India’s first woman press photographer Homai Vyarawalla, who passed away January 15, 2012, captured the last days of the British Empire in India. Her work also traces the birth and growth of a new nation. The story of Homai’s life and her professional career spans an entire century of Indian history. Belonging to the small Parsi community of India, Homai was born in 1913 into a middle-class home in Navsari, Gujarat. Her father was an actor in a traveling Urdu-Parsi theatre company. Homai grew up in Bombay. She was the only girl in her class to complete her matriculation examination.
Having learned photography from Maneckshaw Vyarawalla, whom she married later, Homai was to spend nearly three decades of her career in Delhi. After a career of 33 years as press photographer, Homai gave it up one day at the age of 57, disillusioned when the Nehruvian dream began to falter. She lived in near-anonymity until 1989. Fiercely independent, she continued to live on her own in Vadodara until she passed away.
The great value of Homai’s work lies in her vast collection of photographs that archive the nation in transition, documenting both the euphoria of Independence as well as disappointment with its undelivered promises. She was the only professional woman photojournalist in India during her time and her survival in a male-dominated field is all the more significant because the profession continues to exclude most women even today. Ironically, Western photojournalists who visited India such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Margaret Bourke-White have received more attention than their Indian contemporaries. In an already invisible history, Homai Vyarawalla’s presence as a woman was even more marginalized.
Homai received India’s first National Photo Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2010, and the Padma Vibhushan in 2011. In 2010, Vyarawalla gave her entire collection of prints, negatives, cameras and other memorabilia to the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi for safekeeping and documentation. A retrospective of her work was held at the NGMA soon after, bringing her vast archive into public view.
Reproduced here is a selection of photos from the biographical work – India in Focus: Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla by Sabeena Gadihoke, published by Mapin Publishing in association with Parzor Foundation, Alkazi Foundation for the Arts and the National Gallery of Modern Art. The result of extensive interviews conducted by Gadihoke with Homai, the book is a tribute to her indomitable spirit.
Click through the numbered links to view these rare images from Homai Vyarawalla's lens [Images courtesy of Mapin Publishing. Reproduced by permission.]
‘Home Leather-Worker: Photo by Mrs Homai Vyarawalla’, Cover of The Illustrated Weekly on December 9, 1945. “My pictures of Lady Irwin College were first published in the Weekly (1945). This Ceylonese woman saw the pictures and was motivated to come to India to study at the college. She later modeled for me for this picture.”
Homai during her college years, in 1931. Homai would stitch her own blouses and she shared six sarees with her widowed mother, Soonamai.
Homai and family, with the car DLD 13 (which inspired ‘Dalda’, the nickname she gave herself). “Purchased in 1955 for Rupees 11,000/- with taxes! It came to me on the 13th of the month that happened to be Dhanteras at Diwali time. I believe in numerology and the number thirteen has been lucky for me.”
“On Children’s Day, I would notice the staff shooing away children of the less privileged. Of course, Nehru never knew that. He played with any child which was brought to him. So, in all my twenty-seven years in Delhi, I never saw Nehru with the children of the poor in his arms. There was always a coterie around him and he saw only what they wanted to see.”
A show of hands for the voting for Partition. In her meticulous documentation of events leading up to Independence, Homai Vyarawalla photographed the significant meeting of AICC held on 2 June 1947, in which the decision to Partitition the country was made. From Homai’s accounts, this meeting was a stormy one.
Mahatma Gandhi’s body at Birla House. Sardar Patel, Nehru, Mountbatten, Baldev Singh, and Gandhi’s son Ramdas are seen in the picture.
The ceremonial ride of Dr Rajendra Prasad through Vijay Chowk upon becoming the first President of India.
The first Republic Day Parade on 26 January 1950, was held at the ground where the National Stadium stands today with the Purana Quila in the background. It was only after this that its venue shifted to India Gate. This picture shows Dr Rajendra Prasad taking the salute without any security surrounding him.
Nehru’s Cabinet seen at lunch hosted by Sardar Patel after C. Rajagopalachari became Governer-General, 1948. Seated here are: Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, Baldeve Singh, Maulana Azad, Jawaharlal Nehru, C. Rajagopalachari, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur, John Matthai, Jagjivan Ram, Mr Gadgil, Mr Neogi, Dr Ambedkar, Shyama Prasad Mookherji, Gopalaswamy Iyengar and Jayaramdas Daulatram.
The first three Presidents of India: Dr Rajendra Prasad (1950-62), Dr Radhakrishnan (1962-67) and Dr Zakir Hussain (1967-69) at a condolence meeting of Parliamentarians on Nehru’s death.
The Dalai Lama in ceremonial dress leads the mount down from the high border pass into India. Directly behind him is the Panchen Lama. They were both wearing gold brocade gowns and jeweled gold hats. Homai documented for Time Life magazine, the first crossing of the young Dalai Lama who came through the Nathu La pass, in north Sikkim, in 1956.
Indira with Feroze Gandhi at the airport. “When I cut my hair, Mrs Gandhi came up and complimented me. A few months later she too acquired a short hairstyle that was to stay for the rest of her life.” The Emergency was a culmination of Homai’s disappointment with the nation.
Homai with her smaller Speed Graphic camera on her shoulder. “I didn’t like those flimsy sort of saris flying around in the wind and always used a safety pin to hold my sari in place. I wore white and cream khaddar saris for work and silk saris for evening functions at the Gymkhana Club or at Rashtrapati Bhawan. The silk ones would often spread out, getting caught in the legs of photographers and tear. I always carried safety pins with me to tack them up in case that happened.”