering, the collection intersperses photos Vyarawalla took with photos of her, as well as memorabilia — letters, her cameras, a film and verbal-visual biographical titbits. Reading about her and looking at her working, holidaying, or alone — caught by another's camera — gives the viewing a dialogic energy. The act of connecting the life with the work gives the viewer a sense of play and makes her conscious of how the curating process needs intuition and imagination as well as intellection and planning.
The Homai Vyarawalla Retrospective opened at the NGMA in Bangalore on May 7 after having shown in Delhi and Mumbai, two cities that Homai had shot extensively. It was inaugurated by M.S. Sathyu, in the presence of the photographer; the show's curator Sabeena Gadihoke; the NGMA's director, Shobha Nambisan; and Rahaab Allana, the curator of the Alkazi Foundation, custodians of the Vyarawalla photographs. In his address, Allana, described the collection as a ‘testament to our national heritage' and a “manifestation of the core of our modernity”. Sathyu said that Vyarawalla's work was ‘amazing' considering the technology available at that time. He made a negative correlation between technological progress and artistry, pointing the audience to the ‘artistic' quality of Vyarawalla's photographs. Indeed, though the more official, historical press photos stand out, Vyarawalla's oeuvre also has photographs that are lyrical, poetic, and occasionally almost mystical in tone and mood, like the Bombay monsoon set and the series of groups of people.
Homai Vyarawalla trained in art at the Sir J.J School of Art with the intention of making it her career, taking up photography professionally later when she realised that making a living from art was tough. Her introduction to photography came from Maneck Vyarawalla, whom she later married. Her first subjects were her fellow students at J.J. Several of these early photographs are in the show and, in these, the viewer gets a sense of the photographer experimenting with style. From these early times, the show moves through the 30-odd years of Vyarawalla's professional life, covering the course of a career during which ‘difficult assignments' were a routine.
On assignments as a press photographer with the Far Eastern Bureau of British Information Services, Vyarawalla, we're told, sometimes landed herself in funny situations; falling into water beds or at the feet of a visiting dignitary because she didn't spare herself in the pursuit of good shots. But she was mindful of the need to remain unobtrusive, to not draw attention to herself if she wanted to get the kind of shots she did. At the opening of the retrospective, when asked to ‘say a few words' she said, “Welcome to my exhibition, I hope all of you find something interesting here. I have made it a principle to keep my mouth shut and my eyes open.”
At work, Vyarawalla would sometimes just hang back, letting other photographers throng around their subject, so that she could catch her subjects in less posed attitudes, less self-conscious once the obtrusive prying of cameras had ceased. But as the only woman among male colleagues, she inevitably stood out, once making Ambedkar ask what she doing in the “rough crowd”.
Homai Vyarawalla spent 30 years of her life in this crowd, taking press photograph. When she gave it up in 1970, following the death of her husband, it was a decision she'd been contemplating for the world had changed. She felt out of place in this ‘new world', among a new breed of press photographers who had none of the work ethics she had been used to; she felt it was ‘not worth it any more'. She gave up photography and did not keep in touch with new technologies. So she doesn't know how a digital camera works! The times Homai photographed were defining moments in the country's struggle for independence and, thus, her photographs, “ …often meant for a fleeting glimpse in the newspaper, ….become visual archives of the future”, as Sabeena Gadihoke's Curator's Note points out. Over time, these photographs acquired an iconic status. The iconic nature of the images in this retrospective trigger off a hunt for co-relating elements between what the photographs show and what happened later. As, for instance, looking at childhood photos of Rajeev and Sanjay Gandhi, one is aware of trying to pin signs of the motivations and actions of their later life — now history — onto their countenances and attitudes.
Homai Vyarawalla had an artist's eye that waited, watched and sprung into action at the opportune moment, capturing the soul of the scene or the person she was photographing; this may be especially true of her portraits of Nehru, who she described as a un “photographer's delight”. Her absolutely stunning photograph of the Dalai Lama on his first visit to Sikkim in 1956, three years before he left Tibet, appears almost prophetic: she shot him, face lit up with complete openness, looming upwards, head level with the sky and clouds, like the rising sun he was to become in the spiritual world.
Going to a photo exhibition is a little like entering limbo: the viewer is caught in a time that is neither fully past nor fully present but is the one with the accoutrements of the other, the appearance of the one always stained by the other. And as the photographs in the Homai Vyarawalla Retrospective come to life, one is again keenly struck by how this wonderful woman seems to have been able to focus on those aspects of what she photographed that would give them the best ability to come awake and speak to viewers in a future time.