Muhammad Ali Jinnah was frowning. It was August 1947 and he was addressing his last press conference in India before leaving for Pakistan. Someone had come crashing down on a stack of empty cases at the back of the room. When he saw that it was a woman, his frown gave way to concern. “I hope you’re not hurt,” he said to the photographer, Homai Vyarawalla. She’d climbed on to the cases to get a better shot of the departing politico.
When Vyarawalla—India’s first woman photojournalist, dressed in an elegant sari and armed with a Rolleiflex or Speed Graphic camera—was straddling the corridors of power from the 1940s to 1960s, she had unique access.
Click here To see a slideshow of the photographs clicked by Homai Vyarawalla of the Nehru family.
Among Vyarawalla’s vast collection of photographs are rare images such as that of Nehru wearing a cat’s mask on his grandson Sanjay Gandhi’s birthday; and an intimate close-up of Indira Gandhi at her father’s deathbed.
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A graduate of the JJ School of Arts in Mumbai, Vyarawalla moved to Delhi in 1942 with her husband Maneckshaw Vyarawalla—also a photographer—to work for the British Information Services. As their press photographer, she became a fixture at major political events, and went on to photograph Lord Mountbatten, Marshal Tito, Queen Elizabeth, Nixon, Chou En-lai and a host of others who shaped modern political history. Recurring most often in her repertoire, though, are photographs of Nehru and other members of his family.
Vyarawalla worked prolifically between 1938 and 1973. Later this month, on 19 August, 97-year-old Vyarawalla will be among the four photographers to get the first national photo awards instituted by the photo division of the ministry of information and broadcasting; these will be presented by the vice-president. The other recipient for lifetime achievement in photojournalism is S. Paul (79) of New Delhi, while Benu Sen (79) of Kolkata and K.G. Maheshwari (88) from Mumbai will receive awards for pictorial photography.
A master collector of historical and contemporary Indian art and photography, and chairman of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, Ebrahim Alkazi approached Vyarawalla over 10 years ago for an exhibition of her works. Alkazi has been actively acquiring South Asia-related photographs and has around 95,000 in his private collection. While the exhibition didn’t materialize then, Vyarawalla donated her entire collection of over 1,000 original prints, all her original negatives, memorabilia and photographic equipment to the Alkazi Foundation this March.
Around 27 August, the Alkazi Foundation, in collaboration with the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), will present around 200 of her works in an exhibit at the NGMA, New Delhi. Rahaab Allana, the curator of the foundation, says the show had been planned before the national award was announced. The exhibition will span her entire career and will include a section on her personal life, with letters and notes from dignitaries to Vyarawalla on display. The Alkazi Foundation was keen to host the exhibition as soon as possible and approached Rajeev Lochan, the NGMA director, earlier this year. “Given Homai’s age and significance as a leading professional photographer of the national movement, we were keen on putting together this exhibition at a national institution sooner rather than later,” says Allana. Vyarawalla, who is now based in Vadodara, will be attending the inauguration of the show.
The exhibition is being curated by Sabeena Gadihoke, who has produced a biography of Vyarawalla titled India in Focus: Camera Chronicles of Homai Vyarawalla (Mapin, 2006). Gadihoke, a documentary film-maker and professor at Jamia Millia Islamia, first met Vyarawalla when she featured her in her documentary, Three Women and a Camera, in 1997. “I went down to meet her every few months after that for the next six years,” says Gadihoke. Eventually, Parzor, a foundation dedicated to the preservation of Parsi-Zoroastrian heritage, funded the production of the biography that is likely to go into reprint next month.
The overdue national recognition and the forthcoming exhibition celebrate a life of tremendous resilience. Vyarawalla drove her 1955 Fiat till she purchased a red Tata Nano last year.
Vyarawalla was born in Navsari in Gujarat to a family of modest means. Her father was an actor and director in Urdu-Parsi theatre and due to his itinerant life, she and her two brothers were sent to Mumbai to live with their grandparents. Vyarawalla went through school and college—first at St Xavier’s and then at the JJ School of Arts—with the help of various scholarships from Parsi trusts. It was during the course of her career that she acquired the sobriquet of “Mummy”. What started as a joke by a colleague gained currency, with even the Delhi police addressing the lone woman photographer by that nickname. As Gadihoke explains, this desexualized persona made it easier for Vyarawalla to navigate the male-dominated terrain of photojournalism.
The Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, in collaboration with the NGMA, will present a two-month retrospective on Vyarawalla’s life and works at the NGMA, New Delhi, opening tentatively on 27 August.