The other photographers called her “Mummy.” It was a nickname that Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first female photojournalist, encouraged. The field was male-dominated. “I asked her one day,” says Sabeena Gadihoke, Vyarawalla’s biographer. “I said, ‘Why did you encourage the photographers to call you Mummy?’ She said, ‘It put me on a pedestal, and then nobody did any hanky-panky with me.’ ”
Vyarawalla, who died this past January at the age of 98, is the subject of a retrospective at New York’s Rubin Museum of Art. The show, which opened on July 6 and closes Jan. 14, 2013, exhibits 39 of her black-and-white images. (One wishes it had the space to include more.) While she’s known for the photographs she took of Indian and foreign leaders and of seminal moments in India’s history, the exhibit also gives a small amount of space to her more artistic, nonjournalistic work.
Born in 1913, Vyarawalla came from a middle-class Parsi family, and studied painting at the Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai. It was with Maneckshaw Vyarawalla, a photographer who was her boyfriend and later her husband, that she began to learn photography. A very early experience with a camera was on a school picnic at a temple; she later sold the images to her friends for a rupee apiece. She and Maneckshaw would take pictures together, and her early photos were of street scenes in Mumbai. Later, in 1942, they moved to Delhi after Maneckshaw had been hired as a photographer with British Information Services; they hired Homai not long afterward.
Broken up into groupings by theme, the exhibit begins with her earliest work. There’s a lovely image from the late 1930s, during monsoon season, of three figures beside a streetlight at the Gateway of India in Mumbai. But the majority of the exhibit focuses on the leaders whose images she caught on film. In one image with a striking composition—it may in fact be a composite of two separate photographs—Mahatma Gandhi is seen seated and facing rows of white-clad Congress Committee delegates, who had gathered to vote on partition. She photographed Gandhi’s funeral, too. But the person she most enjoyed photographing was India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru; in one famous shot, she captured him at Palam Airport in front of a sign reading “Photography Strictly Prohibited.”
A section on American visitors to India includes an image of a smiling Jackie Kennedy in 1962 with a baby elephant named Urvashi, and a 1955 photo of Helen Keller putting her hands into a namaste gesture to greet Nehru. In another section, a 1958 photograph reveals Nehru touching the beard of a visiting Ho Chi Minh—it’s an image she didn’t want published at the time, because it seemed disrespectful. “It’s a really good example of her respect for her subjects and the restraint that she exerted,” says Beth Citron, the exhibit’s curator.
Vyarawalla also took pictures of social events, including British social life at places like the Delhi Gymkhana Club. For Pablo Bartholomew, a photographer based in Delhi, this aspect of her photography is interesting. “She had access, and she photographed that really well,” he says. “Though she did keep her Indian identity. It’s not like she dressed Western, she dressed Indian. So there was this dichotomy within her, that she was very Indian in a certain way, but yet she was drawn to things around the Empire.” Key to understanding her, too, is the fact she was Parsi, not Hindu, notes Gadihoke. “She came from a community that was actually very Westernized.”
“She was able to carve out this kind of space for herself, and this kind of agency for herself that in those times—fairly conventional times, fairly conservative times in India—she was able to do all these different kinds of things,” Gadihoke adds. “I mean, imagine an unescorted woman in that time. You know, just traveling across the country, picking up her camera and just going somewhere. I think credit needs to be given to her husband too, or perhaps the fact that she was a married woman gave her a certain amount of protection.” Vyarawalla knew how to establish “a certain kind of persona for herself where she was safe,” and yet that may have been a front on an otherwise playful, creative personality.
Vyarawalla was active as a photojournalist until 1970, when the profession stopped appealing to her: with the coming of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, access to leadership was more limited, and she didn’t approve of how the newest generation of photojournalists acted. “She sees people kind of misbehaving at functions, people drinking at functions,” says Gadihoke. She stopped taking pictures.
It wasn’t until years later that her work began to be rediscovered. One contemporary photojournalist, Kainaz Amaria, a member of NPR’s multimedia team, first discovered Vyarawalla for herself upon seeing an exhibit of her photographs in Mumbai while on a Fulbright Scholarship there in 2010. Amaria, who was born in Mumbai but grew up in California, hadn’t previously heard of her. “To me it was amazing because I’m Parsi as well,” she says. “I kind of related to her life, because I had a similar sort of story in trying to convince my parents that this is what I wanted to do. And it was amazing that there was a woman that had done it decades before me, and in such an iconic way, and such a historic way.”