Roll of a lifetime

Jawaharlal Nehru meeting his sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. Photo: Homai Vyarawalla.   | Photo Credit: 20dfr homai

Between the 1940s and '60s, a young woman photographer, clad sometimes in a sari and at times in salwar-kameez, captured historical events that took place on the soil of a newly independent India on her speed graphic camera. Homai Vyarawalla was a press photographer who, as an employee of British Information Services had access to the powerful establishment and the iconic figures involved in it.

The feat was iconoclastic, for no other woman was engaged in the field. “More than anything, it's about how she broke into photojournalism, a field which was male-dominated. The first female photographer, she changed the terms of engagement,” says Rahaab Allana, curator of the Alkazi Foundation which is mounting a retrospective of the legendary photographer at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) starting August 27.

The exhibition has been curated by Homai's chief biographer Sabeena Gadihoke. A documentary filmmaker and professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, Sabeena has authored “India in Focus: Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla”.

It is sheer coincidence that just a week before the show, on August 19 at the first national photo awards instituted by the photo division of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, the 97-year-old Vadodara-based Homai was among the recipients of the Lifetime Achievement award. S. Paul, Benu Sen, and K.G. Maheshwari were also conferred lifetime achievement awards in photojournalism.

The 200 works covering her entire career to be displayed at the show have been largely culled from Sabeena's book and range from the work she did while a student of the JJ. School of Arts, her professional work, personal images and letters and notes from dignitaries to Homai. The exhibition is divided into five sections — ‘Euphoria and pain', revolving around independence; ‘public memories and personal moments' which give a peek at nation building, within which will be a sub-section on Nehru, a face that appeared so frequently in her frames; ‘Memories of home' dwelling on the British Raj's cultural life in India; ‘Cities and spaces' featuring images of her two favourite cities, Delhi and Mumbai.

Besides the images of Pandit Nehru releasing a pigeon at a function at the National Stadium, Indira Gandhi sitting by the side of her father's dead body in Teen Murti House, or Lord Mountbatten at various functions that have become ingrained in public memory, the exhibition will have others which will shed light on a different dimension of her work.

“She shot innumerable people, everyday life, people at different clubs, but didn't keep the pictures with herself. She gave them to the people she clicked. In the exhibition you will meet a lot of people who will tell you that we have been photographed by Homai,” says Sabeena.

It is surprising to learn that the woman who created such an important archive of political work of that era was only peripherally interested in the field. “When she moved to Delhi with her husband Maneckshaw Vyarawalla in 1942, she realised, she can't stay away from it,” says Sabeena who adds that dignity and grace were other important elements of her work.

* * *


The 97-year-old Homai Vyarawalla is in New Delhi for the opening of her retrospective. The legendary photographer has just gotten rid of fever but insists on getting up from her bed and sitting up for the interview. Homai tells me not to make it too long, but when she starts, there is no stopping her.

On being India's first woman press photographer

It was a way to earn money. Though I studied painting at JJ School of Arts, Mumbai, it didn't get money in those days. Photography was a new medium and even though one got one rupee per picture, one could still earn something. People make too much out of my being the first woman photographer. The men photographers were very nice. Sometimes, we lived in the same tents and they were not embarrassed of me and I too never felt embarrassed in front of them. No sex bias existed in those days. Even in school, I was the only girl in my class, so I had learnt to deal with it.

On never being an intrusive photographer

I always tried to hide myself as much as possible. The more a photographer attracts a person to him/herself, the more stiff expressions one gets. Even when somebody else was taking a picture, I would try to be a little away. I don't like anything too bright. This (violet dress) I bought when I had cataract and the colour seemed a little dull but when I look at it now, I think, how could I have bought this! That's why I sold off my Nano. It was a very bright red.

On Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru's being a recurring presence figure in her frames

He was such a good looking person. His presence just electrified the atmosphere. Also, that peculiar dress sense…the cap, etc.…

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Nov 26, 2021 12:14:43 AM |

Next Story