The first lady of Indian photojournalism takes a bow

NEW DELHI, Beatrice Le Bohec - The epic, emotional intensity of India's independence is given a candid, intimate twist in a retrospective in New Delhi of the work of the country's first woman photojournalist.
Homai Vyarawalla's unguarded and even tender pictures of independence icons like Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and, above all, India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, reflect a level of media access unthinkable in the security-obsessed modern era.

Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi
For Vyarawalla, now 96, the period she documented surrounding India's independence in 1947 was one of great personal excitement and hope as the country broke free of British rule and rallied around the Nehruvian ideal of "unity in diversity."
By the 1970s, however, the sense of optimism had dwindled in the face of rampant corruption and factionalism and Vyarawalla hung up her Rolleiflex after three decades of pioneering work.
"Homai shared the hope of the leaders of that era," said Sabeena Gadihoke, curator of the exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art.
"But she became disillusioned with politics because of the corruption and the problems that quickly emerged after independence," Gadihoke told AFP.
Vyarawalla was born to a Parsi family in the western state of Gujarat in 1913.
She started experimenting with photography when she was 16, encouraged by her friend and husband-to-be, Maneckshaw, who used to sell his own photos to the press.
The first photographs she sold were published under her husband's name, but Vyarawalla insists that her gender was never a major barrier to earning a living in what was then an almost totally male-dominated profession.
"In those days, there was no bias against women," she wrote in an essay published in Open magazine just weeks before the opening of the retrospective.
"Nobody thought about gender and what was a proper occupation for a woman. If we wanted to fight a war, we could.
"So, my decision to take up photography was not met with resistance in any circle," she said.
Her photographs were first published in magazines like the Bombay Chronicle and the Illustrated Weekly of India, and focused on daily life in Bombay (now Mumbai) where she had graduated from the JJ School of Arts.
"Photography paid better than my painting at the time," she said.
In 1942, she moved with her husband to New Delhi to work for the Far Eastern Bureau of British Information Services, and it was there, as a witness to the final tumultuous years of British colonial rule, that she began the work that would make her name.
The photos exhibited in Delhi are a striking mix of the general and the particular, from a sweeping shot of India's first Republic Day in 1950 to a close-up of a smiling, handsome Nehru lighting a cigarette for the wife of the British ambassador.
The photogenic Nehru was a popular subject, although Vyarawalla insists she never sought any sort of personal friendship with him or the many other independence-era icons she snapped.
"I did not know these people as such," she said.
"My constant endeavour was to maintain a distance from the subjects of my photographs, while capturing them in unique situations. I was never over-awed by them."
In the years after independence, she documented India's emergence on the international arena, with visits by Marshal Tito, Ho Chi Minh and Jackie Kennedy.
There are also smiling images of a young Dalai Lama on a visit in 1956, three years before he would eventually flee his homeland for a life of permanent exile in India.
Her only professional regret was her absence from one of the seminal events in India's modern history.
On January 30, 1948, she was setting out to cover a prayer meeting by Mahatma Gandhi, but her husband came up with a domestic problem and she decided to stay home.
Hours later, Gandhi was assassinated.

Sunday, October 31st 2010
Beatrice Le Bohec

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